Robert Allen Dickey is 38 years old, has no ulnar collateral ligament and tops out at 86 miles per hour on the radar gun. Based on those facts, Dickey sounds like a third starter in the Frontier League. Yet the man who scaled Mt. Kilimanjaro has now reached the apex of the pitching profession, winning the 2012 NL Cy Young Award. The genesis of Dickey's dancing knuckleball has been well-documented, but here's something you might not know: The faster Dickey throws his knuckler, the better.
Dickey threw his knuckleball between 66 MPH and 83 MPH during the 2012 season, though he almost always hit at least 70 MPH on the gun. His slower knuckleballs actually got crushed. As he increased the knuckler's speed, however, his strike rate soared and his opponent slugging percentage plummeted:
Dickey's knuckleball by pitch velocity
|Velocity||Pct. Thrown||Opponent Slugging Pct.||Strike Pct.|
Dickey got such fantastic results with his faster knuckleballs in part because hitters chased those pitches far off the plate. Check out hitters' swing rate by pitch location against Dickey's knuckleball, broken down by velocity. They couldn't help themselves against faster flutterballs, particularly those thrown high out of the strike zone:
Hitters' swing rate by pitch location against Dickey's 70-74 MPH knuckleballs
Hitters' swing rate by pitch location against Dickey's 75-79 MPH knuckleballs
Hitters' swing rate by pitch location against Dickey's 80+ MPH knuckleballs
When Dickey tossed a knuckleball between 70-74 MPH, hitters chased out of the zone about 19 percent of the time. That chase rate climbed to 32% on knuckleballs thrown between 75-79 MPH, and shot up to 48% on knucklers thrown at 80+ MPH. Holy Niekro!