Knuckleballers Keep Defying Expectations

RA Dickey Braves baseball cardIn a strange article last week, Jeremy Fuchs of Sports Illustrates asserted that although R.A. Dickey is doing well with the Atlanta Braves, his new team this season, the Braves may not be the best home for him. (Fuchs’s question: “It’s a bit of a weird fit, is it not?” Our answer: “Huh?”)

Fuchs suggests that as Dickey’s career “winds down” (well, we’ll see), “it’s worth appreciating the modern master of this perfectly unperfect pitch.”

Maybe it’s an NL thing. Or maybe that whirling dervish of a pitch has found new life. But Dickey has only given up five or more runs twice this year. He’s gone five innings or more in every start. Just because Bartolo Colon couldn’t hack it with Atlanta at age 44, doesn’t mean another forty-something can’t….

He’s not Phil Niekro, he’s not Hoyt Wilhelm, he’s not Charlie Hough. But he’s been a reliable pitcher for the last eight years, a career renaissance that took place when most pitchers are looking for a new job. Like his pitch, Dickey’s career has taken some twists and turns. Now he’s looking to groove it home one last year. But with the way he’s been pitching, it might turn out to be more.

1) By his unexplained but negative comparison of R.A. to Niekro, Wilhelm and Hough, Fuchs seems to be suggesting that Dickey is not in the top rank of knuckleball pitchers. We disagree. At IKA, we rate R.A. Dickey right up there with the best knuckleballers. 2) We seem to remember that the last “one last year” was last year, was it not? Dickey’s last year as a pro, last year was not though. He said at the time that he felt he had more to give to the game. And the Braves, recognizing his value, felt the same. Turns out both were right. Seems like a good fit so far.

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Gamboa on knuckleball gripEric Stephen of the Dodgers Minor League site says that although 32-year-old knuckleball pitcher Eddie Gamboa, lately of the Texas Rangers, “doesn’t fit the profile for the type of players” who usually win recognition as Player of the Day, Gamboa was impressive “in his Dodgers debut [on July 10] with four scoreless, hitless innings for Double-A Tulsa on Monday night, walking two and striking out three.”

We must be going by a different profile, because we’re never surprised when knuckleballers exhibit Pitcher-of-the-Day impressiveness.

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Last year, when knuckleball pitcher Dan Johnson, with the St. Paul Saints, gave the RailCats a “Knuckle Sandwich” (“Saints Win 2-1”), Robert Pannier said:

Maybe the idea that Dan Johnson could return to the Majors as a knuckleball pitcher isn’t as crazy as everyone had suspected. After blanking the Lincoln Saltdogs for seven-innings in his last start, Johnson shut down the Gary Southshore RailCats for 5.2-innings, allowing just one-run in the St. Paul Saints 2-1 victory.

This was a classic pitchers’ duel as Johnson and RailCats starter Travis McGee both looked spectacular on this night. Neither team could score through the first two frames as Cameron Newell’s double was the only hit that either team generated….

The two teams combined for just eight total hits. Argo was the only batter with more than one hit, going 2-3 with a run scored. Johnson (3-2) pitched 5.2-innings. He allowed 4 hits, 1 run, and 1 walk. He also struck out 1.

What do you mean, “everyone”?

The knuckleball does tend to change the minds of skeptics. Also last year—which was Johnson’s first as a professed knuckleball pitcher—it was Saints manager George Tsamis who said that he was starting to like the knuckleball after all thanks to Johnson’s work. Something about the complaints of guys on the other side that the pitch is “unhittable.”

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