Is R.A. Dickey The Next Tim Wakefield?

Posted on August 13, 2010 by

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Little is more enigmatic in baseball than the knuckleball. The number of pitchers who ever threw this pitch is exceedingly short and few are active at the same time.

The knuckleball is a pitch designed to have an erratic, unpredictable motion. As its name suggests the pitcher grips the ball either with his fingertips digging into the ball and knuckles pointed up, or the first knuckles directly contacting the ball. There is no snap of the wrist, as the pitch is designed to ride air currents without a spin of its own. The path will weave more the slower it is thrown.

The end result is a ball that seemingly randomly floats passed a very confused batter. When the pitch is thrown correctly, it can be very difficult to hit. Former New York Yankee outfielder Bobby Murcer likened it to eating Jell-O with chopsticks. Along the same lines, it’s very difficult for catchers to handle. Some catchers use larger gloves, while other catchers are signed just to catch the knuckleballer and serve as a backup for everyone else. And if it’s thrown incorrectly, expect to find the ball deposited over the wall like any other batting practice meatball.

Three knuckleballers have found their way into baseball’s hall of fame – Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro and Jesse Haines. A number of other pitchers – Phil’s brother Joe, Steve Sparks, Charlie Hough and Bob Purkey among them – also threw a knuckleball and achieved some success in major league baseball.

Currently, there are just two major league pitchers tossing knuckleballs – New York Mets starter R.A. Dickey and Boston Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield.

Dickey, 35, actually started his career as a traditional pitcher. Drafted in 1996, he enjoyed a cup of coffee in 2001 with the Texas Rangers before returning full time in 2003. Early on he boasted a fastball in the low 90s, but he gradually incorporated a few hard knuckleballs into his repertoire in 2003. When an injury to a back muscle forced his velocity into the mid-80s, Dickey committed to reinventing himself as primarily a knuckleball pitcher.

Unfortunately, his fate remained unchanged. His ERA bounced around from 5.09 to 18.90 during 2003-2006. He was even knocked around in his first start as a knuckleballer in 2006, yielding 6 home runs and earning a demotion to Triple A.

Dickey signed a minor league deal with Triple-A affiliate for Milwaukee Brewers and showed promise, finishing the 2007 season 12-6 with 3.80 ERA. He signed a minor league contract with Minnesota Twins that November, but was claimed in Rule 5 draft by the Seattle Mariners in December. The Mariners optioned him to Triple-A in March 2008 before recalling him in April 2008. His numbers weren’t outstanding – 5-8 with a 5.21 ERA and 58:51 strikeout to walk ratio, but passable for a major league-caliber fifth starter. He signed another minor league deal with the Twins in December 2008 and pitched in 35 major league games, sporting a 4.62 ERA in 64 innings.

Mets GM Omar Minaya inked the knuckleballer to a minor league deal in January, even offering him an invite to spring training. He missed the cut, but dominated Triple-A, tossing a one-hitter on April 29. He was called up on May 19 to start against the Washington Nationals. He pitched well, giving up 2 ER in 6 IP. Dickey has continued to throw well into games while keeping opponents off the scoreboard. As of Aug. 13, he boasts a 7-5 record 2.65 ERA. He is on pace to throw more strikeouts this year than his previous best – 94 through 116.2 innings in 2003.

With the current state of chaos going on around the ball club, many fans are left pining for 2011. One of the many questions surrounding the Mets is what happens to Dickey. Is he a flash in the pan? Is he too old to hang onto? Its true Dickey is no spring chicken, but his numbers do appear to indicate he’s really found his groove as a New York Met. He continues to toss a mid 80s fastball in addition to his knuckleball and is enjoying a career year in terms of ERA, strikeouts, WHIP and hits allowed per nine innings.

The knuckleball is also far less strenuous on the body than fastballs, sliders and other traditional pitches. Exhibit A, Tim Wakefield.

Wakefield, now 44, started his pro career when he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a corner infielder in 1988. But after a scout told him he would never reach Triple A with his skill set, he reinvented himself as a knuckleball pitcher.

“I just want to be able to say I tried everything I could to make it,” he said about his career.

But in 1989-1990, he threw more than 200 innings between low-A and high-A, earning a promotion to Double-A in 1991. There he sported a 2.90 ERA in 183 innings and earned a promotion to Triple-A for a cup of coffee at the end of 1991. It ended poorly, but he rebounded in 1992 and earned a call-up to the Pirates against the St. Louis Cardinals, where he struck out 10 batters on 146 pitches. Wakefield continued to shine as the Pirates entered the playoffs, setting himself up to be the NLCS MVP until Atlanta rallied against a reliever. He struggled early in 1993 and was demoted to Double-A. Control problems plagued him in 1994 and despite earning a call up from Triple A to the big leagues at the end of the season, the player’s strike prevented him from seeing game time. The Pirates released him at the end of the season.

Boston scooped him just six days later and set him to work with the Niekro brothers in Triple A. Starting in 1995, Wakefield has thrown more than 115 innings in 16 years for the major league club. His record as a Red Sox pitcher is 178-158 with an average ERA of 4.39 ERA and a 1,936:1,043 strikeout to walk ratio. Unlike Dickey, Wakefield throws slower and relies on more trickery. His knuckleball ranges from 55-69 MPH while his fastball sits in the mid 70s and curveball in the mid 50s curve.

Will Dickey be able to reach 16 years of major league ball as is? Probably not. And despite his very good numbers this year, he’s not really a top of the rotation starter either. But as a knuckleballer, his premiere pitch doesn’t have to rifle passed batters to make them look foolish. Theoretically, Dickey could reinvent himself with slower pitchers and last forever like Wakefield, if his body holds up.

Signing him to a Rick DiPietro 15-year deal would be foolish. But with Dickey earning just $600,000 in a walk year, it would be infinitely more foolish not to bring him back on a short-term deal and continue to keep an eye on him. The Red Sox bring Wakefield back every year on a single-year deal and that seems to have worked wonders. If the Mets can bring back even 80 percent of this year’s Dickey to partner with Johan Santana, Jon Niese and “first half” Mike Pelfrey, this rotation will be intimidating even without signing another big name.

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Posted in: Perspectives