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Tricky Dickey knuckles his way to history

Posted by Andrew Mooney  June 20, 2012 01:57 AM

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In a season that has seen the Orioles spend 53 days atop the AL East and two perfect games in as many months, there can no longer be any doubt that we've entered the Twilight Zone of baseball spectacle: R.A. Dickey is tearing apart major league hitters.

By almost any statistical measure, Dickey has been the best pitcher in the baseball in 2012, leading the majors in wins (11), ERA (2.00), strikeouts (103), and WHIP (0.889). He hasn’t allowed an earned run since May 22—that’s 42.2 consecutive innings—and three of his last four starts have been complete games, including back-to-back one-hitters against the Rays and the Orioles.

Incredibly, he’s issued less than one walk per game dating back to May 12, despite throwing a pitch that resembles a crumpled ball of paper in a windstorm. Dickey has also been economical with those crumpled paper balls, throwing an average of 13.9 pitches per inning (MLB average: 16.2). It’s not like he needs to conserve his strength, of course; his knuckleball exerts about as much stress on his elbow as Henry Rowengartner’s final offerings to Butch Heddo.

To me, though, the most shocking of Dickey’s statistics aren’t the ones he’s put up this year, but the ones in his past. Dickey was effectively a nobody for about a decade, barely treading water in the major leagues. According to Baseball-Reference, his closest comparables through age 36 are…Al Gettel and Hod Lisenbee. I’ll spare you the journey to Wikipedia: that’s not flattering company.

How out of nowhere was Dickey’s rise to prominence? Here’s a look at his first seven years in the big leagues, again from Baseball-Reference (click to expand).

dickdick1.png

Those gaps in 2002 and 2007? Dickey spent them entirely in the minors. In fact, between 2001, the year in which he made his major league debut, and 2010, Dickey did not complete a full season in the big leagues, making at least one stint in the minors in all of those seasons. His most notable on-field exploit was allowing six home runs in 3.1 innings in his first and only major league appearance of 2006, which just so happened to be his debut as a knuckleballer, having learned the pitch during the preceding offseason.

Now for his last three years:

dickdick2.png

It’s safe to say he’s figured out this knuckleball thing. With this stretch, Dickey is in the process of becoming the 40th starting pitcher since 1901 to record three seasons with a sub-3.50 ERA at age 35 or older. He would make the third knuckleballer on the list, joining the Niekro brothers, Phil and Joe.

The Mets certainly hope Dickey’s rebirth portends a Niekro-like journey into his middle age years; Phil pitched effectively through age 45, and Joe was at least serviceable at age 42. Clearly, the traditional aging curves for pitchers don’t apply to knuckleballers, though time did eventually catch up with Tim Wakefield. However, what we've seen from Dickey the last few years suggests that he’s just now finding his best.

A couple other tidbits from around the Internet on the Rise of Dickey:

Dave Cameron at FanGraphs tells us that Dickey possesses the highest swinging strike rate in the majors this year: 12.7 percent, the highest rate for a season since C.C. Sabathia in 2008, and about four percent higher than Dickey’s previous high as a knuckleballer. In addition, hitters are making contact on his pitches in the strike zone only 78 percent of the time, the lowest since Johan Santana’s ’07 campaign.

• Also from FanGraphs, Dickey accumulated 2.1 Wins Above Replacement in seven seasons with the Rangers, Mariners, and Twins. In two and a half years with the Mets, he’s already accounted for 7.9 WAR.

• According to For Baseball Junkies, the last pitcher to record complete game one-hitters in consecutive starts was Dave Stieb of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1988. Far from celebrating his accomplishment, Stieb was probably closer to tearing his hair out; in both games, his no-hit bid was broken up with two outs in the ninth inning.

• Mets bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello summed up quite nicely the plight of anyone confronted with Dickey’s beguiling knuckler: "I never catch R.A. without gear. I had all of it on and he still got me. Late movement? He hit me in the side of the head."

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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