Robert Allen "R.A." Dickey is a bit of a renaissance man in baseball. He has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, is an avid reader, particularly of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, and is an accomplished author himself, detailing his career and overcoming sexual abuse in his autobiography Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball.
Dickey was a first round pick by the Rangers in 1996, but they quickly discovered he was missing his ulnar collateral ligament. That's right, the ligament that, when torn can lead to Tommy John Surgery, was completely missing. He debuted with the Rangers in 2001, but was pretty awful with a fastball in the upper 80s. By 2006 he began using the knuckleball on a more regular basis after messing around with it for several years. He bounced around from the Brewers to the Mariners to the Twins before finally landing with the Mets where he would win 20 games and the Cy Young in 2012.
Since being traded to the Blue Jays in 2013 in a deal that involved Noah Syndergaard and Travis D'Arnaud, Dickey has regressed to become a serviceable 2 WAR pitcher. This year he won 11 games with a 3.91 ERA but a 4.48 FIP. He struck out nearly a hitter per inning in his Cy Young season of 2012, but struck out just 5.3 per-nine-innings this year. Dickey has always enjoyed lower than average BABIP rates, and his .257 BABIP this year was the fourth-lowest in the American League.
Dickey throws the knuckleball 87% of the time. He will mix in a fastball on occasion, but with an average velocity of 81 mph, he will look to avoid using it. If you are not familiar with the knuckleball, the pitcher grips the baseball with the knuckles or fingertips, looking to effectively prevent any spin on the ball. A lack of spin by the baseball allows it to by moved by the asymmetric drag on the baseball due to the stitching and smooth surface. This makes the ball appear to "dance" or "flutter" before the hitter, and when effective, drop suddenly as it approaches home. Hall of Fame slugger Willie Stargell once remarked, "hitting the knuckleball is like eating Jell-o with a fork."
The knuckleball can be hard to command at times, but Dickey had a pretty average walk rate of 2.56 per-nine-innings. He was sixth in baseball in hit batters with 11 and he threw nine wild pitches this year. He fared much better at home with a 3.11 ERA at Rogers Centre, but a 4.83 ERA on the road. Righties hit better against him than lefties, with a split of .260/.317/.429 for right-handed hitters and .228/.288/.378 for left-handed hitters.
Catching the knuckler is of course, extremely difficult. Catcher Russell Martin has struggled working with Dickey and caught him just twice in the last two months. Martin led the American League with 19 passed balls, 12 of them came with Dickey on the mound. Surprisingly, base-stealers have not been that successful with Dickey on the mound. In ten tries, four have been caught. This is because Dickey does a great job holding runners on and disrupting timing using tricks that are borderline illegal if not outright so.
The first trick is built into every single pitch Dickey throws from the stretch, and it concerns the way in which he comes set. Dickey’s motion from when he gets the sign to when he comes set is fluid by design; he brings his hands to his belt, then up through his torso to neck level, and finally about a foot away from his body before he finally stops. It’s extremely deliberate and leaves the batter and baserunner (and, apparently, umpires) unable to tell exactly when he has come set. Here’s how Enberg describes it: "He almost double-sets; he comes to one set, but then he pushes his arms out as if he’s about to pitch, and that’s when he throws to first base."
If you’ve never heard of the old double-set technique, that’s because it’s illegal and should be called a balk.
The Royals have faced Dickey just four times since 2013, when he broke through, and he has a 2.73 ERA in those four starts including seven shutout innings earlier this year. Dickey finished strong in September with a 2.43 ERA over his last six starts with just four walks allowed in that time. In Game 4 of the American League Division Series, he allowed just one run in 4 2/3 innings with five hits and no walks.
The knuckleball will be an unusual look for the Royals and they'll have to be patient to get their swings in. Dickey can be a bit home run-prone, his home run rate of 1.18 per-nine innings is in the top 25 in baseball from 2013-2015. The Royals have been noted for their ability to be good bad-ball hitters. Their ability to make contact and put the ball in play will be important against the curious knuckler, R.A. Dickey.