Knuckleballer in Full Ascendancy

“You get the call,” says Dan Warthen. “Strike two. One-two count. High knuckleball for a strike.”

This is Port St. Lucie, Florida. The Mets’ strigiform pitching coach stands in the righthanded batter’s box. Mike Nickeas crouches behind him. The pair are at one of the six home plates in the six-pack, a row of pitching mounds behind the third-base line of the Digital Domain Park. The six-pack is busy during morning workouts: Two other pairs of pitchers and catchers work alongside Warthen and Nickeas, baseballs pounding catcher’s mitts in an unsteady staccato rhythm. Uniformed coaches and other Mets pitchers stand in small groups behind the mounds.

Nickeas crouches behind Warthen, setting a target in the middle of the strike zone with his oversized catcher’s mitt. Warthen pretends to hold a bat, elbows pulled up and his hands behind his right ear.

R. A. Dickey nods at the pitch selection. He stands on the second-farthest mound, his shoulders slumped and his body turned 25 degrees from the rubber. Just before Dickey begins his windup, he almost looks weary, as if he’s already exhausted and needs to mentally prepare before this one final push. He seems to sigh just before he steps back to begin his motion.

He rocks back and turns his right foot parallel to the plate, brings his left knee and hands way up and then pushes each limb towards the plate one by one, left leg, left arm, right leg pushing off before Dickey’s right arm comes through last. His wrist and fingers flick in unison as he delivers a pitch that rotates maybe once across 60 feet, six inches. (The pitching motion is simple but distinct: Earlier that morning, two other Mets pitchers had warmed up by imitating the deliveries of the other pitchers on the team. Most were cheap, unidentifiable imitations, but Dillon Gee’s performance of Dickey was genius and unmistakable.) The knuckleball moves out and then in and then down over its half-second flight, crossing the inner half of the plate before Nickeas catches the pitch by stabbing with his glove.

Warthen says nothing, but turns, bows, and doffs his cap to Dickey.

This season has been and remains the year of R.A. Dickey, so there is little here to add in terms of news about Major League Baseball’s only knuckleball pitcher and its Most Interesting Player. Robert Allen Dickey’s story — growing up poor in Tennessee, the childhood sexual abuse, his degree in English and more-than-passing interest in Star Wars, the missing UCL in his elbow, the first career as a disappointing first-round prospect and a second-career desperate transformation into a knuckleball pitcher – has been told many times, probably best by Dickey himself in his recently-released memoirs. Though even his memoirs are already incomplete: In just the past six months, Dickey has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and wrote about his experience for the New York Times, starred in a documentary about the Knuckleball, and has been featured in dozens of news articles and profiles. He currently leads the National League in wins, ERA and strikeouts and has helped the Mets surprise baseball through the first two-plus months of 2012. But this article is not about that story, though you are welcome to Google search newsier-type articles about Dickey or read his memoirs. Both are recommended.

This article is instead about the act of R.A. Dickey pitching and the experience of watching him pitch. Specifically, that Dickey’s pitching is awesome – awesome in both its present meaning of “really cool” and its dictionary definition of “inducing awe” – and that seeing him work is a rare performance of a human approximating something like perfection. Or basically that watching Dickey throw dancing knuckleballs over and over can be pretty cool, and that it is in itself something worth thinking about.

Of course awe is not the point of baseball, though professional baseball is better than most sports at inducing it. Baseball exists as series of separate but interrelated events – pitches, at-bats, innings, games, series, seasons – that will sometimes harmonize and bring about truly cool moments. No-hitters, perfect games, four home run nights, streaks of all kinds, desperate comebacks in games, races, and series. Baseball builds to these moments which seems to defy possibility. And they defy possibility in a way that they seem to imply, and sometimes seem to prove, an underlying order beneath the randomness. It’s no accident that “believe” and “faith” are terms commonly associated with baseball fandom in general and Mets fandom in particular, nor that there are several popular movies about baseball that either involve actual ghosts or God-like light and showers of sparks or actual angels. Failure is so pervasive in baseball that successes can seem quasi-divine.

These sporting miracles are rare occurrences though; for the most part, baseball is about monotony. Baseball is – and I really like baseball but this is true — boring. A single game stretches 10-20 minutes of action across four hours. The players stand around and do nothing for huge chunks of time. The ball moves almost-exclusively in neat, easily described parabolas, with the exception of ground balls, which bounce in straight lines. The players and coaches speak only in cliches. Teams play 162 games over six months. Baseball works on the radio – it’s really the only sport that does — because the action is slow enough to allow for description and story telling. There’s so little happening during a standard baseball game, which lends extra weight to those rare moments of awe. That’s the magic, if you will, about baseball.

A commonly-read joke is that if you’re one in a million in China, there are still 1,338 persons just like you. Or if talent-wise you’re in the 99.9999th percentile, there are still eight persons living within the five boroughs of New York who are just as good or better than you. (There are 23 if you expand your range to the entire New York metro area.) And strictly speaking about half of us are below-average humans. It’s fun to laugh off, but you are also invited to really think about those numbers and to try to comprehend how many persons are alive on Earth right now. And then how you stack up against those other persons. I find it difficult. Seven billion, each one very real.

Now try to imagine being the best among all those persons at something. Anything. Sprinting. Multiplication. Picking lint out of your belly button. Imagine having the knowledge, a definitive and very real sense, that you are better at this thing than every other person in the world. Faster, smarter, stronger. Something. This I also find difficult, though I like pretending it’s true.

R.A. Dickey does not have to imagine like the rest of us, for he is the best knuckleball pitcher in the world. This distinction comes partially by default as Dickey is currently the only knuckleball pitcher in the Major Leagues. But Dickey can make a claim based on merit: He’s also a pretty good pitcher, knuckleball or no, and arguably the best pitcher in baseball this season. At the very least, unlike so many of us, R.A. Dickey can pull himself out of bed each morning and know that, forced into a knuckleball-off with Death, he has a better shot than any of the other seven billion bodies presently sucking air.

I had the chance to talk with Dickey about how this feels near the beginning of the season at his locker at Citi Field.

Dickey in person brings to mind a popular college professor. A steady stream of pregame visitors sought him out for questions – here included — and Dickey handled each with an impressive amount of consideration and thoughtfulness. (Traits impressive by normal human standards, not just by the standards of 20- and 30-somethings playing sports professionally.) The upper shelf of his locker was full of books, including several copies of his own, giving the impression of a cramped campus office. Plus the beard and the rebellious-but-not-really hair adds to the whole professorial vibe. The slumped shoulders help too, or at least make him less physically intimidating. My guess is that if and when Dickey does become an English professor, his classes will be difficult to get into, and not just because he’s a former pro athlete and famous person.

It’s also worth noting that in person Dickey is a big, strong human being. Camera angles and the raised pitching mound tend to disguise the size of pitchers, and Dickey looks like a normal-sized U.S. American male on television. He is not. He would be the tallest player in most pickup basketball games, probably the strongest and heaviest. You would not want to run blind into him on a pick. Generally the smallest professional baseball players are average-sized men and pitchers tend to be larger than position players. So even an average-sized pitcher like Dickey would be one of the bigger, stronger human beings you’ll meet.

Anyway I did ask Dickey about being the best knuckleball pitcher in the world.

“I never stop and think that I’m the best knuckleball pitcher in the world,” he said. “That’s never entered my purview until you just said it.”

“I think that’s a dangerous place to go. For me, I’m constantly trying to hone my craft, and a knuckleball is so capricious and chaotic, and you can’t necessarily . . .,” he paused and searched for words on the ceiling, pushing his long hair from his face.

“There’s a lot of trust in it,” he said. “Because of that, you don’t really feel like you’re the best at anything. You’re just trying to do the best you can do with it.”

The knuckleball itself is over a century old, rumored to have been invented by Eddie Cicotte, best known for pitching with the Chicago White Sox and earning a lifetime ban from baseball after allegedly fixing the 1919 World Series. Cicotte was a junkball pitcher who looked for and used any available edge. One legend is that he would sometimes rub baseballs to a shine — which had no effect on the movement of the pitch — just to mess with the hitters who thought it did.*

*I’ll note here that there seems to be some doubt as to whether or not Cicotte really did come up with the knuckleball. He seems a good candidate if only because A. he was a creative junkballer to begin with and B. he seems like the type who might go down the the crossroads at midnight and cut a deal with Satan for a really good trick pitch.

Cicotte supposedly came up with his pitch by pressing his knuckles against the baseball, then flicking the fingers out and releasing the baseball as the wrist is flicked down. The topspin generated by the fingers countered the backspin generated by the wrist, resulting in a sans spin pitch that fluttered towards home plate. The knuckleball. Contemporaries of Cicotte picked up the pitch, modifying the grip so that fingers were pressed into the baseball instead of the nominal knuckles. The knuckleball spread until its peak in the 1940s, when 32 knuckleball pitchers were active in the Major Leagues during the decade. That number fell to 28 in the 1950s, then 19 in the 1960s, 13 in the 1970s, and into the single digits for the past thirty years. Today there is just one, Dickey, and going by the shape of the historical bell curve, he looks to be on the tail end.

The actual physics behind the knuckleball and its fleeing-bird movement are tricky. The raised stitching on baseballs are important. So is the movement of air around the ball in flight. A couple of forces come into play. There’s some mild sorcery involved. Robert Adair, Ph.D., explains in his Physics of Baseball:

The thrown ball can also be deflected as a consequence of the turbulence induced by the stitching on the flow of air past the ball. If the ball is thrown with very little rotation, asymmetric stitch configurations can be generated that lead to large imbalances of forces and extraordinary excursions in trajectory.

Basically, if a spinless knuckleball is moving through the air, its raised seams will disrupt the flow of air around the baseball a little more on one side than the other and the ball will dart. An ideal knuckleball actually will rotate a little, but only about a half-rotation on its way to the plate so that the stitch configurations change during the journey, yanking the ball in a second, unexpected direction. And the later the better for the second dive. Hence the zig-zag, one-two step of a really good knuckleball.

If that still seems overly technical or abstract, and if you can’t just go outside and throw the pitch yourself, you can instead observe the knuckleball effect by having a friend drop baseballs from a tall building while you try to catch them below. Though you’d need access to a pretty high roof just to get the baseball up to R.A. Dickey speeds via gravity alone, so you are advised to wear catcher’s equipment. And maybe to first try to talk your friend into letting you drop the baseballs while he or she tries to catch them.

The reason the knuckleball is so difficult to throw effectively, the likely reason R.A. Dickey struggled with the pitch for years before his run of success and the likely reason there are so few successful knuckleballers, is that the pitch needs to be thrown near-perfect every time. This is hard to do. If the fingers’ push fails to counter the backspin generated by the wrist and the ball travels towards the plate with even a couple of rotations, then the knuckleball doesn’t flutter at all. It’s just a big, fat, slow pitch waiting to get clobbered by very large, strong men who are very good at clobbering big, fat, slow pitches. If Dickey throws 110 knuckleballs in a game, maybe 100-105 need to be near-perfect in order for him to succeed. Dickey’s margin of error is so low – if Stephen Strasburg makes a mistake, it’s still a 100 MPH mistake – that he needs to control his body and repeat his delivery to the proverbial tee with each pitch. He really can’t mess up ever. So what Dickey does is sometimes closer to dancing than traditional pitching.

Killing the spin is just part of it though. The knuckleball also needs to be thrown into an imagined pentagonal prism that floats directly over home plate, limited horizontally by the knees and letters of the batter. Not to mention those strong men with clubs trying to clobber the ball.

Compare the difficulty of this to that of shooting free throws, probably a more common experience than throwing good knuckleballs. Free throw shooting is another pure repetitive motion activity, but even the best NBA shooters miss one out of every ten free throws. And those are uncontested shots into an 18-inch-wide target from 15 feet.

Dickey is throwing a baseball sixty feet, six inches, at 70-80 MPH*, into a 17-inch-wide target, contested by a hitter. And he does so throwing a truly difficult pitch without a margin of error. Even if we ignore the at-this-point basically unignorably good results, R.A. Dickey’s ability to just get the baseball into the strike zone with some regularity is impressive. That he is so precise with his motion he’s become the game’s best control pitcher is the sort of thing that would test the limits of believability if it weren’t actually happening.

*Go to the batting cage and try to hit at 60 MPH. It’s not easy. It says something about the level of play in professional baseball that 80 MPH is considered practice speed, and these Major League guys crush everything at practice speed.

Let’s interject here: I also asked R.A. Dickey why he stuck with baseball for so long, despite the ups and then unending series of downs:

“Well, I think, you do what you’re passionate about doing. For me, I was always passionate about wanting to be a baseball player. I’d committed and devoted so much time to it, I felt like that was my best shot at competing for a living.

“I’ve always been drawn to it. I always have been. I think it’s okay to admit that, and there’s a way to do that well, with class, but I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting that’s something I’ve always been drawn to. This is the platform for which I felt I had the most equipment to be successful at.

“It’s always the competition. The by-product of the competition is that you can have a desire to win. But every pitch, every mechanic that I go through over the course of 110 pitches in a game, I’m competing against myself. Repeat my mechanics, produce a good pitch – that can be real fun.”

One aspect of R.A. Dickey’s game that no one every talks about is that watching R.A. Dickey pitch can actually be pretty eye-gazingly dull, even by typical baseball standards. Knuckleball pitchers are exciting as a novelty act, ONE NIGHT ONLY kind of thing, the circus comes to your ballpark. But about three months into Dickey’s Mets career, you realize he really does just throw the same pitch over and over.

And the thing about watching Dickey is that you can’t enjoy his game like a normal pitcher. You can’t think along with Dickey and guess the intent behind each pitch. Because generally there is no intent. He’s just trying to throw it over the plate and let the air take it from there. You also can’t marvel at the flight of the ball, because it’s near-impossible to see the knuckleball dance from most seats at the ballpark and just as difficult to catch on television. Even in super-slow motion replays, the pitch looks to move in the standard parabola of a traditionally throw baseball. Information about the quality of each pitch comes indirectly, either from the catcher as he mishandles a strike or from the batter who maybe takes a funny swing at a really good one every now and then or will smile bashfully after a particularly aberrant knuckleball. So at times the R.A. Dickey knuckleball show really is about as exciting as watching an NBA player shoot free throws, albeit if the opposing power forward now and then tripped over his own shoelaces and whiffed going for the rebound.

Modern baseball is a game of power and strength and max-effort, evidenced by the domination of the strikeout. Baseball at its birth was closer to a pure running-and-fielding game – the pitcher and batter were mostly charged with getting the ball into play, early batters could request certain pitches at certain heights, the ball would be beaten into a dirty, squishy pulp and still used, fielding errors were common, etc. – than a pure batting-and-pitching game.

But the Major League game today is played by tall, strong pitchers who whip their long arms at maximum human velocities to throw hard fastballs while big, strong hitters whip thin-handled bats at maximum velocities at the ball. Pitchers throwing hard and batters swinging hard leads to plenty of screaming line drives and long home runs, but the two trends have also combined to make solid contact less common. So you get the dramatic rise in strikeouts over the past 100 years of baseball history: In 1871, both teams would combine for one or two strikeouts in a nine-inning game; by the time Babe Ruth was swinging for the fences fifty years later, there were five or six Ks per game. Now there are about 15 strikeouts per game and that rate is still rising as the players continue to get bigger and stronger and everything moves at a greater speeds. The strike zone itself has become the key battle, and not the journey around the bases.

Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals’ two young stars, more or less realize the century-old trend. Strasburg is a tall, long-limbed right-hander who throws his fastballs at 100 MPH, his changeups the speed of most other pitchers’ fastballs, and his curveballs dive hard; he is wonderfully unsubtle with his pitches, which mostly doesn’t matter because he can overpower every hitter anyway. Meanwhile there’s Harper, also big and strong but built more compact like most position players. He wears his eyeblack like war paint (though he seems to have toned this down recently) and tries to beat the hell out of any pitch that wanders near the middle of the plate, along with some that do not. The pair really is fun to watch: The two are among the five cancel-other-plans-when-they-visit-your-city players in the game.* But other than both playing for the Nationals, what they share is the as-fast-and-as-hard-as-possible style that now dominates professional baseball. If you made the two face each other over and over, you’d see some home runs and plenty of strikeouts.

*The five are, for my money, Strasburg, Harper, Dickey, Justin Verlander, and Giancarlo Stanton. One is not like the others.

But it’s not the only style in modern professional baseball. There are a handful of pitchers and hitters who survive outside of the high-velocity, max-effort mold. Control junkballer pitchers like Livan Hernandez and Jamie Moyer can live with slop and a generous outside corner for years. Slap hitters like Juan Pierre or Luis Castillo make a career out of infield singles and balls pushed into the opposite field. And while these types of players continue to pop up, some even having long careers, they’re almost never great, team-carrying types. Baseball players getting by on precision alone usually peak on the margins, and they’re presently disappearing as the game pushes on towards domination by strength and power.

R.A. Dickey has played both parts. He began his baseball life as a max-effort player, failed, his arm gave out, he picked up the knuckleball and so on. Now he exists as a peculiarity, a power pitcher at heart — look at how hard he throws those knuckleballs — but precision pitcher in mind and flesh — he changes speeds and height. Unlike every other baseball peculiarity though, he’s just trampling Major League baseball team by team.

Which brings to mind certain questions regarding why this is happening. The first obvious if incomplete answer to which is that Dickey’s knuckleball is just really, really good. He’s so gifted and so conditioned physically that he can reel off a string of perfect pitches and the fleeing-bird motion takes things from there. A good knuckleball is basically unhittable because it darts too late for even elite, hyper-trained human beings to react in time. So if someone’s throwing nothing but good knuckleballs, there really shouldn’t be much mystery. This is a good answer, but maybe not the entire answer.

The other answer is that Dickey has wedged himself into just the right era, armed with the perfect pitch for this particular strength-v-strength game. Hitting a good knuckleball may be near-impossible, but it’s probably easier for hitters trained to make contact instead of swinging with max-effort. E.g., Omar Infante, a cardinal in the church of just-making-contact, has excellent career numbers against Dickey and is one of the few hitters who looks comfortable in the batter’s box against the knuckleball. But Infante is the exception, and most modern hitters run closer to Dan Uggla’s troglodytic approach to hitting. Which approach can be reduced to: see ball, swing as hard you possibly can, repeat. The violence and power of the modern swing is basically useless against a well-thrown knuckleball, and no hitters yet seem to know how to adjust to Dickey’s magic show.

And there is something awesome about all this. You watch this highly-ordered and perfectly-repeated delivery produce these fleeing-bird pitches, possibly the most difficult-to-hit pitches ever thrown. The order of the animate motion of his body generate chaos in the inanimate motion of the ball, and R.A. Dickey and the forces of nature turn pitching into an unwinnable guessing game. These oversized men are helpless against such a silly-looking thing. You feel surprised when Dickey allows a hit, and you’re surprised that you’re actually surprised about this. You see the beauty of the motion and the man and the story, and the improbability of the whole thing and all the questions the improbability bring up, questions which maybe don’t have easy answers. The raised knee and the hands coming up high and the knuckleball coming towards the plate and look at it all right there.

Because it feels like the only reasonable response is to doff your cap in awe.

19 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

19 responses to “Knuckleballer in Full Ascendancy

  1. Perhaps Luis Castillo is the new market inefficiency. As shifting takes off across baseball, guys with extreme bat control that are able to flick it the other way or utilize the pitches own momentum to poke it over a pulled in infield, or place a bunt when they’re not pulled in, will start to excel.

  2. Absolutely “Awesome” writing–in both senses of the word.

    Even though I knew the basics about knuckle-balls, you mentioned quite a few interesting tidbits I’d never heard.

    One thing about Dickey that seems to have been forgotten is that during his start against Pittsburgh in May, he said he discovered something–like a revelation. I believe it has to do with him finding a way to throw the ball high and it not dropping. (Not sure that’s what it was, but he definitely said he “found” something.)

    Since that start he’s been lights-out. A complete transformation from what he had been: A good knuckle-ball pitcher who sometimes got hit hard.

  3. Tremendous writing as always Patrick. A lot of people like to say that athletes aren’t role models. I don’t think you can get much better role models than RA Dickey who persevered through so much to finally reach the pinnacle of his profession. My kids will be hearing about him for sure. I’d love for him to stay a Met until he retires.

    Which brings me to my next question – possibly for the podcast – what’re the chances that Dickey’s contract will get extended this season? According to Adam Rubin, Dickey wants his contract extended sooner rather than later. And what’re the chances the Mets let him get to free agency so others can make a bid for him? And finally, what’re the chances that Dickey goes elsewhere?

  4. Thank you. FWIW, “the as-fast-and-as-hard-as-possible style” doesn’t only dominate baseball.

  5. Hats off to you and the eloquence with which you penned this story.

    It was BY FAR one of the best articles I’ve ever read about sports on the Internet.

    RA Dickey is living the American Dream by overcoming adversity through talent and opportunity; something that should be investigated by millions in this country.

  6. I try to print out or save a handful of articles each year that affect me or are representative of the place/time (sports-related or otherwise) so a few years or, ideally, decades later, i’ll have a personal reminder of what it was like to be a fan, or an American, or whatever, at that given moment. This is the first 2012 keeper article for me. Really well done.

  7. Excellent writting Patrick! Thank you for such an informative article. I now know better how the knuckled is pitched.
    Dickey is a great interview.unhistorical eloquence reminds me of Julius Erving a little.

  8. I love when bloggers say I’m working on a post, it takes a while, and then they push out 4-6 paragraphs. Not my main man Patrick though. This manifesto was a great great read. Great work.

  9. Hi Patrick,

    This is one of the best pieces of sports writing I have ever read. Thank you for your inspiring work, and for sharing it with the rest of us.

  10. srt

    Great article. Enjoyed reading all of it.
    Stumbled on this because it was about RA and the knuckle ball pitch but went so much farther than that.

    For those mentioning most ball players wouldn’t make good role models – you are correct. I believe RA Dickey is certainly the exception to that rule.

  11. Nice piece. Really enjoyed it.

  12. quite the read there Patrick.

    With what he is doing I certainly get the feeling that Dickey has an intention with each pitch of throwing it in such a way that the stitches take the air and make the pitch move in a certain direction. Its not the Wakefield approach of just throwing it and letting it dance. Dickey has a plan with every one, and has different pitches for different situations.
    You can now play the game along with Dickey like a conventional pitcher, just instead of fastball-changeup-slider, its up or down, in or out, too or fro. And its this reason that I finally enjoy watching his starts, the process not the results, after initially being bored by the circus act after seeing it a few times in 2010. He is a complete pitcher with one pitch, awesome indeed.

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