R.A. Dickey, a starting pitcher for the New York Mets, earned his 20th win of the season two nights ago. Now everyone is talking about him, and you are standing off to the side smiling and nodding like an idiot because you thought the Met was a museum. You're a nerd, it's fine, but we wanted to help you out: Here, Deadspin's Jack Dickey (no relation, just obsession) breaks down the wonder that is R.A. Dickey's 2012 season.
Reminder: Baseball is the one with the bats and the bases. Enjoy!
So who is this R.A. Dickey, and why am I hearing so much about him right now?
He plays baseball. He's a starting pitcher for the New York Mets.
It's not because his last name is vaguely redolent of male genitalia?
No. And shut up.
Anyway, the Mets? I've heard of the Mets before. Don't they suck?
They do. They have 72 wins and 84 losses, and they're already eliminated from the playoff race. They haven't had a winning season since 2008.
So why is Dickey this big to-do, on this bad team?
Starting pitchers play only one out of every five games. When Dickey pitches, he has excelled, and the Mets have followed his lead. Yesterday, Dickey won his 20th game, which put him in second place in the majors. He's probably also the smartest man in baseball.
OK, so, second place in the big leagues in wins. Why aren't we reading instead about the guy who's number one?
Dickey's story is much more interesting than anyone else's. Gio Gonzalez, on the Nationals, is number one, and he's a perfectly fine baseball player. But Dickey beat the odds. He's 37 years old—well past his physical peak—
But Roger Clemens was the best pitcher in baseball at 42—
Christ, could you let me finish? Dickey is among baseball's best pitchers at 37, and, no, that's not super-unusual. But at 32, he was out of the big leagues. He spent his best years toiling throughout the Pacific Coast League—in Oklahoma City, Nashville, Tacoma, and the like. Once you're there for a while, riding the bus, you can't expect to come back.
So how did he find his way back? Steroids? Blood-spinning and stem cells?
Nope. Dickey discovered the knuckleball, which is basically magic.
What's a knuckleball?
When a pitcher pitches, he can throw a number of different pitches—a fastball, a changeup, a curveball, a slider, a splitter—that vary in their speeds and trajectories. But a knuckleball is unlike any of those pitches, because it doesn't spin. The knuckleball instead floats toward the plate, darting unpredictably upward and downward and to both sides.
How can I learn to throw a knuckleball?
Do other professional pitchers throw knuckleballs? I can't really recall seeing a pitch move like that.
Dickey is the only knuckleballer in the big leagues. There are two or three in baseball's vast minor leagues, but they're not close to making the top teams. There used to be another active knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield, who pitched for the Boston Red Sox. But he retired after last season.
That's right. I remember him giving up a big hit to that Yankee player in that playoff game everyone was so worked-up about.
Aaron Boone, yeah. Anyway, Wakefield—aside from his rookie year, in 1992—never really had the kind of success Dickey has had this year. Actually, no knuckleballer has had quite the kind of success Dickey has had. Phil Niekro, Hoyt Wilhelm, and a couple of other geezers made the Baseball Hall of Fame throwing knuckleballs. But they were all limited: they walked a lot of batters and struck out relatively few. They were very good pitchers who pitched for ages more than they were greats.
So how's Dickey different?
Dickey throws his knuckleball hard. Wakefield's average knuckleball traveled at 66 miles per hour, which is slower than the speed on little leaguers' fastballs. Dickey's average knuckler travels at 77 miles per hour, although that number's skewed artificially downward by a handful of really slow knucklers he throws. He's doing things with the pitch that defy everything we thought we knew about knuckleballs and, really, physics.
But it seems like there have been lots of knuckleballers before him. How was he the first one to throw it hard?
Before becoming a knuckleballer, Dickey was a conventional pitcher—fastballs, curveballs, the like. In college, at the University of Tennessee, he was actually a pretty great conventional pitcher. He was drafted 18th overall in 1996. He made the cover of Baseball America, the game's premier national magazine. But then the Texas Rangers, the team that drafted Dickey, saw the cover and noticed that Dickey's forearm hung differently than everyone else's. They sent him to the doctor and found that he had no ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm. They took back much of his signing bonus and expected far less from him. But he wound up making the big leagues and hanging around before his career stalled, circa 2003.
So when did he decide to try knuckleballing?
An old knuckleballer, Charlie Hough, taught him the craft in 2005. He refined it outside of game action before converting to knuckleballing full-time in 2007. By 2008, he was a relief pitcher, bouncing between the minors and the pros, and in 2010, he grabbed a full-time starting spot on the Mets. He did well that season, and had similar results in 2011.
But in 2012 he's been among the best in baseball.
Yeah. His strikeouts climbed and his walks fell, and he confounded the league. He's tailed off a little bit from the first half of the season, but he's still been exceptional.
This is what he said after yesterday's game:
"For me, there's been this steady metamorphosis from just surviving, to being a craftsman, and then, ultimately, the hope is to be an artist in what you do. This year is kind of representative of that for me."
2012 has been his "Netherlandish Proverbs" indeed.
OK, but I feel like he's been in the news for more than his pitching.
You're right. He climbed Kilimanjaro in the offseason to raise awareness about abuse of women and girls in Mumbai. He wrote a book, Wherever I Wind Up, about his life and career. The book is great. They made a documentary about him and Wakefield and the other living knuckleballers, called Knuckleball. It wasn't as great, mostly because Wakefield is far less compelling than Dickey, and he takes up half the movie. And now Dickey's working on picture books.
What do we learn about him in the book?
He's quite open. He talks about his mother's alcoholism and how a babysitter abused him when he was young. He talks about the time he tried to kill himself. He talks about when he cheated on his wife, and when she nearly left him. He talks about faith and family, and not with the usual pieties. He probes himself and tries to be a better man, which you almost never find in any athlete's autobiography.
What does he like to do when he's not pitching?
He reads a lot. A lot of fantasy books, which is why his at-bat music is the Game of Thrones theme song, and why his bat is named for Bilbo Baggins's sword.
That's cool, I guess. Playing against type. I like it. So when can I watch this guy pitch? I wanna see every start from here on out.
Uh, you can see him pitch once more before the Mets pack it in: Tuesday night, against the Miami Marlins, in the season's penultimate game. He should win, and not because he's already won all five of his starts against Miami this year, and not because the Marlins can't hit, but because Dickey's year really couldn't finish any other way. He has indeed become an artist in what he does. The man knows how to script the right ending.