Dickey's knuckler baffling opposition
Mets right-hander earned wins in his first six decisions
Just as no two knuckleballs act the same way, no two knuckleballers throw it the same way and the results aren't always the same. Evidence for that comes from R.A. Dickey, resurrected from baseball's scrap heap by that strange pitch that darts here, there and everywhere.
Dickey, called up from Triple-A Buffalo in May to help rescue a Mets pitching staff that was in a shambles, responded with victories in his first six decisions, something no pitcher in the team's history had ever done before. Not Seaver. Not Gooden. Nobody.
Then he was smacked around by Florida in his next start, proving knuckleball results are as unpredictable as the pitch.
Knuckleball pitchers are a small fraternity who leave Major League hitters, accustomed to facing 90-mph fastballs, flailing away at much slower deliveries. Phil Niekro, a 300-game winner, and Hoyt Wilhelm became Hall of Famers. Wilbur Wood would sometimes start both games of a doubleheader. Charlie Hough threw Major League knucklers for 25 years, and Tim Wakefield is still doing it for the Red Sox at age 43.
Dickey, however, throws his knuckler faster than others.
"I have my own personality with the pitch, my own identity with it," he said. "It's OK for my knuckleball to be faster than the conventional one."
Like most pitchers, Dickey fooled around with the knuckler early in his career, never taking it very seriously.
"I always toyed with it, and I had a pretty good one," he said. "I never needed it, though."
In 2005, however, he needed it.
After injuring his arm while pitching for Texas, he could not regain his velocity. Sent to the Rangers' Oklahoma City farm club, he connected with Hough, who encouraged him to embrace the knuckleball and worked with him on refining it.
Dickey committed himself to the pitch but did not find immediate success with it.
"It's hard," he said. "You have to unlearn what you've learned and re-learn a way to be consistent with it. When you've done something for the better part of 20 years and you have to change, it takes a little bit of time and a lot of energy and patience."
Only when Dickey decided to go his own way with the pitch did he begin to have more consistent success with it. He will throw it most of the time, but not all of the time. He will throw it faster than others do, but no matter how hard he throws -- perhaps as much as 75 mph -- he is still able to maintain the movement the pitch traditionally brings.
"A lot depends on if I have a real good feeling with it," he said. "I stay with it probably 85 percent of the time. Against the Orioles, I threw 108 pitches and only five of them were fastballs.
"Lineups don't matter to me. The count doesn't matter to me. People are going to get the knuckleball, regardless. They know what they're getting. I know what I'm throwing."
As long as there's no rotation, no spin, air currents will make the pitch unpredictable and sometimes unhittable.
There was, for example, Dickey's almost perfect game with Triple-A Buffalo in April. A month or so before Detroit's Armando Galarraga took a perfect game to the 27th batter, Dickey had a reverse perfecto, allowing a leadoff single on his third pitch and then retiring the next 27 batters.
Shortly after that, Dickey and his knuckler arrived in New York, accompanied by the oversized mitt he carries with him and lends to catchers assigned to work his starts behind the plate. Now, the glove is worn out and the Mets are breaking in a new one for catchers Rod Barajas and Henry Blanco.
Dickey has sympathy for his catchers.
"Catching the knuckler is not easy at all, especially on a night when you have a real good one," Dickey said. "It's a difficult task because you don't know which way it's going."
Neither does the hitter which is, of course, the whole idea.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.