Monday, June 25, 2012

The knuckleball: The pitch of maturity

R.A. Dickey struggled Sunday against the Yankees.
Sabermetric types tend to be fascinated by knuckleballers, such as R.A. Dickey -- perhaps because the athletic skill involved in the pitch appears slight enough for us to imagine that we could be doing this.

But there are other reasons more tied to sabermetrics. Knuckleballers tend to break the mold of the statistics. The rules of thumb -- about strikeout rates, about batting average on balls in play -- that can be applied when evaluating pitchers through the stats generally don't apply to these guys.

Most obvious: Unlike most players (pitchers or position players), they usually reach their peak in their 30s. Dickey, for example, is a full decade past the age at which players are most likely to have their best season.

Which makes it impractical for an organization to try to develop knuckleball specialists.

The rules covering player contracts and team control of those contracts have molded themselves around the "normal" development of talent. Typically, when a marginal player reaches his mid 20s, the rules will either push him up to the major leagues or out of the organization.

And typically, knuckleballers are (a) marginal pitchers -- nobody with an adequate fastball takes up the flutterball; and (b) not ready at age 25 or 27 to pitch in the major leagues.

And so, as I described in the Monday print column, Dickey bounced around -- Texas, Milwaukee, Seattle, Minnesota -- before finally emerging. It wasn't that the other organizations didn't give him a chance; it was that he hadn't yet mastered what he needed to have mastered.

As for why most knuckleball specialists arrive late: I suspect emotional stability is a big factor.

Most athletes are aggressive people. They're not given to letting things happen; their preference is to force the action. One of the constant struggles for most players is to learn to "stay within themselves," to NOT always push the action.

That's even more true for knuckleball practitioners. Throw the pitch too hard, and it's going to spin, and if it spins, it won't do anything but get hit. Hard.

So the knuckleballer must develop a certain passivity, or at least a resignation to his fate. He is dependent upon a pitch he cannot command in the same way a conventional pitcher can command his stuff. The knuckleballer throws his pitch and hopes it does something.

Dickey has suggested that his current dominance is connected to his public disclosure of his sexual abuse and other demons. Purging his secrets in his memoirs leaves him with nothing to hide. Nothing that happens on the field can shame him. He is free to fail -- and free to succeed.

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