RA Dickey Brings His Knuckleball to Atlanta

Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey signed with Atlanta, the sixth team of his career, for the 2017 season. At the age of 42 (the third-oldest active player, behind teammate Bartolo Colon and Ichiro Suzuki), Dickey is five years past his Cy Young award in 2012 and has been exactly a league-average pitcher since then, with an ERA+ of 100 in the four seasons since 2012. In 2016, for the Blue Jays, Dickey had a 4.46 ERA (97 ERA+) and 1.367 WHIP in 169 ⅔ innings (29 starts; he also pitched a third of an inning in relief). On the other hand, Dickey has been generally healthy, averaging 31.6 starts a season for the past seven years. Presumably the Braves hope that he and Colon will each have another season where they fill in around 200 innings of league-average pitching while the Braves’ young prospects season a little longer.

What he throws. Dickey throws a knuckleball (“KN”), of course; his other pitches are just there to set up or contrast with the knuckler. In fact, Dickey actually throws two very distinct knuckleballs, one fast and one slow. The fast one (averaging 77.3 mph) is the more common one; the slow one forms a distinct cluster of pitches averaging about 66.2 mph. PITCHf/x calls this cluster “Eephus” (“EP”), which is not accurate – they really are knuckleballs, with random vertical and horizontal movement centering on zero – but I need a name for them so I have kept “EP” here. Dickey also throws a four-seam fastball (“FF”) that averages 82.9 mph and a fourth pitch, which I’ll call a changeup (“CH”), that averages 71.4 mph. In contrast to the knuckleballs, the fastball and changeup both have consistent movement: They both have vertical “rise” (that is, they end up higher than they would under the action of gravity alone) and arm-side run:

RA Dickey

Pitch usage and trends. Overall, Dickey uses his main (fast) knuckleball about 80% of the time, regardless of batter handedness (79.2% of pitches to right-handed batters; 81.1% to left-handed batters). When behind in the count, he is much more likely to turn to one of his straight pitches; his knuckler drops to 60.4% (just 26.5% on 3-0 counts), and his fastball goes from 2.3% when ahead in the count, to 25.9% when behind, and to 70.6% on 3-0. He uses his changeup more to lefties than to righties, and the fastball mainly to RHB:

RA DickeyPitch values. Dickey’s knuckleball is just about equivalent to the average knuckleball in the majors, mainly because he threw over half of all the knuckleballs in the majors in 2016. Steven Wright threw 40.5%, Eddie Gamboa threw 3.1%, and the remaining 81 pitches were garbage pitches thrown by position players that were deemed knuckleballs by a baffled PITCHf/x algorithm. Overall, Dickey’s knuckleballs were slightly worse than the average for all pitches in terms of total bases per 100 pitches: His knucklers yielded 10.4 TB/100, while the average of all pitches was 9.6. The same is true for ball percentage: Dickey’s knuckleball gave 37.2 balls per 100 pitches, while the average for all pitches was 36.0. Dickey’s fastball was considerably worse than average for TB/100, but was excellent as far as getting strikes — which is, of course, the main purpose for his fastball. His fastball yielded an impressive 41.4% called strikes compared to the average fastball’s 18.5% – presumably because of the surprise factor. His slow knuckleball (here compared to all other pitchers’ eephus pitches) was much less effective than his fast knuckleball; it looks as if it was effective against left-handed batters, but since Dickey essentially only threw the pitch to RHB, that doesn’t mean much:

RA DickeyPitch location. With the knuckleball, Dickey’s strategy is generally to throw the pitch to the center of the strike zone, and trust its random movements to bring it somewhere unpredictable. Accordingly, the pitches show a smear over the whole strike zone, focused roughly in the center of the zone. His fastball and changeup do show definite targets, with the fastball targeting the upper third of the zone to left-handed batters and the lower third to righties; his changeup shows the opposite trend on average, with a substantial number of the pitches dropping out of the bottom of the zone:

RA Dickey

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Featured image courtesy of John Raoux/AP Photo.