R.A. Dickey’s Success Attributed to Pitch Selection

By Matt Musico

There have been a lot of stories about the success of Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey this year. After being picked 18th overall in the 1996 amateur draft by the Texas Rangers, Dickey had a long road before he experienced great success in the Major Leagues. Since he signed with New York before the 2010 season, he’s proven himself to be one of the most consistent pitchers in all of baseball.

His breakout season was 2010, when he put together an 11-9 record with a 2.84 ERA. Dickey was the hard luck pitcher on the staff last year, going 8-13 despite having a 3.28 ERA. That’s not the case so much this year, as he’s tied for first in the MLB with eight wins already, and leading the league in winning percentage (.889) to go with his 2.69 ERA that he will take to the mound Thursday in Washington. With the retirement of Red Sox great Tim Wakefieldbefore the beginning of 2012, that left Dickey as the lone knuckleballer left in the Majors.

Has that attributed to some of his success? Absolutely! It has to be hard to consistently hit against pitchers with normal pitchers (fastball, change up, curve ball, etc), let alone a pitch that they may only see two or three times every year. However, it’s the nature of Dickey’s knuckleball and his overall pitch selection that has led him to such success thus far in 2012.

Whenever he’s in a bit of a slump with his “dancing bear” (as I like to call it), Dickey said that the two people he has on speed dial are Tim Wakefield and Tom Candiotti. Since Wakefield was in the league more recently than Candiotti, I decided to compare one of his best years with what Dickey has been able to accomplish so far this season.

In his first year with the Boston Red Sox way back in 1995, Wakefield put together a 16-8 record with a 2.95 ERA, the best earned run average he ever put together in a Big League uniform when being used exclusively as a starter. Most of his statistics stayed within his career norms. For this analysis, I’m looking at K/9 (5.48), BB/9 (3.13), K% (14.8%), and BB% (8.5%). The knuckleball was his primary pitch, mixing in a fastball here and there throughout his career. Wakefield’s dancing bear was always one speed, and it was slow. He threw his bread and butter pitch 84.3% of the time with an average speed of 66.5 mph. On the flip side, his fastball lit up the radar gun at 74.1 mph, while throwing that only 10.7% of the time. So, more often than not, you were getting a real slow knuckleball when Tim Wakefield is on the hill.

R.A. Dickey may be the last pitcher in the Majors that can throw a knuckleball, but he’s the most unique of what can be considered the most unique group of players in baseball history. As of right now, Dickey’s numbers are better in the four statistical categories that were looked at for Wakefield in his 1995 season. The Mets righty holds a 8.55 K/9, 2.08 BB/9, 24.2% K percentage, and 7.5 BB percentage. How is he defying logic and keeping his ERA under 3.00, something Wakefield was only able to do three times in his 19-year career? It’s his pitch selection.

During his time with the Mets, he has obviously thrown his knuckleball the majority of the time, but he has mixed in his fastball more often than Wakefield ever did. This year has been the most telling, as he’s thrown his knuckleball 55.3% of the time, while throwing his fastball 31.3% of the time. In addition to that, Dickey’s fastball is coming in at an average of 86.4 mph, which is much faster than a normal fastball from this type of pitcher. The average speed of his dancing bear is 75.2 mph, but he has the ability to throw it either that fast, or as slow as 65 mph, which we saw against the Cardinals in his last start. So, imagine getting a 65 mph knuckleball (like Tim Wakefield’s), but then getting an 85 mph fastball pumped in on the inside corner immediately following it. That pitch may as well be 120 mph.

So, if you have lucky enough to watch R.A. Dickey take the hill today as the Mets try to salvage the finale against the Nationals, watch for the frequency he throws his fastball. He throws it just enough to keep the hitters off balance and have it in the back of their head, in addition to dealing with his knuckleball.