The Latest R.A. Dickey Experiment

R.A. Dickey’s entire career has, essentially, been one giant experiment. You know the story by now. Dickey was drafted by the Texas Rangers back in 1996, and took a signing bonus for nearly $800,000 less than what was originally offered after team doctors discovered he just didn’t even have an ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. Dickey scuffled through the minor and major leagues for more than a decade before reinventing himself as a knuckleballer and promptly becoming one of baseball’s best pitchers, winning a Cy Young Award in the process.

Dickey’s experiment, obviously, was the knuckleball. But around Dickey, other experiments followed. Like the Mets giving light-hitting catcher Josh Thole regular playing time due in large part to his ability to catch Dickey’s knuckleball. Catching a knuckleball is quite hard, you see. But Thole could do it, and the two built a strong rapport together.

Then, the Blue Jays took over the experiment by trading top prospects Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard for Dickey, and, of course, his personal catcher, Thole. In Toronto, Thole’s position was reduced to exclusively serving as Dickey’s catcher. He couldn’t hit worth a lick, but he could catch Dickey’s dancing knuckler, and that was enough to keep him on the roster.

In the offseason, the Blue Jays signed Russell Martin to a contract worth $82 million, which, alongside incumbent Dioner Navarro, gave the Blue Jays something of a logjam at catcher if they wanted to continue carrying Dickey’s personal backstop on the roster.

Then, on Tuesday, some news:

In 2015, a new R.A. Dickey experiment begins. Maybe you’d prefer to call it a Russell Martin experiment, because Dickey’s largely going to continue throwing his knuckler the same as he ever has. Martin is the one learning something new.

To be fair, it won’t be Martin’s first time ever catching a knuckleball at the professional level. Between 2009-10, while playing for the Dodgers, Martin caught 13 innings of Charlie Haeger’s knuckleball, and didn’t allow any passed balls in the process. But 13 innings is quite a bit different from the 200+ that Martin is expected to catch of Dickey this season, and Haeger’s knuckleball certainly isn’t Dickey’s knuckleball.

This is Dickey’s knuckleball, and this is Martin trying to catch it:


What’s pictured in that .gif is the very thing the Blue Jays would like to avoid, as much as possible, with Dickey on the mound this season. What’s pictured in that .gif is the very thing Josh Thole was better than anyone else at avoiding, and why he’s been Dickey’s personal catcher since Dickey started throwing the knuckler.

The Blue Jays didn’t have to send Thole to the minors. They could have carried three catchers on the roster, giving Navarro time at DH and letting Thole catch Dickey like he’s always done. They probably didn’t view that as an ideal situation, but if Martin didn’t give the Blue Jays enough confidence in his ability to catch Dickey, they would have been left with no other choice. Evidently, Martin impressed, and all sides appear to be comfortable moving forward with the experiment.

For what it’s worth, Martin is one of the better defensive catchers in baseball, and if anyone could be expected to take on a challenge such as this, Martin might just be the best bet. And, like any professional, he’s made adjustments to adapt to his new job.

The first is the integration of an oversized specialty glove used to catch Dickey’s knuckleball. This isn’t anything new — anyone catching a knuckleballer would wear a similar glove. The bigger adjustment is in Martin’s stance. You can sort of see it in the .gif above. That stance looks quite a bit different than when Martin catches a normal pitcher:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 8.40.45 PM

The body is turned. The glove stays lower to the ground, and without a real target. And what he’ll do once the real games start up sounds even more drastic:

Martin decided to exaggerate the stance he has been using, dropping his left knee all the way to the ground, down there where he sets his oversized catcher’s mitt before Dickey delivers the ball.

The new stance affords him added flexibility. He sets no target. There’s no point.

Martin said the stance is an adaptation of a setup he once used with sinkerball pitchers.

Martin, being a veteran catcher, drew from past experience to transition to this new phase of his catching career. Surely, he’s picked Thole’s brain on the process. Surely, he’s picked Dickey’s brain, too. Dickey says Martin has been “fantastic.” Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos says Martin’s progress has been “great.” But still, we have to assume there will be a dropoff, defensively, in going from Thole to Martin. If it was that easy, it wouldn’t have taken five years for a catcher to usurp Thole’s throne. Erik Kratz tried last year, and failed. J.P. Arencibia tried two years ago, and failed miserably. There’s a reason why Thole has caught 75% of all pitches Dickey’s thrown since he reinvented himself as a knuckleballer.

We should probably attempt to calculate what the difference might be between Thole and Martin, catching Dickey over a full season. Thanks to research done by our very own Jonah Pemstein, we know that Thole has allowed about 0.3 passed balls per game while catching Dickey, which adds up to 11 or so over the course of a season. We also know that non-Thole catchers have allowed twice that amount — about 0.6 passed balls per game — adding up to 22 passed balls over the course of a season. Just because, we’ll give Martin no benefit of the doubt and assume that he’ll have just as much trouble catching Dickey as the rest of the non-Thole guys have. Doing some quick math, those 11 extra passed balls add up to about -6 defensive runs below average.

But Martin catching Dickey instead of Thole doesn’t just change the math on defense. It changes the math on offense, too. Martin is projected for a .331 wOBA this season, which is quite a bit better than Thole’s .288 projection. Doing some more quick math, that difference in offensive production, over the course of Dickey’s 32 starts, would amount to something like +4 runs in favor of Martin, making up most of the difference between the two behind the plate.

If you want to give Martin some benefit of the doubt, based on his defensive reputation, and assume that he’ll fare better catching the knuckler than guys like Arencibia and Kratz, it pushes the needle closer to being even. Factor in Martin’s superior throwing arm, or even things like veteran leadership and game-calling abilities

“…Dickey is impressed with Martin’s desire to build rapport, intuition and trust to the point where the two can read each other’s minds in a game.”

…and you start to see why the Blue Jays have sided with Martin.

Like all experiments, we won’t know how this one works out until after the fact. There’s a non-zero chance, once everything gets ramped up to regular season game speeds, that Martin turns out to be no better than the other non-Thole catchers who have attempted to catch the Dickey knuckler, and the Blue Jays are forced to return to the status quo. But there’s also a pretty strong chance, based on both the Blue Jays’ decision to finally replace Thole and also some numbers to back it up, that maybe, just maybe, after five years, the perfect match has been found behind the plate for R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at

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8 years ago

Add in the benefit of the extra roster spot as well!

8 years ago
Reply to  Alex

That and the fact that Martin is catching Dickey means he isn’t catching Buerhle means there is value lost there that must be taken into account.

8 years ago
Reply to  MaxPower417

Except that Navarro and Buehrle worked very well together last year. I see no down side to it.

8 years ago
Reply to  MaxPower417

Why is he not catching Buehrle?

8 years ago
Reply to  Jon

No catcher plays every game these days and Navarro-Buehrle was better than Navarro-Hutchinson last year. So why mess with a good thing and allow Martin to have an off day or DH him