Dickey’s Knuckler — Harder, Better, Faster
To make a long story short, as soon as R.A. Dickey was acquired this offseason I set off to write the definitive work on why he was so great last year and what to expect in this one, and completely and utterly failed. It turns out quantifying and/or predicting the evolution of that damn pitch is just about as hard as hitting, calling, or catching it…I mean, let’s face it — the man has discovered a pitch that nobody has ever thrown before which makes him great at an age that nobody has ever become great. There is simply no comparison, no career arc, no regression to the freaking mean. And if you saw any of his shutouts last year, it was clearly not a sample size or once-around-the-league-with-a-new-pitch type of thing.
Ah well…not that anybody made any solid predictions as to where his numbers were going to wind up this year on the spectrum running from a) pretty decent as he has been for most of his late career through b) Cy Young winner as he was last season, all the way over to c) best-ever-what-the-heck-is-even-going-on-who-gave-this-guy-the-cheat-codes-to-baseball that he was for about a month in June.
And I did make some pretty graphs as I floundered about. Here’s a nice one, about the speed of his knucklers last year (red) compared to his previous seasons (blue):
Averages can be misleading…Dickey actually threw fewer knucklers over 80 mph last season than in the previous two — but he used to throw two slightly different knucklers, one in the low 70’s, and one in the high, and then started to favour his harder one heavily last year. Here it also looks like he managed to bunch up his fast knuckler at the top of his range (without overthrowing it) much more often as well.
Annnnd this next one might shed some light on why that is the case:
There’s probably a better way to show this than bar graphs, but before last year, Dickey could only get his slower knuckle over the plate for strikes consistently. 50% is kind of a magic number for me in terms of first pitch strikes, fastball strike %, etc…anything below it is either trouble or a chase pitch. The fact that Dickey was able last year to throw his 74-78 mph knucklers in the zone more often than not has to have been a huge factor in his instant success — it makes his strikeout pitch the same as his get-me-over pitch. And even when it wasn’t over the plate it was getting more strikes — it’s no big surprise that hitters miss Dickey’s knuckler more the faster it is — but they also swing at it more often.
|Speed||In Zone %||Swing||Miss %||Chase %|
|Under 75 mph||53||25||40||15|
Now here’s where I got kind of lost…Dickey throws harder knucklers on 0-2, 1-2 counts, and although side-to-side movement on a knuckler is basically random, his harder ones do tend to stay ‘up’ more. Here is a chart of movement, with pfx from side to side and pfz the vertical ‘rise’ on his knucklers compared to gravity.
|Under 75 mph||-1.03||-0.26|
So while the movement on his pitches is random, you could say that R.A. has some control over his knuckler in that he locates with softer ones and then puts hitters away with his hard ones — but last year, he just threw them all hard and in the zone and was incredibly effective as a result.
Also, Dickey’s knucklers that veer up and away from right-handed batters are by far his most effective – not entirely surprising, since that is the the only pitch movement that is totally unique, and not replicating the general movement of either a curve/slider (down and away), changeup/2-seamer (down and it) or 4-seamer (‘up’ and in). The only other pitch that sort of does that is Mariano Rivera’s cutter, or the Doc’s at his best — they travel almost exactly side to side instead of like a semi-slider.
|R.A. Dickey Knucklers by direction|
|Dominant Movement||In Zone %||Miss %||Swing %||Strike %||Hit %|
|Up left (into RHB)||0.50||0.33||0.30||0.43||0.0600|
|Up right (away from RHB)||0.47||0.49||0.29||0.49||0.0427|
Hitters swing through them almost twice as often as ones that sink down and in, and get fewer hits when they do make contact. Especially from the television perspective, it’s a strange thing to get used to — his best pitches are the ones that stay up and over the plate, which for most other pitches is a sign of a mistake. Coming off a start where he didn’t have the greatest control it will be interesting to see if he goes back to his slower knuckler to try to get more strikes until he can consistently locate the hard one that won him the Cy.