Reviewing R.A. Dickey's First Start

Sorry Pelfrey, but we all know the true ace. 

R.A. Dickey's first start of the season yesterday went a long way toward assuaging doubts about last year's success. While uncharacteristically inefficient at times, everyone's favorite knuckleballer surrendered just one unearned run, striking out seven Marlins. I'm as excited to see what R.A. Dickey can do individually with a full season in the majors, as I am to watch the Mets as a whole this year. So expect plenty of micro-analysis of Dickey's season, starting today.

What worked

  • The knuckleball--This is obviously going to show up under "what worked" any time Dickey has a good start. The signature pitch generated plenty of ground balls (10:4 GO:FO) and swinging strikes (12.36%). He mixed speeds well, using his unique "hard" knuckleball later in the count to get strikeouts. 
  • Thole's bigger mitt--Josh Thole's mid-inning switch from regular catcher's mitt to custom softball-size glove prevented any more passed balls and made Thole look generally more comfortable catching the erratic pitch.

What didn't work

  • The sinker--Dickey's last remaining conventional pitch, a two-seam fastball that sits 83-87, didn't do him any favors yesterday. Of the just two extra-base hits Dickey surrendered to Florida, one came off his fastball. 2 out of the 5 hits he surrendered overall were off the sinker, not great, considering he only threw it 13% of the time. 
  • The new, slower "changeup" knuckleball--Dickey toyed with the idea of a Tim Wakefield-speed knuckleball in Spring Training, one that would sit in the low 60's and give him a "changeup" look to his typical mid-70's offering. He threw two knuckleballs under 70 mph yesterday and neither were anywhere close to the strikezone, contributing to brief control problems in the third inning. The mechanics of the slower knuckleball didn't look very repeatable either. Ron Darling noted that Dickey can't slow the ball down by just gripping it harder like a conventional pitcher; he instead slows down his whole delivery, defeating the purpose of the pitch. Keith quipped "Western Union" after Dickey telegraphed the first try. 

Graphs

For some reason, I only managed to download 91 pitches from MLB gameday, but these charts are gibberish anyway, and if I hadn't just told you that, there's 0 chance you would have noticed. 

I'm labeling the knuckleballs 1-3 in terms of speed, 1 being the hardest, 3 being Western Union.

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Key Match-up

Omar Infante is now 9-17 with a home run against Dickey in his career. Maybe you think that's a small-sample size fluke, but I can't tell you one person who doesn't: R.A. Dickey. He made a concerted effort to vary his approach against Infante, with mixed results.

In the first inning, Dickey struck out Infante with six pitches. After showing the first hitter of the game, Chris Coghlan, all knuckleballs, Infante got a first pitch sinker down and in. He then gave him the following knuckleball sequence: hard low, slow low, hard high, hard away, hard high. The contrast of the slow knuckleball coaxed the first swinging strike and the final high-hard one worked like a classic high fastball strikeout. 

In the third, with men on the corners and one out, Infante again came to the plate and Dickey again tried to tilt the count in his favor with a first-pitch fastball. Only this time, he missed. He came back with a second fastball down the middle, his only consecutive fastballs of the game, making it pretty clear how bad he wanted that first strike on Infante. He then went back to the low-slow knuckleball that got strike-two earlier. Infante golf-swinged it to center for a sac fly, a pretty good outcome, considering the score. 

Infante finally got the best of his nemesis in the fifth frame. Dickey again came at him with the first-pitch fastball and Infante turned on it for a single. How he chooses to pitch Infante in the future will be interesting, as their match-up really has become a game within the game.  

Conclusion

The early returns look good for R.A. Dickey. He was throwing his knuckleball for strikes at a variety of speeds, and as long as he can do that, he can get away with the odd flat sinker or Omar Infante hit.  

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