In fairness, La Russa might be overly cautious when it comes to Dickey, who so far has been much more accurate than most knuckleball pitchers. He not only has more wins, a better ERA and more strikeouts than Cain so far _ he’s thrown the exact same number of wild pitches (one) in the same number of innings (120, compared to 120 1-3 for Cain).
But La Russa is dead right about the importance of the pitcher-catcher relationship. It’s the most sensitive in baseball, if not all of sports, even moreso when one half of the combination relies on a singularly zany pitch to put food on the table.
Steve Carlton and Tim McCarver spent so much time perfecting theirs that McCarver once mused they were destined to wind up “in the same cemetery, exactly 60 feet, 6 inches apart.” Brent Mayne, who spent 15 seasons in the majors and wrote “The Art of Catching” afterward, warned teams lavishing big bucks on pitchers to remember who was on the receiving end.
“It’s like having a phenomenal race horse,” he said, “but no jockey.”
Thoroughbreds like Greg Maddux were touchy enough about their receivers, and he could hit just about every corner of the plate on command. But with knuckleballers, it’s not just a matter of confidence that the catcher will call the right pitch at the right time; it’s the ability to consistently get in front of a pitch that both might agree on but neither can be certain where it will end up.
If there’s any consolation, it’s that the batter has less of an idea where that is than either.
“I’ve heard the quote it’s like a snowflake _ no two are alike,” Dickey said in a recent interview with USA Today. “It’s really like that. They can’t anticipate where it’s going and that’s the whole key. I know I have something to offer that’s unique.”
And La Russa better get him a turn on the big stage in plenty of time for the rest of us to appreciate it.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.