Robert Alan Dickey's in one hell of a groove.
After pitching 7⅓ scoreless innings against the Nationals on Thursday afternoon, Dickey's now pitched 24⅔ straight scoreless innings, seven short of the franchise record (set by Jerry Koosman in 1973).
In his last four starts, Dickey's earned four wins while giving up just one run. Perhaps just as stunningly, he's issued only three walks while striking out 38 batters. Knuckleball pitchers don't do that.
Which got me to wondering if there's ever been another run like this from a knuckleballer. After all, knuckleball pitchers are a rare breed, and generally considered plow horses rather than staff aces. There are only two knuckleballers in the Hall of Fame, and one of them spent most of his career in the bullpen. No knuckleballer has won a Cy Young Award or a Rookie of the Year Award. Only one knuckleball pitcher has started an All-Star Game.
Not that there haven't been some really good knuckleball pitchers, who's put together some great seasons, some great runs. But what Dickey's done lately ... Well, I've been paying close attention to knuckleballers for quite a while now, and I can't remember anything like it.
How to check, though? Or rather, what to check?
The traditional numbers are only so useful. Dickey's won each of his last four starts, but of course knuckleballers have won four straight starts countless times over the years. We might look at earned-run average, but that can take us only so far. Are we really comfortable saying that one guy pitched better than another guy because the first gave up one run in his four starts, and the second gave up two runs?
Bill James once wrote, when describing his analytical paradigm, "Everything counts."
Bill James also invented a method to evaluate a starting pitcher's effectiveness in a single outing, in which he counted everything. Well, almost everything. Close enough for government work, anyway. It's called Game Score, and it counts everything in a pitcher's basic line score; the only thing that's missing, really, is HBP (which isn't in the line score). Well, and home runs and GiDP.
Pitchers today have one advantage: Strikeouts are up.
Pitchers today have one disadvantage: Innings are down.
I won't suggest those two things balance perfectly, but they do allow for comparisons across eras to be at least somewhat meaningful. Anyway, we'll use Game Scores as our starting point (and there is no real end point).
I didn't check every knuckleball pitcher, but I did check the Hall of Famers: Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro. I checked Wilbur Wood, Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti, Joe Niekro, and Gene Bearden. Essentially, I checked every pitcher who relied on the knuckleball for at least one excellent season. Which included all four knuckleballers who pitched for the Washington Senators in 1944 and '45: Dutch Leonard, Mickey Haefner, Johnny Niggeling, and Roger Wolff. I checked Steve Sparks, Eddie Rommel, and Jim "Abba Dabba" Tobin, who pitched two no-hitters in one season and hit three home runs in one game.
It's possible that I didn't check someone who put together four starts like Robert Alan Dickey has put together. But I doubt it. I didn't check Jared Fernandez, but I really doubt that he did anything like what Dickey's done.
In Dickey's last four starts, his Game Scores were 74, 81, 82 and 76; that works out to an average of 78.
How good is 78?
Actually, the average was 78.25 and I've found exactly five other four-start runs in which the average Game Score was 78 or higher.
- In 1947, Mickey Haefner went 4-0 with four complete games, two of them shutouts. He gave up one run in each of the other two games, for a 0.50 ERA overall, with nine walks and 24 strikeouts. Average Score: 80
- In 1972, Wilbur Wood went 3-0 with four complete games; all three wins were shutouts. In the other game -- on Opening Day, actually -- he gave up one run and lost; the one run came on Bob Oliver's game-tying home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Wood walked six and struck out 23. Oh, and here's a Fun Fact: Wood started two of these four games on two days rest. Average Score: 78
- Later that same season, Wood did it again. Well, sort of. He gave up four runs this time, in his four starts. But he did win all four, and in one of them he pitched 11 innings. He walked five, struck out 18, and did give up three homers. Oh, and this time three of the four starts came after two days rest. Average Score: 78 (yes, again)
- In 1974, Phil Niekro went 3-1 over four starts. In the loss, he pitched into the 10th inning but lost on a passed ball with two outs. Overall, he gave up only 15 hits in 36⅔ innings, with eight walks and 26 strikeouts, and two homers allowed. Average Score: 81
- In 1986, Charlie Hough went 2-1 in four starts. In the no-decision, he gave up two runs in 13 innings, with his Rangers ultimately beating the Twins in 16 innings. In the loss, he gave up two runs and both were unearned, thanks to an error and two passed balls, including a "walk-off passed ball" that followed a strikeout that would otherwise have ended the inning and sent the contest to a 10th inning. Average Score: 78
Those last two entries are instructive, I think. While the Game Score method does count unearned runs against the pitcher, they count slightly less than earned runs. But with a knuckleballer, passed balls and unearned runs are often intrinsic; all the passed-ball records have been set with a knuckleball pitcher on the mound.
Dickey's won each of his last four starts; among those above, only Haefner and Wood did the same.
In those starts, Dickey has given up just one run. Among those above, only Wood gave up fewer than two runs in his four starts.
In those starts, Dickey hasn't given up a home run. Among those above, only Haefner didn't give up a home run.
In those starts, Dickey has walked only three batters. Among those above, Wood was second-best (in his second '72 run) with five walks.
In those starts, Dickey has struck out -- again, perhaps most incredibly -- 38 batters. Among those above, Hough was second best with 27 strikeouts.
Dickey does not have the best ERA in the group; his ERA is 0.29 in four starts, while Wood's (in his season-opening run) was 0.25.
Dickey's got one big thing going against him: He's thrown just one complete game in his four starts. All the other guys here threw more innings in their four starts.
Dickey's got one big thing going for him: His strikeout-to-walk ratio is crazier than the Joker and Selina Kyle's love-child.
It's been a long time since a knuckleball pitcher started an All-Star Game. How long?
Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Imperial Japanese Navy, but the Allies hadn't invaded Normandy; in 1943, Emil "Dutch" Leonard started the All-Star Game for the American League.
According to fWAR, R.A. Dickey's merely been the 14th-best pitcher in the National League this season. But at 9-1, he's got the best record and managers have historically preferred their All-Star Game starters to sport gaudy records.
I don't know if Dickey deserves to start the All-Star Game. I don't know if these last four starts represent the best run any knuckleballer's ever had.
What I do know is that, considering everything Dickey's been through in his life, it's just short of a miracle that we're even asking these questions.