Ironically, Velocity Is The Key To R.A. Dickey’s Knuckleball

It goes without saying that the knuckleball is difficult to predict. It can break or flutter in any number of ways, twisting up hitters and catchers alike. It can also drive a fantasy player nuts, because there aren’t enough knucklers throughout history to help project the lone modern-day knuckleballer moving forward.

While largely disappointing, the season, it got better for R.A. Dickey.
As 2013 wore on, the knuckleballer regained some velocity on his trademark pitch and saw his performance improve, not quite to his Cy Young levels but to a place the Toronto Blue Jays would surely be happy with. That late-season progression is a positive for 2014, and the full-season stat line makes Dickey a potential value play in upcoming drafts.

Looking to his three-year knuckleball velocity graph, two things become obvious – Dickey regained velocity late in the season but the range of knuckleball velocity remained narrow compared to 2011 (and right in line with 2012).

Here’s what people surely care more about though (because as much as the point of sites like this is digging through the innards to make the best links, we still don’t know how knuckle sausage gets made):

April-July 75.3 4.66 1.3 17.70%
Aug-Sep 77.1 3.35 1.13 21%

As the velocity improved, so did the strikeout rate and with them, the ERA and WHIP. Again, not quite 2012 Cy Young levels – when Dickey was the No. 1 starter in fantasy baseball – but a major improvement, and an encouraging one. He also allowed slightly fewer home runs, but those are probably never going away, especially at Rogers Centre.

To try and find the relationship between his knuckle velocity and performance, I pulled his pitch-by-pitch data from 2011 to the present from Baseball Savant to see how his monthly performance compared strictly to knuckleball velocity and the variance of that velocity.

Month vKN vKN StDv ERA WHIP K%
Apr-11 74.9 2.73 3.82 1.55 15.1
May-11 76.7 2.51 4.93 1.41 15.1
Jun-11 76.3 2.72 2.57 1.14 17.8
Jul-11 76.7 2.66 3.79 1.18 15.2
Aug-11 75.9 2.45 2.7 1.02 14.7
Sep-11 76.8 2.53 1.82 1.07 13.8
Apr-12 76.7 2.18 4.45 1.25 22.2
May-12 76.7 2.28 1.83 0.96 25
Jun-12 77.7 2.36 0.93 0.6 32.2
Jul-12 77.2 2.27 5.13 1.53 20.7
Aug-12 77.2 2.22 2 0.96 25
Sep-12 77.3 2.3 3.19 1.23 22.7
Apr-13 75.3 2.37 4.5 1.31 18.4
May-13 74.9 2.38 5.82 1.5 18.2
Jun-13 75.3 2.34 3.71 1.09 13.7
Jul-13 75.7 2.8 4.5 1.26 19.8
Aug-13 76.9 2.63 3.07 1.18 21.1
Sep-13 77.4 2.81 3.71 1.06 20.7

That’s obviously not the easiest way to view things, so let’s try plotting just his velocity and strikeout percentage:
The correlation isn’t strong, as you’d expect given all the extraneous variables at play and the limited number of months, but Dickey’s knuckleball velocity does seem to drive his strikeout rate, hardly a surprise given what we know about strikeouts. (There was a very slight negative relationship between standard deviation of the knuckleball velocity and strikeout rate, for what it’s worth. Perhaps Dickey utilizing multiple speeds on the pitch isn’t as effective as him simply giving the knuckleball some gas consistently?)

By the end of the season, Dickey’s swinging strike rate had basically split the difference between his 2011 and 2012 marks (both in total and on just the knuckleball), leading both my very simple strikeout predictor (19.3%) and Pod’s more efficacious one (20.2%) to suggest Dickey actually underperformed his strikeout expectancy. All caveats apply about using standard models to predict knuckleballer results, but it’s encouraging nonetheless.

As a brief aside, it’s worth noting that Dickey’s value as a knuckler has value to the Jays beyond just his performance, as Chris Carruthers pointed out in an excellent November piece. This is, of course, of little consequence to fantasy owners, except to note that streaming a Jays starter who follows Dickey is a sly play.

For fantasy owners entering 2014, Dickey is a potential value buy at the draft table. He’s had two seasons outside of the top-50 among starting pitchers with a No. 1 performance sandwiched in between. There are probably few left who believe Dickey is a Cy Young-calibre pitcher, but there are probably far too many who see a 4.21 ERA and 4.58 FIP and think that the 39-year-old has been figured out.

The truth is likely somewhere in between and there’s little reason to think Dickey can’t replicate the velocity gains from the end of the year – he dealt with injuries, after all (though he often seems all too ready with the “aches and pains” excuses), and his August-September velocity is a mark he held for parts of 2011 and all of 2012. If he’s throwing at 77 instead of 75, he’s generating additional whiffs and pitching better in general, as we’ve seen. He’s not reliable enough to place inside the top-30, I don’t think, but the upside is strong enough that he isn’t far outside it.

To wit, if he can strikeout 20 percent of batters and post an ERA around 3.75 (still worse than his 2011 ERA but a half point better than 2013), that would be good for roughly $10 in value, assuming the wins stay in the low teens.

The game-to-game performance will remain nearly as variable as his pitch trajectory, but the 2014 outcome should be far more favorable than last year, and at a substantially lower price.

Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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8 years ago

The first graph is too large for me, 2013 is appearing behind the ad and regular features on the right-hand side. Just mentioning in case there was a formatting error or something (what do I, know anything about HTML?).