When describing the difficulties a hurler has locating baseball's most elusive pitch, the knuckleball, Hall of Famer Willie Stargell said it best, "Throwing a knuckler for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox."
Roughly a century after Black Sox Era pitcher Eddie Cicotte first unveiled the circuitous offering, only a select few have mastered it. Perfecting the pitch, like any shot in golf, can take a lifetime. But when harnessed properly, it's completely confounding. To a batter, it leaves the pitcher's hand the size of a beachball, but hits the mitt smaller than a pea.
Four seasons ago Dickey's major league career was on life support. After he compiled a horrendous 5.72 ERA in three plus seasons with the Texas Rangers, various Triple-A pit stops seemed inevitable. But during the tail-end of his career in Arlington, he abandoned his conventional stuff, focusing almost exclusively on the knuckler, a change which initially produced disastrous results. Brief, largely uneventful stints in the Brewers, Mariners and Twins organizations soon followed. Wild pitches mounted. GMs' patience waned. Though he pitched admirably in spurts as a reliever in Minnesota, many questioned whether the former first-rounder would ever become a dependable starter. After all, the man was born without a UCL.
Since seizing the fourth spot in Jerry Manuel's rotation on May 19, the AL castoff has improbably jumpstarted his career at 35. He's posted a sparkling 6-1 record, 2.98 ERA and 1.29 WHIP, a line, in terms of overall value, which ranks alongside David Price(notes), Andy Pettitte(notes) and Ted Lilly(notes) during that stretch. Predictably, his fantasy popularity has increased. Once widely considered waiver rubbish he's currently rostered in 28 percent of Y! leagues.
Still, despite his eye-opening string of quality starts, many owners are hesitant the well-traveled dancer's miraculous ride will continue. Based on his dreadful past, their timidity is understandable. However, Dickey is an intelligent, supremely confident pitcher who has become a master of manipulation. He truly believes he possesses the power to place the unwieldy knuckler virtually anywhere - over the outside corner, onto a batter's shoe top, into a random fan's beer cup. Anywhere. From Fanhouse:
Dickey figures that he has now been a knuckleballer long enough that the delivery -- stiff wrist, releasing the ball with all his fingers at once, letting go of the ball at the proper height -- has become second nature. Now he can correct flaws and make adjustments mid-game, something he couldn't do before.
"I'm excited things have sort of become consistent" he said, "and less of a strain as far as mechanically battling myself. Things come much more organically now."
Dickey, in fact, thinks he defies the standard beliefs about knuckleballers. He feels that when he's right, he can purposely throw the knuckleball for a strike -- or intentionally out of the strike zone.
"It's almost a paradox to say you can locate a knuckleball," he said, "but I feel like I can definitely throw it for strikes. I feel like it's to the point where I can really trust it and it's a trustworthy pitch. It's taken a long time to get there."
As is common with knuckleballers, occasional ERA meltdowns will occur (e.g. June 28 at Florida). When the pitch is commanded poorly even the most average gap-hitter can morph into Brady Anderson circa 1996. But with a terrific K/BB (2.53), fabulous GB/FB split (1.67) and favorable pitching environment, New York's Charlie Hough should continue to work his wizardry.
If you don't believe the journeyman is mixed-league worthy … well … you don't know Dickey.
Fearless Forecast (rest of season): 101.1 IP, 7 W, 3.84 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 72 K
Quality commodity owned in fewer than 20 percent of Yahoo! leagues.
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