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Dickey, Wakefield, and the Not-So-Lost-But-Sorta-Lost Art of the Knuckleball
With roughly six weeks remaining in the 2010 season there are a number of bloggers, writers, and analysts that have started looking ahead to the offseason. While the writing itself hasn’t actually begun yet, I’ll admit I’ve started thinking ahead to the format I hope to encapsulate my year-end thoughts within. Of course, the season’s not over yet so I’m trying not to get ahead of myself. However, tonight’s discussion over at MLB Trade Rumors spurned me to start thinking about a rare group within the baseball fraternity - the knuckleballer.
Last January the New York Mets signed veteran journeyman R.A. Dickey to a one-year contract with the hope that he’d provide insurance at AAA just in case the big league squad needed someone to fill-in due to an injury. Expectations were minimal considering Dickey’s track record. Yet, in 18 starts since his mid-May callup, Dickey has been arguably the most valuable pitcher on the team. He’s posted an 8-5 record, 2.41 ERA (a 166 ERA+), and is putting up improved strikeout and walk rates. Already he’s posted career highs in starts and innings pitched. By season’s end he’ll post new highs in both wins and strikeouts. With another five innings of work he’ll qualify for the league ERA title. The 2.41 mark would put him 6th in the National League and 7th in the Majors.
Dickey has given the team a consistent presence in the clubhouse – which they’ve needed with all of the turmoil that organization has gone through over the past few years. He’s helped solidify a streaky rotation. He’s even made General Manager Omar Minaya look like he has the ability to make a good decision (even if it is just one positive in a sea of negatives). Ken Belson of the New York Times called him the team’s “most compelling players”.
Ultimately the Mets will face a decision this offseason with regard to Dickey. Despite signing the one-year deal with the team last winter, he doesn’t have enough service time to qualify for free agency. Technically he’ll be under team control next year but after his 2010 numbers it is likely an arbitrator will award him a sizeable raise over the $600,000 salary he’s currently receiving. Realistically he’d be looking at another one-year deal somewhere in the neighborhood of $2-2.5 Million. Matthew Cerrone of Metsblog.com speculates that Dickey might be willing to forgo that one-year for the sake of having the security of a multi-year deal, should the Mets offer one. Could two years for a total of $4 Million plus incentives work? I don’t see how Dickey wouldn’t be interested in such a deal or how the Mets wouldn’t consider offering one.
While Dickey’s situation is unique in a sense, he’s not the only knuckleballer in baseball. He is, however, easily the only one truly having any success this season. Boston Red Sox veteran Tim Wakefield is still kicking around the AL East despite working solely out of the bullpen at this point in his career. Through today he’s 3-9 in 115.0 innings with a 5.48 ERA (80 ERA+). He did make 16 starts early in the season while the team dealt with injuries to Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka. However, with the two healthy and Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Clay Buchholtz all living up to (most) expectations there is little room for Wakefield in the rotation. Yet, he’s been around Boston for so long it’s hard to see him pitch anywhere else. The team held a perpetual option for the veteran for many years (worth $4 Million per) but suddenly opted to give him a two-year deal prior to the season. As such, the 44 year-old (his birthday was just earlier this month) will be around for another year. While his overall performance isn’t great, for a minimal cost ($1.5 Million due next year) it won’t really hurt the team to have him around.
While most associate the knuckleball nowadays to the two aforementioned pitchers, there are two others currently kicking around who feature the knuckleball in their repertoire. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Charlie Haeger is one. Haeger started the season the Dodgers rotation, making 6 starts (9 total appearances) before heading back to the minors. In his 30 innings of work he put up an 0-4 record with an 8.40 ERA (46 ERA+). The other is Minnesota Twins minor leaguer Charlie Zink. Unfortunately for Zink, however, his season was cut short by injury after just 3 starts in AAA totaling just 12 innings of work.
Anytime one looks back at baseball history and the context that the knuckleball holds within the game there is a good chance that Wakefield – who’s at or near many of the Red Sox team pitching records – will be remembered as one of the better knuckleballers in his time. In baseball history there are only three pitchers inducted into the Hall of Fame who primarily relied on the knuckleball: Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, and Jesse Haines. Other notable knuckleballers were Joe Niekro (Phil’s brother), Charlie Hough, and Tom Candiotti.
Dickey, Haeger, and Zink likely won’t be remembered in the same light as this group. Wakefield comes close, if only by sheer persistence, but it’s clear that time has started to catch up to him. The knuckleballer is an elusive fraternity in baseball history and not one that most strive to join. Wilhelm, Niekro, and the like don’t have comparables waiting in the wings across the minor leagues so the fraternity may just be a dying breed. But at least for now, Dickey stands alone as the top of his class. Most around baseball have noticed. We’ll see in just a few weeks how much the Mets organization has noticed.