The Progression Of R.A. Dickey's Knuckleball

Flushing, NY, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher R.A. Dickey (43) pitches against the Baltimore Orioles during the first inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE

R.A. Dickey used to be a not-very-good knuckleball pitcher. Now he is a very good knuckleball pitcher. Unsurprisingly, his improvement can be traced by looking at the results of pitched knuckleballs.

You're going to be reading a lot about R.A. Dickey. Maybe you already have. Monday night, Dickey threw a complete-game one-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles, a start after throwing a complete-game one-hitter against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Orioles' one hit was legitimate, the Rays' one hit was questionable, and more important than the legitimacy of the two hits is that there have been only the two hits. And even before the consecutive one-hitters, Dickey was flipping out. That's "flipping out", and not "flapping out", and there are no Dickeys flapping out, and now we have made our joke about R.A. Dickey's name.

Everybody's familiar with R.A. Dickey now, because he's performing like maybe the best pitcher in baseball, and because his primary pitch is a knuckleball. Very few guys perform like maybe the best pitcher in baseball. Very few guys throw knuckleballs. In the Venn diagram in which the two circles overlap, R.A. Dickey is the emperor and sole citizen of the middle area, which he would probably name something better than Dickeyville. He generates attention.

Dickey was already a wonderful story when he first made the majors. He was already an inspiring story when he re-invented himself as a knuckleballer. Now, as this knuckleballer, at 37, he might be the best story, although the competition is admittedly difficult. Albert Pujols' last name is pronounced "poo holes" and I don't know how that ever isn't being talked about. In a game not too long ago the Angels' whole sellout crowd was chanting "Pu-jols", and, I mean, come on, that's amazing. So Dickey doesn't win best story hands-down. But he's firmly in the mix.

What I want to show you here is very simple, and probably very obvious. I'm not going to recap Dickey's latest performance or try to analyze his chances of keeping this up. I just want to show you the improvement of Dickey's knuckleball over time, because we have data on it going back to 2008, when he re-appeared in the majors with Seattle. Since 2008, Dickey has been primarily a knuckleball pitcher, but of course he hasn't always been as good as he is now. So of course his knuckleball numbers have improved. But it's eye-opening when you see them together, so I'm showing you a table.

Oh, but first, you probably expected me to include some .gifs, so here's a .gif. It's the last pitch Dickey threw Monday night, to strike out Chris Davis. It looks a little high, and maybe it was, but Gameday liked it, and this is the only .gif you're getting from me. Savor it.


Now for the table:

R.A. Dickey's knuckleball

Year Strike% Contact% GB%
2008 57% 82% 47%
2009 57% 80% 49%
2010 65% 79% 55%
2011 66% 80% 53%
2012 69% 71% 54%

In seven starts in the minors in 2008, Dickey walked just eight of 211 batters. He couldn't carry that control over to the majors, though, as he struggled to throw strikes with his knuckler with the Mariners and Twins. Then everything went insane when Dickey shifted to New York. He figured out how to throw his knuckleball for strikes. He started generating some more grounders. And now, in 2012, he's missing more bats, too. Along with throwing more strikes.

Compare Dickey's knuckleball in 2012 to his knuckleball in 2008. His strike rate is up 12 percentage points, his contact rate is down 11 percentage points, and his ground-ball rate is up seven percentage points. R.A. Dickey has very clearly figured out this pitch, and now one wonders if he could get even better still. Not that he needs to, but he's got improvement momentum.

Presumably as a neat side-effect, we also see a trend in Dickey's fastball numbers. Another table:

R.A. Dickey's fastball

Year Strike% Swing%
2008 72% 40%
2009 76% 43%
2010 75% 33%
2011 74% 36%
2012 78% 34%

Dickey's always been able to throw strikes with his fastball, but it used to be that batters would swing at it more often, as the knuckleball was less of a threat. Now that he's established the knuckleball as a consistent weapon with the Mets, his fastball is catching more batters off guard, just as you'd expect that it would. It isn't perfect, but as an alternate pitch, Dickey's fastball stays in the hitters' heads, making both that and the knuckleball more effective.

It's the first table that's insane, though. As Dickey's numbers are insane, of course his knuckleball numbers are insane, but when you see them, and when you consider that this is a knuckleball we're talking about, it's almost beyond belief. Dickey has developed a lethal primary weapon on the job. Overall now, thanks to the knuckler, R.A. Dickey has a higher strike rate than Tim Wakefield ever had. R.A. Dickey has a lower contact rate than Tim Wakefield ever had. R.A. Dickey has a lower contact rate than Justin Verlander has ever had, barely. Yes, Verlander has pitched in the American League, while Dickey pitches in the National League. That isn't really the thing to focus on.

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