Posted June 19, 2012

Mets’ Dickey knuckling his way toward historic season

New York Mets, R.A. Dickey

At 37, R.A. Dickey is having a career year that has put him in the thick of the NL Cy Young race. (AP)

In a season that has already seen five no-hitters and several other sterling pitching performances, R.A. Dickey added another to the books on Monday night. Fresh off one-hitting the Rays last Wednesday, the 37-year-old knuckleballer spun another one-hitter — this time a shutout — against the Orioles. He became the first pitcher to string back-to-back one-hitters together since the Blue Jays’ Dave Stieb did so in September 1988; remarkably, Stieb was one strike away from a no-hitter each time. Dickey is easily the hottest pitcher in baseball right now, with one earned run allowed over his last six starts — a stretch totaling 48 2/3 innings, and punctuated by an astonishing 63/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Thanks to that run, he now leads the National League in the three Triple Crown categories of wins (11), strikeouts (103) and ERA (2.00) as well as innings (99) ,10-strikeout games (four, all during this run), complete games (three) and shutouts (two). Those numbers make him a deserving candidate to start the All-Star Game for the National League next month in Kansas City, an honor that has gone to only two other knuckleballers: Dutch Leonard of the Senators in 1943 and Bob Purkey of the Reds in 1961.

Fans of the flutterball will be pleased to note that Dickey is putting together a historic season for such a pitcher. While there’s no official category for knuckleballer stats via Elias or MLB, my research — based upon a list of over 80 regular practitioners — shows that his 9.4 strikeouts per nine would be by far the top mark of any knuckleballer who qualified for the ERA title (one inning pitched per team game), something a vast majority of those listed pitchers never did. Here’s the current top 10 according to my research:

Pitcher Team Year K/9
Ken Johnson Colt .45s 1962 8.1
Tim Wakefield Red Sox 2001 7.9
Tim Wakefield Red Sox 2003 7.5
Tim Wakefield Red Sox 2002 7.4
Phil Niekro Braves 1977 7.1
Charlie Hough Rangers 1987 7.0
Tim Wakefield Red Sox 1997 6.8
Tom Candiotti Dodgers 1992 6.7
Tom Candiotti Dodgers 1995 6.7
Phil Niekro Braves 1978 6.7

Most of those names are familiar even to those who aren’t necessarily aficionados of the knuckler. Niekro won 318 games, pitched until age 48 and is in the Hall of Fame. Hough spent his first 12 seasons primarily as a reliever before moving to the rotation and milking another 13 years as a starter, pitching until he was 46. Wakefield spent 19 years in the majors, retiring in February at the age of 45. Candiotti had a relatively brief career that overlapped them all, though he was just a babe of 41 when he last pitched. The one mystery man is Johnson, who spent 13 years in the majors from 1958-1970, including a hard-luck stretch with the expansion Colt .45s that also included the distinction of becoming the first pitcher ever to lose a complete-game no-hitter in 1964.

The 29-year-old Johnson threw 197 innings for the Colt .45s in their inaugural season of 1962, and struck out 178. He walked just 46 that year, and his 3.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio appears to be the figure to beat for knuckleballers in that category as well; Dickey’s 4.9 (21 walks to his 103 strikeouts) is even better. Niekro is one of the few knucklers even to top 3.0; he did so three times, with a high of 3.4 in 1969. Wilbur Wood matched that in 1971, over a whopping 334 innings. Neither Hough, Candiotti or Wakefield ever reached 3.0 in a qualified season. Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, considered by many the pitch’s best practitioner, had six seasons above 3.0, but all came as a reliever throwing between 78 and 144 innings; his high was 3.7 in 1963, when he threw 136 1/3 innings for the White Sox. He also had seven seasons with more than 7.0 strikeouts per nine as a reliever, topped by a rate of 8.7 in 1962, when he threw 93 innings for the Orioles.

According to Baseball-Reference.com’s version of Wins Above Replacement, Dickey has accumulated 3.5 WAR thus far, putting him on pace for about 7.9 over the course of a season. Here are the top 10 seasons by a knuckleballer:

Highest WAR by Knuckleballers

Wilbur Wood 1971 11.5
Eddie Cicotte 1917 11.2
Wilbur Wood 1972 10.3
Phil Niekro 1978 9.6
Eddie Cicotte 1919 9.2
Bobby Shantz 1952 8.7
Phil Niekro 1978 8.6
Nap Rucker 1911 8.3
Nap Rucker 1912 7.9
Nap Rucker 1909 7.5

There are some interesting things to point out about the names on that list. Wood’s 11.5 is the eighth-highest for any pitcher since 1901, Cicotte was one of the infamous Black Sox and Shantz generally didn’t throw his knuckleball until he got two strikes. Neither he nor Rucker threw the knuckleball to the extent that Dickey does, so one can debate their inclusion here (see below).

Those historical notes aside, Dickey has his work cut out for him to crack the top 10, something that will be harder both because of current scoring levels and because of his workload; all of the pitchers on that list had over 300 innings in every season save for one where Rucker just missed, whereas Dickey’s on pace for about 222 once you consider that he won’t pitch again until Sunday.

Making Dickey’s season all the more remarkable is the fact that he’s never done anything even remotely like it. He entered the season with only 41 career wins in his first nine seasons, a 4.34 ERA and a 1.404 WHIP. In fact, using Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, one can make the case that Dickey is having the best out-of-nowhere season of any pitcher of an advanced age, at least in the post-World War II era.

Since 1945, only seven pitchers age 37 or older have put together seasons with WARs of at least 6.0, doing so a total of 13 times: Randy Johnson (three times, with a high of 10.4), Phil Niekro (four, with a high of 9.6), Roger Clemens (7.6), Curt Schilling (7.5), Joe Niekro (Phil’s brother and another knuckleballer; 6.5), Leonard (two, with a high of 6.3) and Hough (6.0). All of them had previously had at least one season with a 4.4 WAR or better. Dickey’s personal best entering this season was 3.4 in 2010. Perhaps not coincidentally, the only ones from that list without a prior season above 5.0 are Joe Niekro, Leonard and Hough, a reminder that knuckleballers are often a late-blooming species.

The fact that it’s taken Dickey so long to pitch like an ace matters less to the Mets than their hope that he keeps it up. If he does, Dickey will merit discussion for not only an All-Star start but for an NL Cy Young award in a race that’s been very fluid thus far. No knuckleballer has ever won the Cy Young, though Phil Niekro finished as the NL runner-up in 1969. Matt Cain, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, among others, will be in discussion for both distinctions as well as Dickey, assuming they continue to pitch as well as they have. That Dickey — a journeyman who didn’t unveil the knuckleball in a major league setting until 2009, when he was 34 years old and had passed through the hands of four major league teams —  is even in the discussion is a triumph already.

Update: The great Rob Neyer has a quibble with my classification of a couple of the above-mentioned pitchers as knuckleballers, and if anyone would know, it’s him. As the co-author of the indispensable 2004 tome The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, he and mentor Bill James inventoried the repertoires of hundreds of the most important pitchers in baseball history, quoting a variety of primary sources in the process. In an email to me, Neyer wrote that unlike Dickey, neither Rucker nor Purkey threw knuckleballers more than 50 percent of the time, and indeed, a closer reading of his book clarifies that. Rucker, who pitched from 1907-1916, alternated the pitch with his fastball, curve and “slow ball” (changeup). The great manager John McGraw noted, “He relied on that tantalizing floater almost solely in those critical moments.” As for Purkey, he mixed in a slider, fastball and sinker, but it wasn’t until 1962 that any of the listed sources acknowledge the knuckler as his primary pitch. As writer Herb Kamm noted of his 1961 World Series appearance, “Purkey was pitching as if he could go on forever, mixing sliders and flutterballs with fastballs so effectively the [Yankees] were slamming their bats into the dugout in disgust.”

All of which is to say that the potential for Dickey to carve himself a unique niche in the annals of knuckleballers is even greater than previously suggested, given that he relies upon the pitch more heavily than some of his predecessors.

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