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YORK -- For decades, hitters and knuckleball pitchers have had an unspoken agreement, an equilibrium of sorts. When a hitter steps into the box, he has no idea where the knuckleball is going to go. But it's only fair, because neither does the pitcher.
R.A. Dickey has upset that balance.
When Dickey throws his knuckleball, it darts and dances, and the poor hitter trying to beat him can only guess where the ball is going to end up. But Dickey, maybe more than anyone who's ever thrown a knuckler before him, actually does have some idea where it's going. He's throwing the pitch with a level of command that is essentially unprecedented.
And as a result, he's just about unhittable. Dickey is in the midst of a historic run. He's the first pitcher in history to throw five straight games with no earned runs and at least five strikeouts in each, and he's the third man since 1945 to pitch consecutive one-hitters. He'll try to keep the streak going on Sunday night in what figures to be one of the most compelling games of the regular season to date.
Notable knuckleballers' K/BB ratios
Best full season K/BB
Dickey in 2012
NOTE: Joe Niekro had a 2.41 K/BB in 1967, but was not primarily a knuckleballer at that point.
Dickey and his knuckler face off against the Yankees and CC Sabathia, an unusual pitcher of a different stroke. Sabathia is one of the hardest-throwing lefties in the game, and of course the Yankees' ace. Sabathia is tied for the American League lead in wins and ranks third in strikeouts. Dickey leads the National League in wins, strikeouts and ERA, and ranks fifth in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
It's that last number that stands out. Knuckleballers have had great runs before; Tim Wakefield's magical summer of 1995 comes to mind. Wakefield won 10 straight starts, posting a 1.60 ERA over the stretch, but he did so with relatively mundane strikeout and walk rates (49 Ks and 22 walks in 78 2/3 innings).
There's not much that's unique after more than a century of baseball, but a knuckleballer dominating hitters while not walking anybody may fit that description.
"It was miserable," said the Orioles' Chris Davis, one of the victims in Dickey's most recent start. "He was throwing an 80-mile-an-hour knuckleball that was dancing all over the place. He's had success this year for a reason. It wasn't just blind luck. It's a guy that you can't have a solid approach for. You're basically looking for one pitch and you don't know if it's going to cut or it's going to fade or what it's going to do."
Dickey declines to give an explanation for his remarkable success, not wanting to issue too fine a scouting report. Opponents and teammates point to two main factors: the aforementioned command, and the velocity. Dickey throws an unusually hard knuckleball.
Actually, he throws several, from a super-slow eephus, to the pitch that has made his name: a knuckler that tops 80 miles per hour. Such a beat seems to defy logic, and it certainly baffles hitters.
"If R.A. Dickey's knuckleball is effective, if it's as good Sunday night as it has been, it's tough to hit," said Mets manager Terry Collins. "I don't care what your strategy is. You face every different kind of stance, every different approach, he's faced it all. When it's on, it's on. ... When that knuckleball is working, I don't know if there's a way to prepare for it."
Dickey acknowledged Friday that he's taken a couple of moments to be sure he enjoys the run that he's on. Stretches like this don't come around often. But he's loath to give an explanation, even though it seems he has one. He acknowledged that improved command is a big part of what he's doing, but would not explain what's led to that improvement.
"As far as the specific how, that would almost be... That would be the thing that would be tough, because that would give people something to look for," he said. "I will tell you that I work very hard in my bullpens to repeat my mechanics. And in that bullpen, I experiment with a lot of different things as far as trying to grow as a pitcher. I will play with speeds. I will play with grip a little bit and do some things that are experimental in the bullpen. ... But as far as the how and why, that's for me."