NEW YORK - R.A Dickey of the New York Mets pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
R.A. Dickey and his hard knuckleball is making us all rethink what makes a the perfect pitcher.
I picture a Manhattan Project-style gathering of the minds. The greatest scouts and analysts, hunkered and bunkered somewhere in New Mexico, trying to figure out how to make the perfect pitcher.
They had the 103-m.p.h. fastball. They all agreed upon that much, at least.
But what would the secondary pitch be? What would be the strikeout pitch? Curve-ball partisans would rage against slider partisans, and the change-up partisans would think they were all idiots. There would be no consensus. There would be no agreement. Nothing would get done.
So everyone would need to calm down. Maybe there'd need to be some sort of corporate retreat -- go away for a while, and forget what they thought they knew. Rediscover what went into a good pitcher.
There'd be a roundtable. Philosophical debates. Intellectual discourse. And everyone would agree that the perfect pitcher would combine a) last-minute deception with b) advanced control. The ability to put a ball where you want it, and then at the last second, make the ball jump in a completely unexpected direction.
The perfect pitcher, they'd conclude, would be a guy who threw 103, could place the ball where he wanted to, and made it move at the last second. That pitcher doesn't exist right now, though Aroldis Chapman is working on the control part. Until then, R.A. Dickey is temporarily the perfect pitcher, the best possible pitch is an 80-m.p.h. knuckleball, and the best secondary pitch in the land is an 83-m.p.h. fastball.
Right now, the perfect pitcher is a 38-year-old guy without an ulnar collateral ligament who throws an 80-m.p.h. knuckleball and an 83-m.p.h. fastball. Maybe in the future, it will be a guy who throws an 87-m.p.h. knuckleball with a 90-m.p.h. fastball. Maybe Dickey has kicked off a knuckleball craze that isn't going to stop, and this is like the four-minute mile, or the land-speed record, and we'll have to keep adjusting what to expect. We will celebrate those pitchers then.
In the future, this might seem quaint. Maybe after someone introduces the 85-m.p.h. knuckleball, we'll look back, and think, "D'awwww. An 80-m.p.h. knuckleball. So cute," as if we were retroactively judging people for getting excited about Pong. But for right now, Dickey is the one:
That's the perfect GIF of the perfect pitcher. A knuckleball dancing hither and thither, but much faster than the knucklers we're used to. Buck Showalter shaking his head in abject disgust. A catcher's mitt highlighting just how weird the last-second movement is.
In Dickey's last six starts, he's thrown 48⅔ innings, allowing 21 hits and two runs. One of those runs was unearned, which puts his ERA at 0.18 over that stretch. He's walked five and struck out 63. Walked five and struck out 63. This is a knuckleballer -- he isn't supposed to know where the ball is going. That's kind of the point of the knuckleball. So even the best knuckleballers in history were expected to give up a few walks and a few wild pitches, and their catchers were expected to get pummeled with passed balls. Dickey has better command than anyone could have expected. And it's turned him into something freaky.
A fastball can move at the last second, but in a predictable direction. The speed of the fastball and the quickness and depth of its last-second break might make it a superlative, hard-to-hit pitch. But until someone figures out how to make a fastball that moves in an unpredictable fashion at the last second, it can't compete with an 83-m.p.h. knuckleball thrown with precision. The idea of the perfect pitcher has to be rejiggered.
Can he keep it up? Certainly not at this level -- no one can keep this up -- and the knuckleball is a famously finicky pitch that can flit in and out of effectiveness. But if the idea behind pitching is deception -- making a hitter swing too late and/or where the ball isn't -- then for right now, we've found the perfect pitcher. Dickey throwing his best knuckleball with impeccable command is it.
And he's a 37-year-old with a busted arm and an 83-m.p.h. fastball who still needs 150 major-league innings to have more innings in the majors than in triple-A. Back to the bunker in New Mexico, folks. That doesn't make sense at all.