How R.A. Dickey Learned To Throw a Blazing-Fast Knuckleball—and Saved His Career

People who accomplish great things, and how they do it.
Oct. 29 2012 3:45 AM

Master of the Knuckleball

How Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey saved his career by conquering the most elusive skill in sports.

R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets
R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets

Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images.

R.A. Dickey is the best story baseball has had in years. In fact, the New York Mets ace and National League Cy Young award front-runner was the best story in all of sports in 2012. Yes, better than Jeremy Lin. Better, even, than Rafalca. But if you missed Dickey’s summer promotional tour for his critically lauded book Wherever I Wind Up, or don’t watch ESPN on a regular basis, you might not know all of the details.

Here’s the recap: R.A. Dickey was a pitching phenom, a medal-winning U.S. Olympian, and a first-round draft pick for the Texas Rangers in 1996. He was due to take home an $810,000 signing bonus just for joining the club. But then team doctors discovered he was missing a ligament in his throwing arm—a condition they thought could affect his pitching over the years—and his signing-bonus dropped to $75,000. Dickey was no longer a phenom; he was a medical oddity. He spent the next 10 years as a classic “4A pitcher”—someone who was good enough to bounce back and forth between the minor leagues and the majors but too mediocre to make it permanently as an MLB pitcher.

During this period, his marriage was strained, he was barely making ends meet, and he was dealing with real personal demons. Dickey had been the victim of sexual abuse as a child and he had never told anyone, not even his wife. As an escape from these personal traumas, he had defined his existence around his career as an athlete, and it was a career that was failing.

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Then, in 2005, Rangers management convinced Dickey that his best hope of having a life in the big leagues was to turn himself into a knuckleball pitcher, or what he described in his book as “the baseball equivalent of a carnival act.” The knuckleball, a slow pitch with virtually no rotation that is infamous for its wild movement and its near impossibility to control, is one that pitchers generally only ever come to late in their careers after more traditional routes have failed them. Only a tiny number of players have successfully tamed the pitch to a sufficient degree to throw it at the top level, and Dickey is currently the only knuckleballer in the Majors.

Just one year after he started to learn to throw the pitch, Dickey took an MLB mound as a knuckleballer for the first time in Arlington, Texas, on April 6, 2006. He gave up six home runs over the course of three innings. It tied a modern-era record (held by fellow knuckleballer Tim Wakefield) for most home runs conceded in a single game, and Dickey offers a powerful and detailed account of the episode in the prologue of his book under the heading “The Worst Night I Ever Had.”

Fast forward six years. Dickey is coming off the best season he’s ever had, and one of the best seasons any knuckleballer has ever had, going 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA to finish with the second-most wins in the National League, the second-lowest ERA, and the highest strikeout total with 230. In June, Dickey threw 44.1 consecutive innings without conceding a single earned run, a Mets record and the 10th-best such streak in baseball history. During that run he became only the 11th pitcher in the modern era to throw back-to-back one-hitters. All of this came at the age of 37, a point when many big league pitchers have already packed it in.

How did R.A. Dickey do what he’s done so late in his baseball life and in such a short period of time? How was he able to turn himself from a career minor leaguer into one of the best pitchers in baseball?

After years of work, Dickey mastered the virtually untamable pitch by coming up with two innovations in the way he throws it. First, he pitches it faster than any other successful knuckler has ever done before. Tim Wakefield, the only other knuckleball pitcher in the league when Dickey started learning the pitch, threw it at a typically snail-like speed of 67 miles per hour. Dickey throws it on average at 77 mph, changing speeds with a slow version between 73 and 75 mph and a fast version between 75 and 80 mph. This “angry” knuckleball is like no pitch big league hitters have ever seen before.

Dickey also came up with a clever way for perfecting the mechanics of the pitch. Charlie Hough, a legendary knuckleballer and Dickey’s mentor, initially taught him how to conceptualize the knuckleball throwing motion. He keeps his body compact by imagining that he is projecting himself through an open door frame with each pitch, and that his goal is to avoid touching the sides of the frame. Dickey took this concept one step further and began to visually project the door frame toward the plate, shrinking it to the size of a vertical shoebox. By aiming to throw the ball somewhere inside this imaginary vertical shoebox, he is able to make sure that the unpredictable pitch lands at least somewhere for a strike the vast majority of the time.  

During a half-hour discussion, Dickey described to me how he performed his amazing transformation of the past few seasons. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Slate: You talk a lot about the “vertical shoebox.” When did you come up with this? How long did it take you to feel like you had mastered it to a sufficient degree?

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