Hot! From Flameout to All-Star

Chicks Dig the Knuckleball

This phrase was playfully used on Twitter by Mets infielder Justin Turner to talk about 37-year-old starting pitcher and teammate R.A. Dickey. While it might not be factual yet, it very well may be by the time the MLB All-Star festivities are complete. Historically, the knuckleball has ranged from unsexy to unreliable. Dickey himself has called the pitch “inherently untrustworthy” and yet he has made it his mission to rewrite the book on the pitch itself. What he is doing is unprecedented on a number of levels. Based on traditional statistics, R.A. Dickey is the best pitcher in baseball in 2012 and deserves to start the All-Star Game. Just as his knuckleball is to a batter, his rise from obscurity was completely unpredictable.

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Who is this Guy?

To know Robert Alan Dickey, the pitcher, one must first know Robert Alan Dickey, the person. In March of this year, Dickey came out with a book chronicling his life’s story, particularly his struggles. One of the biggest shockers of his tell-all tale: as an eight-year-old, Dickey was raped, first by a female babysitter, and later by a teenage boy. Let that sink in for a moment.

He compartmentalized his ongoing struggle with his abuse for over 20 years, and his pain led him to unfaithfulness in his marriage. He has said that the guilt and worthlessness he felt as a result of his marital transgression and wayward career brought him to a state in the winter of 2005 in which he contemplated suicide. Together with his wife’s help, he fought off those urges and returned to baseball in an attempt to salvage his career, but more importantly, his life.

This past offseason, Dickey climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, chronicling his adventures in The New York Times. He did this to raise money for the Bombay Teen Challenge, an organization that fights human trafficking and rescues girls from enslavement in the sex trade in India. At the time, it was unclear to the general public why Dickey was risking his career for this. After his book was published, it all made perfect sense.

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His Journey

Indeed, his struggles off the field may trivialize his baseball journey, but it is a tale unto itself. Dickey has been to Pitcher Purgatory, lived there for years, and returned with a calm, cold vengeance. An All-American at the University of Tennessee, he was selected by the Rangers with the 18th pick in the first round of the 1996 Amateur Draft. A few months later, he earned a bronze medal in the Olympics.

Dickey debuted in the majors in 2001, but struggled mightily until a shoulder injury temporarily shut him down in 2005. While rehabbing his shoulder, manager Buck Showalter, along with pitching coach Orel Hershiser, suggested that Dickey should throw only knuckleballs in a last ditch effort to salvage his career. In spring training of 2006, Dickey won a spot in the Rangers starting rotation. On April 6th, he made his first start as a major league knuckleballer. It was another nightmare when, in just under three innings, Dickey gave up a record-tying six home runs before Showalter mercifully removed him from the game. The performance was bad enough for the team to send him back down to the minors for the rest of the season, casting doubt on his career potential as a major league player.

In 2007, 2008, and 2009, he bounced around the minor league systems of the Brewers, Mariners, and Twins, respectively. He was called up for a cup of coffee with both the Mariners and Twins, but with a modicum of success. But in 2010, the Mets took a chance on Dickey at just the right time. He pitched well in the minors, was called up in May of that year, and never looked back, as he posted ERAs of 2.84 and 3.28 the last two seasons. A perfect storm has come together in Dickey’s life. The man has been amazing both on and off the field, but more importantly, he has found his true identity both on and off the field.

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A Look at the Stats

His season numbers are as follows through 16 starts:

12-1 record, 2.15 ERA, 116 strikeouts, and just 25 walks in 113 innings pitched with a 0.88 WHIP. 

Dickey is the first pitcher in MLB history to throw back-to-back one-hitters with 10+ strikeouts in both games. He is also the first pitcher in MLB history with five straight starts of zero earned runs allowed and eight or more strikeouts. In one stretch, Dickey was 6-0 with a 0.18 ERA (one earned run in 48 2/3 innings), 63 strikeouts, five walks, and a .131 batting average against. He was also only the fifth pitcher in MLB history with at least 11 wins, an ERA lower than 2.50 and at least a strikeout per inning through his first 14 starts. The highest single-season strikeout rate for a knuckleball pitcher with at least 100 innings is Tim Wakefield with 7.9 K/9 in 2001 for the Red Sox. Dickey is currently at 9.2 K/9.

Now that I have bombarded you with stats on stats on stats, here is where you can see how Dickey’s numbers (prior to his last four starts, three of which were gems) match up with the best knuckleball pitchers in history.

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The Bottom Line

Dickey is a man who has reached personal and professional lows. He is a man who nearly gave up. He is a man who has as much courage as anyone on the planet. But Dickey didn’t give up, he opened up, sharing a terrifying life’s worth of pain with the world. We can only hope that Dickey is chosen to start the fast approaching All-Star game, as his personal story will garner more national media attention, which, in turn, could potentially provide others the same courage to step forward or stand up for themselves. In a city that loves underdog stories like Victor Cruz and Jeremy Lin, R.A. Dickey is slowly (like his knuckleball) but surely etching his name into New York lore.

Author

Evan Handsman

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