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The Next Great Knuckler?

R.A. DickeyThe Mariners pitching staff got a whole lot less intriguing in spring training once Erik Bedard was acquired, but not all intrigue was wiped away. Aside from guys like Arthur Rhodes, Chris Reitsma, and Mark Lowe working back from injuries, the M's have arguably one of the most intriguing pitchers in all of baseball right now - R.A. Dickey. Aside from a great name, Dickey throws a knuckleball, which remains the most intriguing pitch in baseball.

The knuckleball is a spectacle, and always will be simply by its nature. A pitcher's talent is essentially evaluated on their power and control. When it comes to power, that generally either means the pure velocity they have, or how sharp of a break they get on their breaking balls. Control of course is how well the pitcher locates their pitches. The knuckleball has no power and is impossible to control. In fact, it is arguably better with less power, and there is no way to determine how well or sharp it breaks either. As for control, not only is the knuckleball terribly difficult to locate, success with the pitch depends on an inability to locate it! At its best, the knuckleball dances where it pleases, which gives the pitcher a limited idea at best of where it is going, and guarantees there is no way the hitter knows what to expect. Deception is an age-old part of pitching, but the knuckleball provides it in such a counterintuitive way that it always will be a bit of an interloper among the rest of the pitches.

Since the knuckleball is so different, scouts have a hard time evaluating a knuckleball pitcher. On top of that, the pitch itself is difficult to develop into a "consistent" pitch (whatever that means for a knuckleball), so not many pitchers seriously try to learn it. As a result, there simply are not that many pitchers around that throw the knuckleball. However, the knuckleball refuses to die, and there always seem to be at least one pitcher in the majors that lives and dies by it. Ever since Steve Sparks retired, that man has been Tim Wakefield, but at some point he will likely retire. It is about time for his successor to emerge.

Enter R.A. Dickey. At 33 years old, Dickey would not be considered much of a prospect by most, but he should be treated as one to a certain extent. Dickey used a traditional repertoire of pitches up until about three years ago, and worked his way all the way to the major leagues. He was not all that great, but he had toyed with a knuckleball, and made the decision to focus on it. He has been in the minors since working on the pitch, and the pitch has obviously developed. It is easy to see in his AAA numbers:
  • 2005: 10-6 record, 5.99 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 5.99 K/9
  • 2006: 9-8 record, 4.92 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 4.17 K/9
  • 2007: 13-6 record, 3.72 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 6.32 K/9
Granted, Dickey is old by AAA standards, and his experience gives him a competitive advantage that would be virtually non-existent in the majors, but there is more at work in his improvement than getting older than his competition. Dickey says he is getting the knuckleball figured out, and that statistics back him up. The Mariners were intrigued enough this offseason to make him a Rule 5 draft pick.

So far Dickey has been quite impressive this spring, and could not have done any more to give himself a chance at making the M's roster to this point. I hope he makes it too. He deserves a chance with the way he has performed this spring, and there is good reason to believe he would be an effective long reliever at least. Dickey would also allow the M's to go with only a six man bullpen because the knuckleball stresses the arm less than traditional pitches, meaning Dickey can pitch more innings with less rest and remain effective. This would allow the M's to carry an extra bench player, which should allow them to keep Mike Morse around.

However, above all that, it is time for a successor to Tim Wakefield, and why can't it be R.A. Dickey? He had talent, and switching to the knuckleball was not a last-ditch effort to hang around (though he was likely to spend the rest of his career in AAA). The knuckler may have been Dickey's last chance at prolonged major league success, but it was still more of a willing switch instead of a choice out of desperation. Dickey may be older by traditional baseball terms, but knuckleballers have been known to pitch well into their 40s. In knuckleball terms, Dickey is more like 23 or 24 years old, and just hitting his stride. At worst, the M's have an inning-eating middle reliever that really is not that great, but does save the rest of the bullpen arms. However, I like Dickey's chances at being more.