After a brief hiccup against the Yankees last Sunday, R.A. Dickey was back to his usual world-beating self on Friday, striking out 10 Dodgers in a 9-0 Mets win. He's 12-1 with a 2.15 ERA on the year, and the prohibitive favorite to start for the National League at the All-Star Game next Tuesday. If you've missed out on the Dickey hype and want to read more, check out Jonah Keri's piece on his unlikely late-career rise here. For now, all you have to know is that he's the only knuckleball pitcher in the majors.
The knuckler is an odd and beautiful and chaotic pitch, and since Dickey throws it 86.1 percent of the time, it occurred to me that he should probably take a page from Darryl Dawkins's book and name each variation.
Dawkins was the electric NBA player who gave his iconic dunks monikers such as: In Your Face Disgrace, The Go-rilla, Earthquaker Shaker, Candyslam, Dunk You Very Much, Look Out Below, Yo Mama, Turbo Sexophonic Delight, Rim Wrecker, Greyhound Bus (went coast-to-coast), Cover Your Head, and Spine Chiller Supreme.
Why not Dickey? A good knuckleball is just as devastating as a dunk, and since R.A. is mild-mannered on the mound, his pitches could use some extra personality. But the names need to be knuckle-specific, full of the unpredictability, boldness, and melancholy inherent to the pitch.
With all the attention paid to R.A. Dickey and his fantastic knuckleball this season, I couldn't help thinking back to when I was a kid and we all tried to throw knucklers. Some of us managed to throw pitches with no spin (my trick was throwing sidearm), but none of us could get it to move and dance. I tried to throw one in a game once, dipping low into a sidearm motion, and the pitch, high and slow, got absolutely crushed at the plate. "What the hell are you doing?" my coach yelled from the bench, and that was the end of the knuckleball experiment.
But there was another pitch, too, even more bizarre, called the forkball. To throw the fork, we held it between our index and middle fingers, splitting them wide so the ball was jammed in between. As you can imagine, this pitch did nothing. It was impossible to control or throw for any accuracy, and it came out slow and high. There were at least a few times, playing catch, when it was wedged so tightly that it actually stayed between my fingers when I meant to release it. I don't think any of us had a clue what a forkball was supposed to do, or why it was invented.
I thought of the forkball recently, and was dismayed to find on Fangraphs that nobody has thrown even one this year. Not one? There's no R.A. Dickey of the forkball? There had to be a savior, right? The knuckle-curve has A.J. Burnett. Even the eephus pitch is preserved, by Randy Wolf. At first glance, I found only two pitches that haven't been thrown in the majors this season: the forkball and the screwball.
Jamie Moyer, 49 years young, just became the oldest dude in the history of old dudes to get a win in Major League Baseball. He threw 87 pitches in seven innings, allowing six hits and two runs (none of them earned) in a 5-3 Rockies win over San Diego. You can watch the highlights here, which are remarkable for the fact that they include a lot of double-play balls and other grounders, but only one strikeout. In fact, Moyer managed to break the 80-miles-per-hour barrier exactly zero times over the course of his historic start. That means his fastest fastball had less velocity than almost every other pitcher's slowest changeup.
Moyer has never been a strikeout pitcher (his highest single-season K/9 rate came in 1987 with the Cubs, a year in which Nolan Ryan led the league), and now well, now he's the oldest guy to ever win a major league baseball game. So we shouldn't expect a lot of punch-outs. We also shouldn't expect him to leave an inning without giving up roughly 15 runs, but somehow he has the craftiness and guile to leave major league hitters waving at air. It's counterintuitive and absurd, but he's been old for a long time now, and it's still happening.
Look, I'm all about Machiavelli. I think he's got a lot of great ideas. Or at least one pretty good idea. I had to read The Prince in college, and the only part I remember is how the "ends justify the means." (That, plus the unforgettable helicopter fight scene.) As a human being with a steady compulsion to do bad things, I've found that philosophy very convenient.