Dickey aims to get knuckler ahead of the curve
Blue Jays righty trying to regain form as batters practice patience against tricky pitch
R.A. Dickey understood the arrangement. The knuckleball is a fickle mistress. To attach yourself to it is to assign yourself to its whims.
"The very first day I met Charlie Hough," said Dickey, "he told me, 'It took me one day to learn how to throw a knuckleball and the rest of my career to learn how to throw it consistently for strikes. It all starts there.'"
Dickey isn't throwing many strikes these days. Or at least not nearly as many as he did when he won the National League Cy Young Award in 2012 -- the season that made his knuckleball a sensation and made Dickey a high-profile trade target for Toronto that winter.
The Blue Jays haven't netted much to date from their trade with the Mets. Dickey had a serviceable but relatively unsatisfactory 2013, and this year, going into Tuesday's start against the Orioles, he is saddled with a 6.26 ERA, a 1.652 WHIP and an alarming 15 walks in 23 innings.
While Mets fans salivate over the prospect of the big-bodied Noah Syndergaard -- the prime acquisition in the Dickey trade -- soon joining their rotation, a Blue Jays club making strides elsewhere in the bid to put 2013 in the rearview mirror waits patiently for the knuckler to float in its favor.
"It's a hit-or-miss pitch," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "He's like anybody else. Well, he's not like anybody else. Definitely not. But if his ball is not doing what it's designed to do, he's vulnerable like anybody else."
Could it be that the league, at large, is better prepared for the knuckleball?
The patience we've seen on the part of the opposition seemingly supports that notion. Of Dickey's 15 walks, nine have been issued on a full count. Moreover, he is averaging 4.04 pitches per batter, a significant jump from his 3.62 average in his Cy Young season.
"I think you've got to look at that," Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker said. "Any time you recognize a trend like that, you wonder what the opposition is thinking. Maybe they're taking a more patient approach. To be honest, though, they've laid off some tough pitches in pitchers' counts as well. I think in general there's been a more patient approach against him."
At least one club has taken its preparation to another level. The past two times the Astros have faced Dickey -- once in 2013 and again earlier this month -- they've had radio broadcaster and former knuckleballer Steve Sparks toss them batting practice beforehand. They tagged Dickey for 10 runs in 13 innings in those two starts.
Dickey knows, though, that no amount of BP can reasonably simulate what it's like to stand in against his knuckleball when it's working right. The good news, on that front, is that Dickey's release speed, according to BrooksBaseball.net, is closer to its 2012 level after taking a dip -- likely brought about by some early-season back issues -- in 2013. Dickey is healthy, and, generally speaking, he's happy with the fact that his pitches have movement and life.
"At times, though," Dickey said, "it's moving too much, and that's contributing to some of the walks. Some of that you have to embrace as part of the curse and the beauty of the pitch."
The pitch isn't fooling people like it once did. For one, Dickey is only getting a fraction of the swings-and-misses with the knuckler that he did in 2012. That year, he had month-long stretches during which he generated whiffs on more than 30 percent of swings taken on the knuckler. This month, that percentage has been 24.8.
One other major difference between the current Dickey and the Cy Young Dickey is ground-ball rate. In 2012, it was 46.1. This year, it's 35.7. Dickey's fly-ball rate has risen accordingly.
"That also comes down to the hitters themselves," Dickey said. "In the AL East, they're programmed to hit the ball out of the ballpark, with the short porches and the designated hitters. That could be some of that. But there have been some times where the movement has been much more flat so the ball has stayed up."
Dickey is a prime point of interest on the Blue Jays. Because efforts to upgrade the rotation -- including a willingness on the part of multiple players to defer salaries in order to try to land Ervin Santana -- fell flat, it is up to the current cast to improve upon last year's poor rotation showing. Mark Buehrle's big bounceback (he's 4-0 with a 0.67 ERA) and Drew Hutchison's emergence (1-1, 3.60) have helped considerably, but suffice to say Toronto really needs better returns from Dickey if the club is going to survive and compete in a deep division.
Any investment in a knuckleball is an inherently risky one. The Blue Jays can at least take comfort in knowing they invested in a guy devoted to examining the intricacies of the pitch. And right now, Dickey's greatest challenge will be proving to opposing batters that they can't get too comfortable waiting for him to throw balls instead of strikes.
"I'll keep living and dying with it," Dickey said, "and hopefully over the course of the season, it will work out in my favor."