Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/15/14
R.A. Dickey‘s first half hasn’t gone that well, as both he and the team struggled early. Lately, though, the Blue Jays are baseball’s most interesting turnaround, with the other players on the roster carrying the team while the Blue Jays knuckleballer tries to get things straightened out. As Eno Sarris noted back in May, Dickey’s velocity has been noticeably down this year, and while that might not seem like a big deal for a knuckleball pitcher, Dickey’s velocity with the floater is what has set him apart from previous hurlers who threw the pitch. In an interview with Sarris a few weeks back, Dickey noted that health issues have contributed to the problem, but he was hopeful that he’d be able to bounce back soon. Last week, Drew Sheppard created a series of images showing the movement on Dickey’s various knuckleballers, including these two showing the difference in arm speeds from 2012 to 2013. Well, R.A. Dickey just finished throwing a complete game shutout against the Tampa Bay Rays, getting through the entire game on just 93 pitches while facing just two batters more than the minimum. So, is this a sign that Dickey might be getting back to what he was in New York? Well, it’s just one start, and it’s one start in a getaway day game. Back on June 5th, Dickey threw 8.1 scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and no runs while facing 29 batters; he followed that by giving up seven runs in his next start. One good outing does not mean that Dickey is “fixed”, and that he’s going to go back to dominating opposing hitters starting now. However, if there’s something to the idea that Dickey’s effectiveness is related to his ability to throw a hard knuckleball, then PITCHF/x offers an even more encouraging data point from today’s game than the nine shutout innings. While PITCHF/x has Dickey’s average knuckleball velocity at 75.0 mph this year, today it recorded his average velo at 76.7 mph, his highest average velocity since Opening Day. Here is a game by game recording of his PITCHF/x knuckleball velocities for 2013, first visually, than in table form. Date Opp vKN 6/26/13 @TBR 76.7 6/21/13 BAL 75.8 6/15/13 @TEX 75.9 6/10/13 @CHW 74.7 6/5/13 @SFG 74.3 5/30/13 @ATL 75.6 5/25/13 BAL 74.4 5/20/13 TBR 74.2 5/14/13 SFG 74.8 5/9/13 @TBR 75.3 5/4/13 SEA 75.2 4/28/13 @NYY 73.8 4/23/13 @BAL 74.3 4/18/13 CHW 74.9 4/13/13 @KCR 76.1 4/7/13 BOS 76.4 4/2/13 CLE 76.7 Now, if there’s one type of pitcher that makes it clear that there’s more to pitching than velocity, it’s knuckleball pitchers. Nothing is ever as simple as throw harder = pitch better. However, Dickey’s hard knuckleball is one of his distinguishing features as a pitcher, and he hasn’t really had it for most of 2013. Today, he had it, and he threw a complete game shutout. His first few starts of the year, he had it, and he was awful. This is not to say that Dickey is going to pitch like 2012 Dickey going forward. But, at the same time, there’s no reason to expect him to keep pitching like first half 2013 Dickey either. While people like to cite the fact that Dickey just had “one fluke season”, that is a total myth, as even the pre-Cy Young version of Dickey was a pretty good pitcher. The Blue Jays would happily take 2010-2011 Dickey as they try to get back in the playoff race. Predicting the future of any pitcher is hard. Predicting the future of an aging knuckleballer dealing with injury issues is a fool’s errand. I have no idea how Dickey will pitch the rest of the year, but the Blue Jays should be pretty encouraged by today’s outing. Not only did he dominate the Rays, he did it while demonstrating the kind of knuckleball velocity he showed in winning the Cy Young award last year. He’s not going to repeat, but an effective, healthy R.A. Dickey would be a big boost to Toronto’s chances of completing a pretty amazing comeback.
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