KNUCKLEBALL PITCHERS. A knuckleball pitch is thrown without spin or almost without spin, usually by using the fingertips only. The lack of spin makes for random movement. It is so difficult to throw and control that at any one time there are only a few pitchers in the majors who throw it. Before the All-Star Game, Nick wrote about knuckleball pitchers:

Sports Radio, R.A. Dickey, and the All Star Game

Up until very recently, sports radio is something that I have always strictly associated with being in a car. Growing up, it was what my father would blast through the car on road trips – hideous static and all – in the hopes that he could pick up the White Sox score. Once I could drive myself, whenever alone in the car, I would flip on WFAN and vocalize my outrage at everything with which I disagreed. I moved into New York City two years ago, and I am now rarely in a car. It had been a long hiatus until I purchased a new iPod with FM radio capabilities a few months ago. Now, I no longer need a car to get impotently furious at ignorant broadcasters.
This brings us to this afternoon, where for some reason Stephen A. Smith was talking about baseball. Regardless of your sentiments about the man, I will be diplomatic and say, “Basketball is his specialty.” On the show, his co-host was furious that Matt Cain had been selected to start tomorrow night’s All Star Game instead of R.A. Dickey. He cited their Win-Loss records, their ERA, their K:BB ratio (Side Note: I was actually surprised to hear that Cain has Dickey beat on this score 4.92 to 4.73). I winced at the Wins discussion, gave them a pass on ignoring park factors and defense with regard to ERA, but for the most part was pleasantly surprised at the discussion.
That is, I was until Stephen A. Smith said he didn’t want a knuckleballer pitching in the All Star Game because it is a “gimmick” and a “joke” and that Dickey did not have an “arsenal of pitches, that’s all he throws.” Despite Smith being primarily a basketball guy, you’d think a professional sports analyst would have heard of Hoyt Wilhelm, Wilbur Wood, Dutch Leonard, or Phil Niekro.
While I thought these assessments were unfair and misinformed, it reminded me that perhaps despite all of the Dickey fuss*, the general public wasn’t quite aware of what made him so special. While it is fascinating that Dickey is doing so well in general, that he is able to throw a knuckleball much harder than is typical, and that he is able to do so with such command (1.95 BB/9), what is unique is that Dickey does in fact have an arsenal of pitches.
PitchFX is not necessarily much help in illustrating this point. It does best with traditional pitchers who have a very clear distinction between each one of their easily-identified pitches. It simply bunches his knuckleballs together at 77mph and an 86.2% frequency and then separates out his fastball. However, if you watch him pitch, it’s clear that Dickey has several different types of knuckleball that he can throw in any given count. The result is that hitters are forced to identify which of these knuckleballs is coming, knowing that it’s thrown for a strike, and while coping with the fact that any one of these individual knuckleballs behaves bizarrely and cannot be easily tracked. The fact that Dickey does throw with the velocity he does merely gives the batter less time to figure this out. Instead of the traditional binary guess presented by someone like Tim Wakefield between fastball and knuckleball, Dickey forces hitters to anticipate 4 or 5 different pitches.
As far as whether it should be Cain or Dickey, given that their peripherals are quite similar and that this game is supposed to be entertaining, I’d give Dickey the nod. Most people have seen pitchers dominate the way Cain does* and Dickey is an utterly unique entity. Besides, as though Mets fans didn’t have enough to be upset about generally speaking, they already had the indignity of Sandoval starting ahead of Wright.
And this is how Stephen A. Smith wound up being far more thought-provoking than I suspect he ever intended.

*Although Cain is a bit of an odd duck himself, but that’s a story for another time.

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