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.

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?

R.A. Dickey: Charlie Hough gave me the idea of how to get my mechanics to be compact enough so that I could repeat it and I could visualize getting through the doorframe without coming apart, so to speak. I took it a step further, [and] turned the doorframe into a shoebox at the plate. I don’t want to try to use hyperbole here, I want to give you a real honest answer—it took over … over 30,000 … over 30,000 balls thrown against a brick wall before I really felt like I knew what I was doing.

Slate: What did your training regimen look like? There's the old Malcolm Gladwell saw about a person needing to practice something for 10,000 hours in order to perfect it—is there truth in that for you personally?

R.A. Dickey: When I started the knuckleball in 2005, I would grab whoever I could and have them catch with me underneath the stadium, in the cages, [wherever]. I would throw balls off of the outfield wall during batting practice. I would always have a ball in my hand. As I drove around the city, I would put it in my cup holder and I would play with it—that’s one of the things Charlie Hough first taught me. He said, “always have a ball in your car and always have it in your hand when you’re driving so you can just get the sensation of what it feels like for your grip to be in the right place.”

It wasn’t like I was a robot and I went into the gym after 500 balls a day for six months and all of a sudden I came out the other side and was this great knuckleballer. In 2006, I remember I was with the Texas Rangers trying to make the club and I would come into the cages before anybody even got to the stadium and take a bucket of balls and just throw them into the net. I would go pick that bucket of balls up and go back to the mound and throw it into the net.

That was early on in my transformation, so I would get so angry because I could see that it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do and I didn’t know how to fix it. Out of sheer stubbornness, I just would keep going—just hoping that at some point something would click. I certainly held onto the hope that it might. I had no guarantees, but I trusted that if I worked hard and put in the time, it would eventually reap a fruit. I just didn’t know what that fruit was going to be or how big it was going to be.

As far as being able to pinpoint how many hours or how many times, I would go ahead and say that 30,000 is a conservative estimate.

Slate: You've talked in the past about experiencing Kairotic moments—critical defining junctures in your life and career when, as you have put it, “things come together.” It seems like you may have had more than one. Can you clearly remember the most important single Kairotic moments for your pitching career and for your personal life?

R.A. Dickey: I think from a pitching standpoint one of those moments came when I took the mound as a Buffalo Bison, which is the Triple A affiliate of the New York Mets, in 2010. I had been pitching pretty well and felt like I was really turning a corner.

I had had some good seasons, some spurts where I felt real consistent, but then it would go away. And I would be like “where is it? How could it disappear like that?” Then I would go through a month where I just couldn’t figure it out, couldn’t find it, and that would make my numbers kind of be skewed. So I could never get a real good clear picture of what I could become.

In 2010, I got off to a pretty decent start and [on April 29] I threw a one-hitter against the Durham Bulls. I gave up a lead-off hit and then retired 27 hitters in a row after that. It was an almost perfect game kind of thing. I felt like “OK, I think I feel like something clicked.”

Slate: Can you describe what that feeling was like exactly?

R.A. Dickey: When you start a game, you don’t think to yourself, “well, OK, I’m going throw a one-hitter today.” It just becomes an organism, your outing becomes an organism and it grows. In that particular game, I remember into about the sixth inning I realized, “you know what, they may not—they may not get a hit the rest of the game.” Because of how it felt coming out of my hand. That was the first time when it came out of my hand in such a way that I felt like nobody could probably hit it well. I was surprised if someone got a hit. That’s the first time I’d ever felt that.

From a life standpoint, I kind of came to the end of myself as a human being around 2006. I had been dealing with a lot of pain from past traumas, and I was trying to make my marriage work. I was a father who was trying to provide for my family and barely making ends meet as a minor league ballplayer. I got tired of living like that and wanted to live differently. So I sought the help of a professional [therapist] whose name is Stephen James, and he really taught me the vocabulary and helped me unpack a lot of baggage so that I could work on trying to live authentically in the moment with who I felt like I was called to be. That was the genesis of who I’ve become presently.

Slate: In terms of the mechanics of the knuckleball, you throw it faster than any previous knuckleballer. Is that the secret to what you've been able to accomplish in this one season? How do you throw it so much faster?

R.A. Dickey: I think if you asked the opponents they would say that that is a contributing factor. I would say that that is one component. But I think like with anything, the more self-aware you are about what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, the better you’re going to be at what you’re striving to be good at.

It wasn’t just about trying to throw the hardest knuckleball that’s ever been thrown. There’s a lot of other things that I can do, a lot of bullets in my gun. Some of those things are being able to change speeds within the framework of a single at-bat against someone. So if Prince Fielder’s seen five knuckleballs at 78 miles per hour in a row and all of a sudden I can throw one at 65, well that’s a bullet in my gun.

Slate: Why are you the only player in the majors throwing this pitch? Is it really that hard to learn?

R.A. Dickey: It’s an incredibly hard thing to do. I don’t want this to come across at all in a way that’s narcissistic; I’m just saying it’s hard and there’s not a lot people who are willing to devote the amount of time it takes to do it well. I just laid out for you a little bit of what I went through and there were parts of it that were hell.

Every day waking up going to the gym, trying to figure something that you never really knew 100 percent if you were going to get or not. I mean, that’s hard on the mind, much less the body. [Secondly], no scout, no general manager is going out looking for the next great knuckleballer. They’re all going out looking for the next Stephen Strasburg. So there’s not a lot of opportunity.

A lot of people don’t trust the pitch. There’s this kind of reputation it has for being untrustworthy and fickle and capricious and everything else, and those are words that big league managers and general managers and organizations aren’t too fond of. So you’ve got to really prove and reprove yourself over and over and over again just to get an opportunity. And that makes it difficult.

Slate: How would you motivate yourself during those periods of doubt?

R.A. Dickey: I think what motivated me was just hope. Something inside of me, deep down in my guts, always felt like there was something in there. I don’t know how to explain it. … I didn’t want—I had a wife that did not want me to have a singular regret about chasing my dream, which helped me tremendously. I did not want to have a singular regret. I always held out hope that it was going to turn for the better. That’s always what motivated me was hope. Whereas before, when I was just beginning, it was fear. That morphed into hope after I matured a little bit and became a more fully living human being.

Slate: I read that you often call up fellow knuckleballers Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield, and Phil Niekro to get pointers on your pitch. What are those calls like?

R.A. Dickey: I’ll call every one of them if I’m having a problem until I figure out what’s going on. Or I’ll send them film. Or they’ll look at film and they’ll call me. Or they’ll see me on TV and they’ll send me a text. The generosity that I’ve experienced from these men has just been overwhelming, and they have been so incredibly kind with their resources and their time. Without those guys I never would have reached the level that I’ve been able to reach the last three years.

Slate: So are those calls mainly about mechanics?

R.A. Dickey: A lot of the time it’s the mental side of it. I talk to all of them really, at least a couple of times a month.

Slate: You are an incredibly resilient person. You had a near-death experience in the Missouri River, you had a million-dollar contract taken from you before you had a chance to even play a single professional game, you contemplated suicide at one point, you suffered abuse as a child. Does all of this give you some kind of greater perspective and resilience on the mound?

R.A. Dickey: I certainly leaned on some of my previous tough experiences. At the beginning I think I leaned on it in a kind of very unhealthy way. I would use sport as an escape from the pain of what was real. Instead of dealing with the pain, instead of being honest about the pain, instead of asking for help—if I had to do it differently, I would do it differently in that regard.

I had a lot of fear that would motivate me to try to work hard, because I didn’t know what I would do if I wasn’t a baseball player. In an unhealthy way, I found a lot of validity in having always been a very good athlete, a very good baseball player, and I’ve since grown out of that place into a different perspective and learned how to live differently, thankfully, where baseball is certainly something that’s very important to me. It’s not who I am, though. It’s just what I do. I think emotionally and mentally, keeping all this in the right perspective has enabled me to reach a level of success that I hadn’t otherwise experienced.

I’ve had a lot of people who have cared about me, that have poured into me. Whether it’s Tim Wakefield, or Charlie Hough, or Phil Niekro, or my wife, or a friend on the team, or a pitching coach.

Slate: You start your book by saying "I will never be a hall of famer and will never lead the league in strikeouts and am in no imminent danger of joining the 300 victory club.” One of those predictions has been proven wrong already. Are you reconsidering that portion of the book?

R.A. Dickey: When I wrote that, I wrote it because experientially, I had never come close to what happened last year. But the first sentence in my epilogue to my book for the paperback edition will be an apology for lying.

That whole strikeout thing, that’s kind of surreal. You never go into a season thinking you’re going to strike out 200 guys or that you would have the most double-digit strikeout games in the big leagues, or anything like that. You just try to win, and the outing becomes what the outing becomes. After those back-to-back one-hitters, I tried to identify what was going on. Like, how was I doing this? I feel like I figured out something then, as far as a Kairotic moment as far as strikeouts go. I really felt like I kind of stumbled onto something during that run that helped me throw pitches that hitters would swing at and miss. I’m afraid to divulge it to you because if someone happens to read the article and identify something that would help them solve the mystery, I would be sad about that.

Jeremy Stahl is a Slate senior editor. You can follow him on Twitter.