R.A. Dickey is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. A few years ago, if you asked the casual observer who he was, they’d reply with a confused "Nick Evans?", and would probably giggle. THIS is reflective of what most of those who did know if him thought of him as a baseball player. Fast forward a few years, and THIS is what everybody thought of him. Make no mistake about it- everyone who was there, myself included, was there for R.A. Dickey. The proof is in the pudding. I mean, listen to it; it was palpable in the air. Winning the National League Cy Young Award wraps up a magical season that began with mountain climbing and book tours. That’s the whole point of this, though: wrapping up. The 2012 season is over. Done. Kaput. It was put in the books completely. The 2013 season is on the horizon, and the biggest question on everyone’s mind is: where do we go from here?
If there’s one thing that is just as hard as trying to hit one of his knuckleballs, it’s trying to project what R.A. Dickey will do in the future. It’s hard to project what any pitcher will do in the future because, as Yoda attests to, "always in motion the future is". Knuckleball pitchers, and in particular, R.A. Dickey is especially troublesome. Look at what some of the more respected projection systems saw R.A. doing in 2010, his first year as a Met and, arguably, the year that put him on the map as a pitcher:
|Projection System||IP||ERA||HR Allowed||Hits Allowed||Ks||BBs|
*I had a difficult time finding the 2010 projections from CHONE, PECOTA, and Bill James.
R.A. has outperformed all of his projections from 2010 to the present- blown them out of the water in some cases. However, given who he is, there is a lot of doubt as to whether or not he can continue doing so. I don’t think that anyone truly thinks that he will have another Cy Young caliber season in 2013- with R.A. Dickey, though, anything is possible- but the seeds of doubt have been planted in many people’s minds that he will start regressing, in the 2013 season and afterwards- he’s an older pitcher, having just turned 38 in October, and that’s when pitchers typically decline in their ability to pitch. On the surface, it seems like solid logic, so let’s look at it further.
The first point regarding his age is the likely fact that, as he ages, he will lose velocity. He throws a knuckleball, but it is very much an atypical knuckleball, with it being thrown up as high as 82 or 83 MPH. Those are blazing speeds when it comes to knuckleballs, but are not particularly fast when it comes to pitching in general. The logic goes that the physical stress put on the arm is the same, despite the fact that he isn’t throwing 102 or 103 MPH- if a full max effort produces a 82 or 83 MPH knuckleball, the weaker arm that comes with age will produce a knuckleball that is slower, much like the weaker arm that comes with age will produce a fastball that is slower. Is this something that we need to worry about?
Looking at the data that we have, R.A. Dickey averaged 77.2 MPH on the 2,802 knuckleballs he threw in 2012. This is roughly 1 MPH faster than he averaged in 2011 (76 MPH), and roughly 1.5 MPH faster than what he averaged in 2010 (75.8 MPH). As Dickey has aged into his late 30s as a full-time knuckleball pitcher, his average velocity on his knuckleballs has actually increased, not decreased, while the maximum speed on his fast knuckleball stayed virtually the same (~83 MPH). So, in other words, he’s been throwing his faster knuckleballs more often, resulting in his average knuckleball velocity increasing. Looking at results, there was a slight but noticeable increase in his K/9 rate (5.37 in 2010, and 5.78 in 2011) when his average knuckleball velocity was up a fraction of a MPH (.2 MPH), and then a much more notable increase in 2012, when he was throwing the fastest knuckleballs of his career (8.86 K/9). As Jim Bouton has said about Dickey’s knuckleball, "If you're throwing 80 MPH, it only needs to break two inches." What if R.A. is unable to continue throwing his knuckleball around that speed?
The first thing to keep in mind, obviously, is the fact that every pitcher is different and that there is no set mold. Some pitchers lose velocity and effectiveness on their pitches as they age. Some pitchers do not lose velocity and effectiveness on their pitches as they age. As various pitchers in the 2012 season alone- Hiroki Kuroda, A.J. Burnett, Ryan Dempster, Tim Hudson, Bronson Arroyo, Roy Halladay, Bartolo Colon, Fernando Rodney- in addition to past seasons have proven, being over 35 is not an automatic death sentence in today’s age of baseball. Diet, training regimens, pre- and after-game care, and various other aspects of a pitcher’s life (some more dubious than others, in Bartolo Colon’s case) have come a long way in even the last decade, let alone the last two or three. Let’s pretend that we have a time machine, and know that R.A. Dickey will not throw his knuckleballs as fast as he did last season going forward.
R.A. Dickey is not a power pitcher. He might be considered a "power knuckleball pitcher", but that in and of itself is something of an oxymoron, since his "power knuckleball" barely tops 80 MPH on the radar gun. An interesting study entitled "Lose a Tick, Gain A Tick" done by Mike Fast (an apt name) on pitcher velocity and age saw that "pitchers that throw slower to begin with are less affected by either an increase or a decrease in their fastball speed" and that pitchers who are "reliant on velocity" (in this case, 90 MPH+) are more sensitive to variances in speed. Justin Verlander, for whatever reason, lost almost a full MPH on his average fastball velocity and roughly two on his maximum fastball velocity in 2008, and he posted a career worst 4.84/4.18/4.70 ERA/FIP/xFIP over the course of the entire season. By comparison, Doug Fister, for whatever reason, lost almost a full MPH on his average fastball velocity and roughly two on his maximum fastball velocity in 2012, and he posted numbers that are more or less in line with his numbers since becoming a fulltime starter in 2010. R.A. Dickey, certainly throwing at the lower end of the velocity spectrum, is less likely to have his effectiveness diminish if he loses a MPH or two, in principle. R.A. Dickey is not a conventional pitcher, of course. The fact that he throws a knuckleball complicates things slightly.
According to Dave Clark, author of the very informative Knucklebook, the faster a knuckleball moves, the less movement is has. In his own words, "Slower knuckleballs start moving at around 50 miles per hour and usually exhibit just some drop. Very fast knuckleballs almost vibrate before they drop at the last moment, because they don’t move much from side to side. Faster knuckleballs, since they arrive at the plate quicker, also have less time to move very much, and the fast air stream tends to keep them in line; slower ones, thrown in a tall curving arc, have more time to vibrate, shake drop and dance side to side, and have less air pressure around them to keep them in a straight line". Dr. Alan Nathan, whose studies on the physics of baseball have made mainstream headlines concurs, concluding in his studies that "the maximum movement appears to decrease with increasing speed".
If, going into the future, his average knuckleball velocity takes a step backward in 2013 and beyond, it stands to reason that he still should be able to thrive as he did in 2010 and 2011, when he was worth 2.8 and 2.5 fWAR and 3.4 and 3.1 rWAR. One possible reason why? His groundball rate.
|Year||Groundball Rate||Flyball Rate||Strikeout Rate|
Unlike Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey has groundball rate that is high enough that it actually places him among the top percentile (19/132) of groundball rates from 2010 to the present for qualifying pitchers. Our intrepid Pitch f/x expert interpreter garik16 was kind enough to dissect and share some of R.A.’s numbers for most of the 2012 season (splitting things into velocity ranges). Looking at two numbers, R.A. Dickey’s swinging strike and ground ball rates,
|Knuckleball Velocity||Swinging Strike Percentage|
|Knuckleball Velocity||Groundball Percentage:|
We see that R.A. generates most of his swing-and-misses from his faster knuckleballs, but most of his groundballs from his slower, moderate speed knuckleball. Garik’s research has yielded that R.A.’s best groundball rates stem from knuckleballs in that moderate speed range. As we see above, in 2012, he produced the most groundballs when the pitch was in the 75-77 MPH range. In 2010 and 2011, it was much of the same. If, in 2013 and forward, his knuckleball can reach that speed range- and, even considering age and regression from a career-best 2012 season, there’s no reason to think this cannot be done- he should be able to maintain the groundball rate that makes him effective when not whiffing batters at the pace he has been.
With a slower knuckleball, there is the chance that his walk rate increases, as the pitch would likely move with greater variance, like Haegar and Wakefield’s, and other historical knuckleballers. This is by no means a guaranteed thing, though, as R.A. has explained that he has come to understand his pitch well enough to be able to guestimate how much it will drop/move and locate it accordingly by aiming up/down/left/right. In addition, Dave Clark said on R.A. Dickey before he became a full-time knuckleball pitcher and was still experimenting with the ‘Thing’ that "Most hope to achieve this Holy Grail of Knuckleballs [throwing a regularly locatable pitch]. R.A. Dickey of the Texas Rangers throws one…It is a true locatable knuckleball". That was back in 2005/2006, when R.A. was just transitioning into throwing the knuckleball more-or-less fulltime. His walk rates while utilizing the knuckleball at a 50%+ rate (as per his biography) reflect a level of control (3.14 BB/9 in 2006, 3.19 BB/9 in 2007, 2.77 BB/9 in 2008 in AAA-Tacoma and Seattle, 3.31 BB/9 in 2009 with AAA-Rochester and Minnesota) even when the pitch was being thrown in the low-to-mid 70s.
So, all in all, while it is unlikely that R.A. Dickey pitch that the elite level that he did in 2012, age and the concerns that come with it do not seem to present significant barriers to his ability to pitch at the above-average level he performed at in 2010 and 2011, or even a generic "league average"in the near future.