Tumbling Dickey

>Sorry for the lack of posts the past few days. I’ve been feeling a little under the weather, so this post is brought to you by the miracle of DayQuil.

I love the idea of a knuckleballer. Love it. I really get into rooting for someone succeeding at the highest level of competition using nothing more than an accident of physics — and that’s all a knuckleball is, really, just an accident of physics. It’s a trick. Because baseballs happen to have raised seams, if they are thrown with almost no rotation, as a knuckleball is, the pitch will dance on its way to the plate as air moves around the seams asymmetrically. It’s a simple trick of physics, like mixing vinegar and baking soda in a paper-mache volcano, flying paper airplanes, or separating salt and pepper using a statically-charged balloon. Only this knuckleball trick can get major league hitters out, perhaps making more useful than any other simple physics trick, though it’s probably less useful for amusing small children.

I also love the idea of the knuckleball because it wasn’t something that was planned. It’s more like an odd accident of baseball history that has never been outlawed. I can’t imagine the person designing the stitched baseball however long ago actually thought to himself, “Hey, you know, if we give this thing raised stitching, pitchers will be able to make it do all sorts of crazy things if they throw it different ways. I bet amusingly old guys will figure out a way to stick around for a long time throwing just one trick pitch.”

Instead, about 100 years ago, either Eddie Cicotte, Lew Moren, or both, figured out that if you threw the baseball a certain way with your knuckles, it wouldn’t spin and would flutter on its way home, and a slow fluttering baseball was difficult to hit. The knuckleball was born. And so the trick has been passed down from pitcher to pitcher since its invention, though there are never more than a few knuckleballers in the majors at a time — note that this is eerily similar to how Sith Lords and black magicians pass down their knowledge. R.A. Dickey learned from Tim Wakefield, Tim Wakefield learned from Phil Niekro, and Phil Niekro learned from someone else, and whoever first figured out the knuckleball went down to the crossroads and learned the pitch from Satan himself in exchange for his immortal soul. Or so I assume — the Wikipedia page is a bit unclear on who sold their soul to whom.

The fluttering effect of this dark secret can make the ball nearly impossible to hit solidly. Robert Adair, Ph.D., in his wonderfully informative The Physics of Baseball, explains the difficultly of trying to hit a knuckleball: “Since the batter must make his decision to swing from the visual information that he has 300 milliseconds [three-tenths of a second] before the ball crosses the plate, it is simply not possible to purposefully hit the breaking knuckleball. He can only swing and hope that he is lucky.” R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball takes about 500 milliseconds to reach home plate, so the batter is really just guessing where the ball will end up based on the first 200 milliseconds of flight.

In other words, hitting a good knuckleball with any real force is usually just an accident.

Still, while I personally root for the knuckleballers, I’m under the impression that not all the people directly involved with baseball do. Partially because we live in the Nike-Gatorade-SportsCenter era, baseball has taken on, somewhat amusingly, the macho attitude of a contact sport. This has happened despite the fact that the only real contact today happens on collisions at home plate, and only when the catcher decides to block the plate with his body, which is not even something done regularly by all catchers. I believe Rod Barajas absorbed a collision this season, but before him, I can’t remember the Mets catcher I saw block the plate. Regardless, despite the lack of contact, you still wind up with things like batters dressed in full suits of body armor taking issue whenever someone pitches inside, the bravado of beanball wars, and the curious existence of Dallas Braden. All of this in a sport that mostly involves a great deal of standing around and first basemen chit-chatting with the base runners. Most baseball brawls I’ve seen have felt a bit forced to me. Still, this macho attitude seems to prevail — not that there isn’t room for such things in baseball, but it can, at times, feel overdone.

The knuckleball is the antithesis of the macho attitude. It’s not muscle against muscle, power against power, ROGER CLEMENS AGAINST MARK MCGWIRE ON  FOX. The knuckleball is nothing like that. The knuckleball is R.A. Dickey saying, “Hey, Phillies, I’m probably going to throw this same silly pitch all game, and I really have no idea where it’s going, but neither do you. Let’s see who gets lucky.” It’s simple and obvious trickery, but there really isn’t a lot for the batter to do about it. All of this isn’t to say that R.A. Dickey and other knuckleballers are not as tough a guy as someone throwing 95 MPH fastballs, because he did just get drilled in the elbow by a Ryan Howard drive and hung around to pitch six innings anyway. Still, I get the feeling that knuckleballers are almost considered a bit of a running joke in baseball, only allowed to exist in the game a handful at a time. They can seem like unwanted outsiders in a game where power and strength, Bob Gibson’s glare and Ty Cobb’s gleaming cleats are all seen as something to aspire to. The knuckleball has a bit of a revenge of the nerds feel to it, as if all the people thinking their game is a battle of wills are embarrassed for being so easily fooled by the illusions of a street magician.

In fact, Bill James points out, in his Historical Baseball Abstract, that no knuckleballer has ever won the Cy Young award, despite the existence of several deserving candidates. For example, knuckleballer Wilbur Wood went 22-13 with a 1.91 ERA in 334 innings and was 10.7 wins above replacement level in 1971. He finished third in the Cy Young voting, receiving just one first place vote. James attributes votes like this not to overt discrimination against knuckleball pitchers for their being knuckleball pitchers, but rather to the fact that knuckleball pitchers tend to only be given a chance to pitch on struggling teams — such, oh, I don’t know, the 2010 Mets — and pitch so many innings that they wind up with worse win-loss records than they otherwise deserve. So it’s more of a discrimination on account of circumstances. Still, the overall point remains that if given the choice, most baseball people choose the traditional pitcher over the knuckleballer. Brute force is usually taken over trickery, Achilles over Odysseus, superheroes over Ferris Bueller. So it’s only the bad teams, the ones without pitching depth, that are willing to use knuckleballers, and mostly because they just don’t have anyone else.

You know, teams without pitching depth like the 2010 Mets.

I find myself really rooting for R.A. Dickey. The sheer amount of luck, determination, and desperation that it took for him to wind up pitching for the 2010 Mets is easy to feel for. First, Dickey had to decide to not give up wh
en it turned out he didn’t have a UCL in his pitching elbow — the UCL being the ligament replaced in Tommy John surgery. I’m under the impression that it’s important. Anyway, when being a traditional pitcher didn’t quite work out for him, he had to decide not to quit again and instead try to make it as a full time knuckleballer, learning how to pitch all over again. So he bounced around for a while, making stops in Seattle to Minnesota and finally here with the Mets. And even here, two or three other pitchers still needed to become injured for Dickey to find his way into the big league rotation. It took a lot for him to get here. I suspect that this guy really has to love playing baseball, so much so that he was willing to keep playing, even if he has to play it by throwing a decidedly non-macho pitch.

So last night it was fun to watch Dickey pitch. It was the Phillies — the team with Chase Utley, who stands on top of the plate and drops a knee into sliding runners, the elbow-throwing Shane Victorino, and pitchers who aren’t afraid to come a bit too far inside on the hot hitters — being made to look foolish by a 35-year-old journeyman throwing tumbling mid-seventies knucklers. It wasn’t strength against strength, a fist fight or an arm wrestling match. It was a reminder that there is more than one way for a team to win a baseball game, sometimes just by taking advantage of simple physics. R.A. Dickey fluttered, the Phillies flailed, and the Mets won. Score one for the tricksters.


Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

3 responses to “Tumbling Dickey

  1. Anonymous

    >Great article! This was a joy to read. Came over from Amazin Avenue and I think I'll stick around.John A. D.

  2. Anonymous

    >Fabulous article! I have always been a big fan of the knuckle artists – Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield, the Niekro brothers. I love watching big tough guy sluggers take their rips and look foolish. Especially when they strike out or pop up and walk back to the dugout with that "just got played at three card monty" look on their face. I have heard many hitters comment on how much they hated facing knuckle ball pitchers because it ended up ruining their swing for the whole series. I wonder if their is any way statistical evidence to back that up? So all hail Dickey Boy! PB – Blue Blooded Mets Fan

  3. Greg Hanlon

    >I, too, got here from the Amazin' link and thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Keep up the great work!

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