R.A. Dickey: Consistently Good

Before R.A. Dickey started throwing a knuckleball, he was on his way out of baseball. As a 30-year old who had seen significant action in the Majors in two seasons, but never action that came with a consistent role, he was fighting for a place at the table. And while he initially didn’t have much success with the knuckler, he stuck with it, crawling to freedom through more than three seasons of Pacific Coast League foulness that I can’t even imagine. Or maybe I just don’t want to picture what happens to a knuckleball in Colorado Springs. In that time, the Rangers, Brewers, Mariners and Twins all gave up on him, but now the Mets are reaping the benefits of their combined patience, as Dickey is in the midst of a career year at the tender age of 37.

One of the toughest things about being a knuckleballer is that sometimes, the ball just won’t dance. In a career that included 463 starts, Tim Wakefield’s longest streak of consecutive starts with four runs or less allowed was 12. Sooner or later, the knuckleball will come through straighter than a Katniss Everdeen arrow, and it is going to be tatered. Dickey is no stranger to this phenomenon, as evidenced by his outing on April 18 in Atlanta. But while Dickey has not yet strung together a 12-game streak like Wakefield, he’s come awfully close. In the past calendar year, Dickey has made 32 starts (dating back to June 11 of last year), and he has allowed four runs or less in 29 of them. In that time, his 3.37 FIP is tied with Johnny Cueto for 22nd-best in the game among qualified starters, ahead of such luminaries as Jered Weaver, Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum and James Shields. And as the astute observer will notice, you can even back up four more starts to May 20, 2011, and make that 33 of his last 36 starts allowing four runs or less.

After yesterday’s dismantling of the Nationals in Washington, Dickey’s current streak stands at nine games without allowing more than four runs. And he’s not just teetering on the edge of that streak either, as he has allowed just one run in his last four starts. What sticks out about the four starts, as well as the one preceding it, is that Dickey has been racking up the strikeouts. Dickey has struck out eight batters or more in a start just nine times in his career, and five of those nine are his last five starts. In those five starts, Dickey has struck out 46 batters. For 2012, his K/9 and swinging strike percentage are both at career highs, and he’s getting batters to chase pitches out of the zone more frequently than he has before as well.

Most of the difference comes from, as you might imagine, the effectiveness of his knuckler, which is generating a lot more whiffs than before:

Year Whiffs
2008 7.69%
2009 8.53%
2010 10.24%
2011 10.08%
2012 14.36%

Looking for a magic bullet to explain this increased effectiveness leads mainly to dead ends. He is throwing his knuckleball slightly harder than he did last season, and he is getting more vertical movement on his knuckler than he did in 2010 or 2011, but the differences don’t stack up as monumental. His vertical release point isn’t appreciably different either. Dickey is simply doing what he has always done, but doing it better.

With the improved effectiveness, Dickey is climbing up leaderboards. This handy leaderboard of knuckleball pitchers built by our fearless leader Dave Cameron shows that Dickey’s season is currently the 22nd-best knuckleballer season in the Integrated Era, and the seventh-best in the past 40 years, according to ERA-. And this season, his 2.98 xFIP is bettered only by Zack Greinke, Stephen Strasburg, Cliff Lee and Gio Gonzalez.

Last week, in the wake of Johan Santana’s no-hitter, I saw someone ask on Twitter whether or not Santana and Dickey were the best one-two combo in baseball. Initially, I dismissed it out of hand, but the notion does have some merit. The two aren’t the best, but thanks to Dickey’s career year, they are one of seven or eight teams that can legitimately be part of that discussion. Knuckleballer’s are usually prone to several flare-ups per season, but Dickey is challenging that notion this year. He has been very good in the past month, but if you take a longer view, it’s clear that these are not isolated events — R.A. Dickey has been consistently good.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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He’s also got the best K/BB on that leader board.