Knuckleballer versus Knuckleballer

R_A_DickeyBlueJaysEight years before R. A. Dickey achieved his prominence in 2012 as the first knuckleball pitcher to win the Cy Young Award, the then−Texas Ranger was up against Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox. The New Yorker’s Ben McGrath remembers the game as the occasion on which he “first noticed” Dickey, “while writing about the chief knuckleballer at the time, Boston’s Tim Wakefield.”

Dickey, then twenty-nine and pitching for the Texas Rangers, handed Wakefield his first loss of the season. It was a Sunday in early May, and the game was televised nationally, on ESPN. Dickey was still a so-called “conventional” pitcher, and an unheralded one, although he had a couple of notable quirks that lent some interest to the telecast. He lacked an ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, which meant that he was incapable of straightening it, or of bringing his hand up to touch his shoulder. And he threw a specialty pitch, on occasion, that served as a good advertisement for the effects of high-definition television, then a new treat. “It’s sick!” Theo Epstein, the Red Sox general manager, told me afterward. “It’s one-third knuckleball, one-third breaking ball, one-third split-finger.” Joe Morgan, the ESPN color analyst, called it “the Thing.”

The Thing, in fact, was just a speedy knuckleball—one that didn’t float so much as dart. It travelled at least ten miles an hour faster than Wakefield’s butterfly. “We never disputed the name, because we didn’t want people to think that the knuckleball was what I was throwing,” Dickey told me, revealing an initial preference for the allure of something more mysterious—a different species of bug.

A more recent knuckleballer “duel” (as MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm puts it) took place between Dickey, now of the Toronto Blue Jays, and Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox, early in the 2013 season. Of course, they weren’t the only two guys on the field, so one can’t tell from the score alone whether Wright was in the knuckleball groove but Dickey wasn’t. But Wright’s team beat Dickey’s 4-2 that day.

The game featured a rare matchup of knuckleballers, with Dickey on the hill for the Blue Jays and Minor Leaguer Steven Wright getting the call for Boston.

It marked Dickey’s first appearance in a Blue Jays uniform since being acquired in a December trade with the Mets. His afternoon got off to a rough start, as a pair of seeing-eye singles put two on and nobody out in the first….

Wright was relatively flawless and likely made a strong impression on Tim Wakefield, who was in attendance for the game and will be traveling to Fort Myers on Tuesday to begin a working relationship.

“I was a little nervous,” Wright said. “I was not scared, just a little nervous, because you want to do your best in general but to have guys with a keen eye for the knuckleball…. Once I got out there, I felt pretty good.”

Steven Wright Ready to PitchAt that time, Wright was still shuttling between his job in the minors and the MLB. In the 2015 season was settling into the major leagues permanently, but was sidelined by an injury before the summer was over.

2015 was also the season in which Wright and Dickey collaborated, in a way, to flummox a common foe. In early August, the Yankees had to contend with each knuckleballer in two games that were separated by a single day.

Offensive struggles happen, that’s part of baseball, but the Yankees could have been thrown out of whack by two opposing starters: Steven Wright and R.A. Dickey, two knuckleballers. Wright started Wednesday and held New York to one run in eight innings, then on Friday Dickey held the Yankees to one run in seven innings.

In between the two knuckleballers, the Yankees were limited to two runs in seven innings on Thursday by Eduardo Rodriguez, a traditional hard-thrower. The knuckleball by definition is unpredictable, the entire point of the pitch is to create unexpected movement, and it’s not something hitters see very often. Wright and Dickey are the only two knuckleballers in MLB right now.

According to reporting about his participation in a December USO tour, Wright has now fully recovered from his concussion and is ready for 2016.

 Wright was 5-4 with a 4.09 earned run average in 16 games for the Sox last season. He suffered a concussion Aug. 12 and ended the season on the disabled list.

Wright said his symptoms have cleared up and he has started throwing four times a week in preparation for spring training. He plans to arrive in Fort Myers, Fla., on Feb. 3, two weeks ahead of the reporting day for pitchers and catchers.

“I feel great, no headaches or any other problems,” he said. “I did a lot shoulder strengthening when I was on the [disabled list] and my arm responded well when I started throwing again. From the first time I picked up a ball, it was as good as ever.”

Good. So let’s hope we see a few Dickey v. Wright knuckleball pitcher face-offs in 2016.

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