With the news that Boston Red Sox pitcher Steven Wright will be called up from AAA Pawtucket as an injury replacement, the MLB knuckleball fraternity has increased in size to…2. The call up will have Wright joining Toronto Blue Jay R.A. Dickey, giving the AL East the quirky privilege of having all of the knuckleballers in the MLB.
As I have alluded to previously, those who throw a knuckler are a rare breed and always seem on the verge of becoming extinct in today’s game. Yet, with the help of their senior brethren – Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, and Tom Candiotti in particular – those who wish to take the bull by the
knuckles horns, most often in an attempt to rejuvenate a stalled pitching career as a fastballer, do trickle in year-to-year, providing *just enough* new blood for the knuckleballer species to survive.
With Wright on the precipice of attaining the goal of every minor leaguer, regardless of arm slot or pitch repertoire, let’s take a look towards the future, and see who remains to carry the torch in the minors and keep the knuckleballer blood lines alive.
Joseph Zeller – Kane County Class A / Midwest League (Chicago Cubs)
The oddball of this group due to his parent organization (more on that shortly), Zeller is your typical knuckleballer, in that he learned it after his pitching career floundered with a more traditional pitch selection. Topping out at AA affiliate Tennessee in 2012, Zeller appears to have been sent back to Class A Kane County this season to further hone his knuckleballing skill set through the mentoring of the aforementioned 25 year veteran and 216 career game winner Hough.
Zach Staniewicz – unknown (Baltimore Orioles)
The most inspirational story in a group of players already defined by their dedication to the game and to making the most out of their talent and opportunities, Staniewicz was recently signed by the Orioles after a tryout. Looking to get back into the game after a few years in the independent Continental Baseball League, Staniewicz sought the tutelage of Phil Niekro while serving in the Air Force Reserve, honing his knuckler skills as a member of the U.S. Military All-Star team. While still a Baltimore farmhand, he doesn’t appear to be on any of their active minor league rosters and could be getting more one-on-one attention from Niekro at the Orioles spring training facility before officially setting out on his minor league career as a knuckleballer.
Eddie Gamboa – Bowie Class AA / Eastern League (Baltimore Orioles)
Another O’s farmhand, Gamboa piggybacked on to Staniewicz’ training in some ways, taking interest in the knuckling wisdom Niekro had to offer Staniewicz; having played around with a knuckleball on the side for a few years, Gamboa took to the pitch fairly easily. A non-prospect up to this point in his career in spite of solid minor league numbers, the UC-Davis product looked to the pitch as many do, as a way to rejuvenate a stalling career. By the sounds of his first outing as a knuckleballer, the future looks bright for Gamboa, even if he still requires some additional seasoning.
On the surface a dying breed, the knuckleball remains alive and kicking in the minors, even with the deserved defection of one of their own to the bigs in the form of Wright. While it doesn’t enjoy the numbers and appeal as a pitching style that it did up until the 1970’s, its novelty will always be alluring to those who are looking for a way – any way – to get batters out. As the family lines are extended by the likes of the gentlemen discussed, they are nonetheless threatened by the lack of older heads to teach the pitch and keep the progeny line moving.
Even with thinning numbers of knuckleballers in the game, the baseball world keeps spinning – in spite of the knuckler’s best efforts.
No matter how you look at it, RA Dickey‘s career has been nothing short of remarkable. From a fireballing first round draft pick of the Texas Rangers after an illustrious collegiate career at the University of Tennessee to the knuckleballing Cy Young Award winner we see in front of us today, Dickey’s career path has been rife with detours and lessons in perseverance. Those lessons have been at the hands of the ulnar collateral ligament that he does not have in his pitching elbow – a fact learned after a team doctor noticed Dickey’s arm hanging in an odd fashion in a picture shoot for a Baseball America cover, prompting an exam, and revealing the lack of ligament.
In spite of the missing hardware, Dickey has made quite a name for himself after an inspiring metamorphosis into a knuckleballer, culminating in adding some baseball hardware to his collection, in the form of the NL Cy Young Award last year. His baseball rejuvenation has been performed with style and aplomb, and in a way opposite that of most knuckleballers in MLB history. It has been noted by many that Dickey’s knuckleball is one of the hardest thrown ever, and adds to the effectiveness and mystique of Dickey’s pitching repertoire, and to the awe induced by these kinds of results:
A quick table, courtesy of Texas Leaguers, shows us the ‘career’ PITCHf/x data of the 3 knuckleballers that have made MLB appearances since the technology was installed and data was offered to the public, around 2007. As you can imagine, data is scarce, not only because there are so few knuckleballers, but because the technology is so new; as an aside, it would be a real treat to see PITCHf/x data on some old timers, like the Niekros, Wilbur Wood, Charlie Hough, and Hoyt Wilhelm. Next lifetime, I suppose. On to the table!
|Player||Type||Count||Velocity||Vertical||Horizontal||Spin Angle||Spin Rate|
As we see, his average knuckleball velocity is quite faster than Tim Wakefield or Charlie Haeger, but I want to focus on the reasonably large disparities between Dickey’s knuckleball spin angle and spin rates. While I don’t confess to being either a PITCHf/x or physics guru, it did set off a bell in my head.
Could RA Dickey’s success with the knuckleball, along with his ability to throw it with such great velocity and at the spin angle and rate he does, be a result of his not having a UCL in his pitching elbow?
The UCL is a critical piece of anatomy in baseball, as it provides the lion’s share of stability to the elbow in athletic activities, like swinging a bat or throwing a ball. It is considered a valgus stabilizer, which is fancy medico-speak meaning the UCL helps keep the elbow in place, and not become displaced away from the midline of the body. If you can imagine your arms resting at your sides, it’s the UCL that prevents your arms being splayed outwards at the elbow.
With that in mind, and looking at the PITCHf/x data, in particular the spin angles and rates, we can see where possibly this increased anatomical freedom at the elbow joint could provide Dickey with an advantage in throwing the knuckleball, a pitch that is notorious to master, due to the necessity of the pitcher to minimize wrist flexion in order to produce the ‘spin free’ results that are desired. Could additional laxity of the elbow joint be somehow advantageous, possibly in the deceleration phase, and give the pitch a little more oomph, not only from a velocity perspective, but also from a pitch movement perspective? I leave it as an open-ended question, and welcome smarter folks than I to provide their thoughts and input.
Sometimes less can be more; for Dickey, his career less a UCL had given him more. More velocity, notoriety, and accolades than his fellow knuckler brethren ever garnered in their careers.
With a name like How Do I Baseball?, I would be remiss to not introduce some philosophical musings to mull over. Is the DH ruining the game? Will PEDs forever tarnish the legacy of Roger Clemens, and his Hall of Fame bid? Will Roger Bernadina ever run a route to a flyball that doesn’t require GPS, and a three point turn?
What is an ace? Who is an ace?
Do we consider an ace to be a 20 game winner? Simply a team’s #1 starter in the rotation? Dominating fastball? Cy Young winner? There are a plethora of possible combinations to include in anyone’s determination of a pitcher’s Ace-worthiness. This season, one man has brought much discussion about what constitutes an ace, and whether he is an ace; knuckler extraordinaire, RA Dickey.
Not only a formidable hurler, he is a man of all occasions. Mountain climber, writer, and a man with no ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow are all superlatives that aptly describe Dickey. Could All Star Game starter, and Cy Young Award winner soon be added? His 2012 season is littered with numerous pitching feats that impress; almost no hitters, shutouts, wins galore, you name it. The dominance he has displayed in the first few months of the season is all the more impressive, knowing consistent command and control of the knuckleball is elusive, even for the best knucklers the game has seen.
There are a growing number of folks who consider Dickey, and his breakthrough 2012 season, to be worthy of ace status. There are many who think the labeling is premature. We touched upon it in our weekly podcast over at Citizens of Natstown, and on Twitter, but as with many philosophical dilemmas, the answer evades.
Yes or no? Perhaps? Here’s my take, taking some objective stats, sprinkling in a little subjectivity, and a comparison of Dickey’s performance against one pitcher who most consider an ace, and another hurler who is well on his way to Ace-dom, to determine Dickey’s place in the pecking order of pitchers.
Here’s our terrible trio: Justin Verlander, RA, and Stephen Strasburg. All have had sparkling seasons for the most part, with JV having a slightly off year thus far. However, he brings some very Ace-like properties to the table: Cy Young award winner, no-hitters, the works, really. Stras has had a rocky start to his career due to Tommy John surgery, but has shown this year why he was deserving of being the 2009 #1 draft pick, but also possibly of Ace status.
So, those numbers, for 2012.
|W||L||IP||H/9||BB/9||SO/9||HR||ERA||WAR||Team W-L||Run Support|
|Strasburg||9||1||84||7||2.4||11.8||6||2.46||2.5||12 – 2||4.4|
|Verlander||7||4||108.67||6.7||2.2||8.8||6||2.57||3.7||9 – 6||3.6|
|Dickey||11||1||99||6.1||1.9||9.4||8||2||3.5||12 – 2||5.4|
Great 2012’s by all thus far, with Dickey leading the pack. Off to a good start, but now let’s have a look at current and past success, with a twist.
For this, I am using some personal opinion into what separates an Ace from just a good pitcher. Sure, 20 games are nice – but the record books are littered with 20 game winners that never made it to elite status (hi, Denny Neagle!), so it’s not really a great milestone to determine Ace-itude. Guys with big fastballs also don’t cut the mustard criteria-wise. Because Dickey throws a knuckleball, I feel that ‘stuff’ isn’t a great indicator of success, as Nationals fans can attest. To me, an Ace is your horse, he’s going to be out there for all of his starts, and not only is he going to win his share of games, he’s also going to be the guy to right ship when losing streaks start to occur. He’s the guy the team is going to go into the game confident, knowing he is going bring home the W. So let’s see what our trio do after their team lost the night before.
Here’s 2012, post loss:
In 2012, they’re all getting it done… for the most part.
All have great W-L records, but we see that JV and Dickey post negative WPAs (Win Probability Added) in losses, and higher ERAs than team run support, while Stras brings positive value, even in losses. Dickey suffers greatly in losses, and creates a huge hole for the offense to dig the team out of; Mets hitters are plating half as many runs as RA gives up in the losses he posts after a previous night’s loss. Another damning stat against Dickey are the HR totals. He has given up twice as many HR’s in losses in a third of the innings pitched in wins, meaning that more than likely, he is the sole reason for those losses. There is no defense against home runs. For Strasburg in losses, we must preface his numbers with the fact we have a small sample size, with a n = 1, so we can’t really say much with just that single data point.
Dickey’s respectable 2011 season (8-13, 3.28 ERA, 3.1 WAR), Strasburg’s career numbers, and Verlander’s 2011 Cy Young season, and their performance after team losses are presented to compare and contrast what they’re doing in 2012. The rationale behind this was simply to get a snapshot of previous successful seasons in their entirety, which prompted using all of Strasburg’s numbers to compile a typical 30 or so starts per season to compare.
|Year||Player||Win||Loss||IP||H/9||BB/9||K/9||HR||ERA||aLI||WPA||Team W-L||Run Support|
|2011 Cy Young||Verlander||16||124.34||5.65||1.45||8.25||9||1.66||0.92||0.22||25-9||4.7|
So off the bat, we see that both Stras and JV are more than keeping their teams in games, post loss. Adding to this, their ERAs in wins or losses are lower than what their team gives them overall for runs in their starts, and their WPA values are in the positive in wins and losses, showing that regardless of outcome, they are keeping their teams in striking distance for a win. Overall, they satisfy my criteria for Ace, as their teams both have winning records when they make a start after a loss, on top of their usual solid outings.
Dickey, not so much. Losing records, both for himself and his team, coinciding with a rise in ERA, WPA, H/9, BB/9, and a drop in strikeouts in losses. While flashing signs of being a lockdown starter in 2011, the numbers don’t scream Ace.
So what does that give us, as far as answering our question? While his 2012 season has been electrifying in so many ways, knuckleballer or not, RA Dickey is not an Ace…yet. While turning the corner this year according to the criteria I set, his difficulties in keeping the Mets close in games periodically keep him at ‘very good top of the rotation starter’ status. These difficulties more than likely are due to the problems with controlling the knuckleball on some days, which makes him infinitely easier to hit; even with him throwing a hard knuckleball in the low 80s, it simply isn’t an effective pitch when it’s not knuckling, and/or missing the strike zone.
While I give a thumbs down to Dickey as an Ace, I don’t think it should detract from the season he is having. It is a special one, and a deserved one for a guy who has endured many obstacles to become the pitcher we see in 2012.