The Importance of R.A. Dickey
Many aspects of the sports domain follow that slogan as a way to decipher, possibly even answer, the trials and tribulations of a failed objective; our secondary is what it is; that call is what it is; the slump is what it is.
For better or worse, the five-worded phrase is used to keep it simple, leaving the hard explained to the explain-it -later scenario. Basically, it's an unknown, which, oddly enough, carries the perfect description for when the phrase actually makes sense.
The knuckleball is what it is. Sometimes it works, other time it does not - a possible souvenir for fans sitting 500 feet away.
The creation of the knuckleball can be traced as far back as the beginning of baseball in the early 1900's, with several pitchers holding a claim to its' invention - Most notably, thanks to the movie, "Eight Men Out," was White Sox pitcher, Eddie Cicotte, who chucked the baffling-breaker during the "Black Sox" years using only his knuckles to do so. Since that time, the development and changing of the grip, adding the fingertips or fingernails, has lead the baseball world to the more common knuckler of today's game, a rarity and dying breed on the verge of extinction - like a clean power hitter.
Throughout MLB history, the knuckleball has been noted in extending, what may have been a short career otherwise, to certain pitching hopefuls - Tim Wakefield, Tom Candiotti and Charlie Hough and the Niekros - and that's all. It is a fascinating pitch, but the generalization is always the same, under any of the circumstances: The knuckleball is what you throw when all your other pitches are less than satisfactory, or downright terrible, and chances of making it "the show" using the legal-spitter, as it has been called, is looked at as the impossible. If a player is lucky enough to make to the MLB with a knuckleball the wins usually don't outweigh the losses, and in today's faster, more speed-reliant game, it's not worth the trouble.
After the retirement of Tim Wakefield, baseball seemed to be all but done with the slow, dancing pitch, leaving it to a relic or fad of the past, replaced by power. However, baseball forgot there was still one player left, with knuckleballs dancing from big league mounds in the National League.
Undoubtedly, what R.A. Dickey has accomplished this year is absolutely amazing, and should not be underestimated for difficulty. Most importantly, his success may show the rebirth of the knuckleball in today's MLB.
Growing up only s few, short, miles from the Niekro family in Ohio, the knuckleball-lore has been instilled in my study of pitching before I could even hold a glove - Both, Joe and Phil perfected the pitch into their forties, standing as two of the knuckleballing-pioneers and landing Phil into the Hall-of-Fame because of his success. But, the style, like Wakefield and others, was slow, and slower. Yes, it danced, but the times it did not was definitely a factor for pitchers, like Phil, losing as many games as they won. Times change. Hitters with a professional-eye have too much bat speed for re-adjustment on a pitch as slow as the classic knuckle-ball, regardless of where it breaks.
But now there is R.A.
The media has done a fine job covering his twenty-game winner accomplishment, adding tribute to a Mets feat that has not been done since 1986 - Frank Viola - but the importance of his success is being missed - And it's not being the first twenty-game winner as a knuckleballer since Joe Niekro in 1980. The real paramount event of R.A. Dickey in 2012 is adaptation, morphing with a changing game.
While the knuckleball of yesteryear would float in between 60 to 70 m.p.h, Dickey has crafted a new version, chucking the spinless-pitch sometimes closer to 80 m.p.h., topping out in the mid-80's. The speed differential is enough to shave precious milliseconds of a hitter's timing, disrupting the decision making of whether to swing or not. Yes, the break is still important, but at that speed, not as much as the days of Phil and Joe, resulting in poorer swings by the hitter based on pace and movement.
Make no mistake, the knuckleball will always be a knuckle-ball - dancing and fluttering, driving coaches and catchers insane, but if the pitch is going to live on in baseball, it needs a face-lift. Just like when players started digging their nails into the ball for better control, post Eddie and the Black Sox, Dickey has developed a superior model, allowing him to compete successfully in the MLB. Perhaps that is why he is 20 and 6 as opposed to 20 and 20 - a record more historically-suited to a great knuckleballer. He has brought power to a powerless pitch, in a league that thrives on power, in order to win. It's truly unbelievable.
Remember this: Dickey has struck out 222 batters this year, in 227 innings. The highest number of strikeouts by a knuckleballer ever was Phil Niekro's 262 in 1977 - An accomplishment he totaled after pitching 100 innings more than Dickey has this year. During that time, in 1977, the knuckleball would best be describe as, "it is was it is." Now, in just one spectacular season, R.A. Dickey has changed that perspective.
Much like MLB hitters, we don't know what this new knuckleball is, but we know it's not easy to hit.