|R.A. Dickey (US Presswire)|
The knuckleball pitch is known for a few things, but control and strikeouts aren’t one of them. Of the best in history at throwing the knuckleball none has ever even approached striking out a batter an inning. The closest to that was Hoyt Wilhelm who threw 90 strikeouts in 93 innings of work in 1962. None of the rest even came close including Jesse Haines, Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield or Tom Candiotti.
This season, however, after 103 career starts and 826 innings pitched R.A. Dickey has thrown a strikeout per inning through 13 games and 90 innings. Before this season Dickey struck out less than 6 batters every nine innings and had a season high of 134 strikeouts in 208.2 innings pitched last season.
Wakefield might be the only solid comparison during the Pitch F/x era and he threw what would be considered a batting practice knuckleball compared to Dickey. Wakefield had a knuckleball that averaged 66 mph in his career and would top out at 75 in his younger years. Dickey was around 70 mph a few years ago, but has been averaging 76 the past two years and has a “blazing” 84 mph fastball compared to Wakefield.
In the past two years Dickey has also weaned off his change up and is almost exclusively a two pitch pitcher. He throws 85 percent knuckleballs, which is very similar to Wakefield in his career. It’s tough to say if taking what Wakefield did and adding 10 mph to his knuckleball would have made him a better strikeout pitcher, but it could help explain his success so far. Dickey has only been throwing the knuckleball since 2005 and varied his usage from season to season.
Trying to look into the “movement” of the knuckleball is pretty much a lost cause. His average knuckleball has essentially no vertical or horizontal movement. Of course, the movement of each pitch varies wildly and it’s tough to say if he’s doing anything differently. It does appear to be hitting the zone more as his ball percentage is down from 34 percent in 2011 to 31 percent this season.
His knuckleball also has a 28 percent whiff rate, which is up from 21 percent in his career. It’s tough to compare him to anyone else as he is the only pitcher in baseball using the knuckleball right now. And other than Wakefield there hasn’t been another pure knuckleball thrown in baseball during the pitch f/x era according to Fangraphs.
It’s hard to see Dickey keeping up this level of strikeouts as not only has he never done this before, but no leading knuckleball pitcher has done this in baseball. Batters are swinging at pitches more out of the zone and making less contact on strikes. The easy assumption is that those numbers will return to normal, but since the knuckleball is so hard to break down it’s just possible that Dickey has it figured out. If he does and wins the Cy Young he would be the first pure knuckleballer in history to win the award.