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Entries in knuckleball (2)


R.A. Dickey Showing More Zip on His Knuckleball

Finding historical comps for R.A. Dickey is a fool's errand -- he's a baseball unicorn. We have never before seen a 38-year-old pitcher who lacks an Ulnar Collateral Ligament and launches "power" knuckleballs toward home plate, looking like Leonidas the Brave while doing so. Will Dickey pitch far into his forties like the Niekro brothers, Tom Candiotti and Tim Wakefield, or will he fade faster due to his (relative) reliance on velocity with the pitch?

No one knows for sure, but Dickey showed no signs of slowing down during his Cy Young 2012 season. He put more zip on his knuckleball last year, greatly increasing his percentage of flutterballs thrown over 75 miles per hour and inducing lots of swings and misses with those pitches:

Distribution of Dickey's knuckleball velocity, 2010-12 

Dickey threw about 87% of his knuckleballs at 75 MPH or faster in 2012, compared to about 73% in 2011 and 66% in 2010. His miss rate with those power knucklers was nearly 28%, up from 20% in 2011 and 21% in 2010. That's how Dickey boosted his strikeout rate from the mid-to-high fives in 2010-11 to nearly a batter per inning last season. He got most of those extra whiffs on pitches thrown at or above the belt. Check out Dickey's opponent contact rate on knuckleballs thrown at 75+ MPH in 2010-11, and then in 2012:

Dickey's opponent contact rate on 75+ MPH knuckleballs, 2010-11

Dickey's opponent contact rate on 75+ MPH knuckleballs, 2012

Batters swung through about 30% of Dickey's power knucklers thrown in the upper half of the strike zone, a marked increase from slightly under 22% in 2010-11.

We don't know whether Dickey will remain an ace-level pitcher for another couple of years or a decade. If 2012 is any indication, though, there's plenty of power left in his ligament-challenged right arm.


The Faster the Knuckler, The Better for Dickey

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

VelocityPct. ThrownOpponent Slugging Pct.Strike Pct.
70-74 MPH 13 .712 63.7
75-79 MPH 71.1 .345 67.1
80+ MPH 15.9 .251 73.5


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!