I believe that Willie Stargell summed up knuckleballs best when he said “Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor’s mailbox.” The pitch was originally invented to minimize the spin of the ball in flight, which causes an erratic, unpredictable motion. Originally viewed as a “trick” pitch, the knuckleball is developed by pitchers who are converted to using the motion after experiencing limited success with conventional pitches, such as the case of R.A. Dickey.
Dickey was originally drafted by the Texas Rangers in the first round of the 1996 draft. After noticing that he was missing a ligament in his right elbow joint, doctors were surprised that he could pitch at all, much less effectively to major league hitters. After making his debut in 2001, he experienced only marginal success for the next several years, often being called back and forth from AAA. He switched clubs during the next few years, appearing for both the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners, before being signed by the New York Mets in 2010.
Since 2010 Dickey has experienced major success in the National League, posting an ERA under 3.28 in each of the last three seasons, including posting a sparkling 2.73 ERA last season, the cherry atop of his 20 win, Cy-Young Award winning season. After taking a step back and looking at his career, one would wonder what took him so long to start succeeding and if this newfound success is sustainable. Viewed by most major publications going into the 2013 season as one of the top 20 pitchers in baseball, its widely been assumed that his 2012 performance is repeatable. But is that really the case? Knuckleball pitchers can often experience enormous amounts of success in any given season before retreating back to mediocrity, with Tim Wakefield being a good example.
Wakefield, similar to Dickey, has experienced successful seasons in the past. He won more than 15 games four times in his career, but each time had at least a season of mediocrity in between, including one stretch from 1999-2005 with barely winning 12 games. Since throwing the knuckleball is incredibly difficult to control for an extended period of time, it has developed the reputation of being a “feel” pitch which can quickly desert the hurler at any point in time. Such is the case with Dickey this spring, who in his recent World Baseball Classic debut, was absolutely lit up by the country of Mexico, despite them not having a very star-studded lineup. Moving from the NL to the AL East is always going to negatively impact a pitcher’s ERA and WHIP, so the concerns that people have about Dickey repeating last year’s 2012 campaign are absolutely reasonable.
Dickey’s supporters like to point out that he isn’t a “traditional” knuckleball pitcher since his throwing speed is greatly increased compared to others that have thrown the pitch in the past (Dickey can top out close to 85MPH, whereas other knuckleballers never broke 72MPH). Although this sounds good in theory, other pitches that are thrown have great deals of movement and also vary in speed such as curveballs and sliders. Batters have adjusted to those in the past, much as I believe that they will adjust to Dickey in 2013. Regardless of how the pitch looks getting into the strike zone, it will still need to get there at some point, somehow.
I firmly believe that we can expect a great deal of regression from Dickey in this upcoming season, especially since the track record of knuckleball pitchers, much like the pitch itself, is entirely too random to be trusted. I would much rather draft a proven pitcher around Dickey’s ADP (92.22 as of 3/10/13) such as Zack Grienke (90.28), Roy Halladay (92.77) or CC Sabathia (103.37) rather than relying on lightning striking twice. Whereas I don’t see Dickey completely falling apart this season, I would definitely expect a drop in wins and a significant spike in ERA and WHIP. Although hitters have always had a tough time succeeding against the pitch (another great quote describing this is Charley Lau, who said “There are two theories on hitting the knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them works.”) I would still recommend to draft Dickey with caution! Fantasy Trade 411’s Mike Gianella currently has Dickey penciled in for the following stat line in 2013:
15 Wins, 3.80 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 185 Ks.
A veteran fantasy sports player/commissioner for the better part of a decade, I am a contributing writer for several major fantasy websites including FantasyTrade411.com, Rotowire.com and Going9baseball.com. I am always willing to share my advice and opinions on your questions and the latest fantasy news. Feel free to contact me with any sports related inquires on twitter @Roto_Wizard, or by e-mail at RotoWizard01@yahoo.com.