A Conversation With R.A. Dickey, Part Two

Here is part two of four of my interview with R.A. Dickey. Read part one here. Today's section focuses on Mr. Dickey's transformation into a full-time knuckleball pitcher.

Sam Page: When you came back to Nashville for a year, it seemed like you really became confident in the knuckleball. Obviously there was a practical reason to sign with the Brewers, being close to home. But was there extra motivation?

R.A. Dickey: I think that was just the natural metamorphosis of what went on. In actuality, coming into the '06 offseason, preparing for the '07 season, the Milwaukee Brewers were my only offer. So if I wanted to keep playing Major League Baseball--or at least try playing major league baseball, that was my only avenue to do it. So here I was, having spent a year and a half trying to figure out the knuckleball with the Texas Rangers. There weren't a lot of teams out there that were going to take a shot on a 34-year-old knuckleballer had very mediocre to below-mediocre statistics as a knuckleballer over the past year and a half. The Brewers were willing to do that. Ironically, the General Manager of the Milwaukee Brewers was Doug Melvin, the same Doug Melvin who drafted me with the Texas Rangers, who proceeded to see fit that the condition of my elbow warranted a $800,000 reduction in bonus. There's a real neat storyline there. But at the same time, it was the only opportunity I had. So when I got here, I really tried to embrace it fully, in that, I wasn't ever in between being a conventional pitcher and a knuckleballer. I threw myself completely into throwing the knuckleball eighty to a hundred percent of the time. That was a big stepping stone--really committing to the pitch and really selling myself over to it.

SP: Well last year you threw it 85% of the time and you talked about not having your feet in two buckets. But a lot of people question the conventional wisdom that the knuckleball pitcher shouldn't mix in more pitches. Do you think you can have both the confidence that you are a knuckleball pitcher and an expanded repertoire?

RD: Let me answer that question in two parts--first, directly. For me personally, I can't do that, because the reason I went to that knuckleball anyway is because I didn't possess what I needed, as a conventional pitcher anymore, to get big league hitters out. If I wanted to stay in the big leagues and have success, I had to go full-time knuckleball, because what I had to offer wasn't going to cut it. That's one answer. What makes me successful as a knuckleball pitcher is that the hitter thinks the knuckleball is coming every pitch. He can't sit on a fastball in a 2-0 count or a 2-1 count or a 3-2 count or a 1-0 count. When he's got count, he can't just sit there and say, "Here comes a fastball. I'm going to crush it." There's that little seed of doubt in his mind that, "This guy is going to throw me a knuckleball; that's what he does." So I've had to really commit to that. Like you said, I threw it 85% of the time last year, which is a good ratio for me--85-15 with the other stuff.

The second reason and a more indirect answer to your question is that when you're a knuckleball pitcher, it's a real tough thing to go back and forth and still keep the feel out of your hand of what it's like to throw a good knuckleball. So if I'm throwing fastball, fastball, fastball, and then I'll go to a knuckleball, it's a real tough thing to do, to repeat the mechanic that you need to throw a good knuckeball.

I had to learn this whole process. I learned with Charlie Hough, I learned with Phil Niekro, I learned with Tim Wakefield. You got to be able to repeat your delivery and repeat your mechanics in a way that you can produce a ball that doesn't spin out of your hand, eight out of ten times. And if I'm constantly going from sinker to slider to knuckleball to sinker, I can't do it. And I know my own limitations and that helps me to know that I need to throw a knuckleball 85% of the time.

SP: You mentioned all those guys that you tutored under. Is that a fun part of throwing the knuckleball, that it's almost like a fraternity of the game's history? Are you going to reach out and try to pass it on?

RD: I don't read the papers much, but I got a real interesting article sent to me by Rob Neyer from ESPN. He kind of chronicled knuckleballers and the years that they were knuckleballers. And it seemed on paper like every knuckleballer had passed the torch to one guy--to one guy! And there's this thing set up where Tim Wakefield's kind of passing the torch onto me. If the situation arises that I can do that for another person, you bet your butt I'm going to do it. Simply because, one: that's the right thing to do, and two: that's what's been modeled for me. These men who have poured themselves into me, whether it's been Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, or Tim, have been so generous with their time and wisdom and secrets. It really does make for a real tight fraternity. There's very few people who walk this Earth that do what they do. They know what it's like to stand out there on the mound and feel like you don't have a good knuckleball that day. They know what that feels like. And there's only a handful of guys, literally, in existence on this planet that feel like that. So it's a real neat thing. It really does kind of bond you to another man.

SP: Getting back to something else in your previous answer--you said you couldn't throw a fastball in a two strike count. But one thing you did--and I think Keith Hernandez compared it to Phil Niekro--is you throw a hard knuckleball and then a softer one. Is that a conscious effort, or is that you just dialing up the same pitch?

RD: It's become a conscious effort. It started as just something that happened. And then the better I've gotten with it... That's one of the things that I've really discovered has been a component to the success I've had this last year and something I can really build upon, is that I know how to do it now. I know how to throw one 81 miles per hour and I know how to throw one 57 miles per hour. And that big gap, and all the speeds in between, are bullets in my gun, so to speak. So, if I've thrown five knuckleballs to Ryan Howard at 78 to 82 miles per hour, then all of a sudden, I throw him a 57 mile per hour knuckleball. If I know how to do that well, that's another bullet in my gun that I can get him out with. I really have worked hard to try to do that better. Before, when I was just kind of learning the pitch and learning the mechanic, I really couldn't do that well. I didn't have a feel for it. I didn't mechanically know how to do it. So yes, now it is a conscious effort, but it's grown into one like it's something that had to be cultivated. It wasn't just [snaps] "Oh it happened." I had to really work on it.

SP: Is there a next step? Are you experimenting with putting more spin on and off the ball?

RD: I think what's next for me is just to really embrace the consistency that I need with it. I've always felt like last year is what I was capable of doing. Rightfully so, I'm sure there's a lot of people out there thinking that it was kind of a fluke year. And I get it. That's part of it. I've kind of been playing to that symphony my whole career, of people doubting what I can do. And that's all right. Truthfully, I'd probably ask the same question. So I think the next step for me is to just continue to be me with it. One of the things that allowed me to have a lot of success this past year, is that I really stopped trying to be Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield. I stopped trying to be them and I really embraced who I was with the pitch and my own personality with the pitch, and that's that I can throw it harder than most guys. So why not throw it hard? I can change speeds with it? Well, so why not change speeds? I still have a good enough sinker to throw 85, 86 miles per hour. Why not use that as a weapon occasionally? So I really embraced who I was and what I had to offer with the pitch this past year and that was a reason that you saw I had a lot of success. And part of the process of this whole thing is knowing that's what I did to have success. So now it's just a matter of continuing to trust the process and to become consistent. Because what everybody wants on any level of professional athletics is to be consistently good. And so I don't think there's anything that I'm going to have to learn that will make it better, because this year I threw a lot of really great knuckleballs. I just need to be able to throw that great knuckleball more.

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