SNYDER: Knuckling under can be a good thing

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Two weeks ago, we asked why the Washington Nationals couldn’t complete a series sweep, as the team was 0-7 when the opportunity presented itself. The Nats promptly put that matter to rest by going on the road and brooming the Atlanta Braves.

Washington failed in its first chance to repeat the feat, dropping Thursday’s series finale against the New York Mets. But after watching R.A. Dickey’s masterful performance in a 3-1 victory, another question came to mind:

Why don’t more pitchers give the knuckleball a try?

Dickey allowed just three balls out of the infield in his 7 1/3 shutout innings, constantly confounding batters with his frustrating knuckler. It was a continuation of his stellar start as he improved to 9-1 and lowered his ERA to 2.44. He has a scoreless streak of 24 2/3 innings.

“When you get in that batter’s box against him,” Mets manager Terry Collins said, “you better be ready to hit something that’s fluttering.”

Unlike most knuckleballers who throw in the 60- to 70-mph range, Dickey can top 80 mph. Whereas slower knuckleballs tend to move a few times before they reach the plate, his hard ones often change direction at the last moment. Life doesn’t get much better for pitchers.

“One thing hitters have a lot of trouble with is late movement,” Dickey said. “I’m just trying to induce them into hitting pieces of the ball and not getting flush contact. Today I felt like I was able to do that pretty well.”

Dickey is quick to acknowledge that he hasn’t mastered the pitch in any sense. “It can be fickle,” he said. But through a lot of hard work since April 6, 2006 — when he gave up six home runs in his first start as a full-time knuckleballer — Dickey said he’s never been more comfortable.

But he’s a dying breed, the only major-leaguer who still throws the pitch and, by his estimate, among just six living members of the small fraternity. He said Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield are on his speed dial, and he always reaches out to them when he’s going through struggles.

Considering the success that Dickey and the aforementioned pitchers have enjoyed, you’d think more would give the knuckleball a whirl. Apparently it takes a special breed, someone who’s extremely patient, persistent and unpretentious.

For one thing, the pitch goes against everything young players learn while growing up. “It’s very difficult to try to take spin completely off the ball when your whole life you’ve been trying to impart different types of spin to manipulate the break,” Dickey said.

Throw in the fact that scouts always seek the next Stephen Strasburg, not the next Hoyt Wilhelm. Which leads to another reason so few pitchers knuckle up: It’s mostly a last-gasp move of desperation if they can’t succeed through conventional means.

Dickey spent nine seasons in professional baseball before concluding that the knuckleball was his only hope. “There’s a component to it that forces you to swallow your pride,” he said. “If you can’t do that, you’re going to have trouble trying to do it. I doubt you’ll find a knuckleballer out there that has a very big ego.”

The lack of control over the pitch can be maddening and the results can be gruesome (Dickey’s six homers allowed in one game tied a major-league record he shares with … Wakefield). Learning the pitch is a lengthy process. Collins said that when Hough was with the Texas Rangers, the organization offered middling prospects a three-year trial if they agreed to try the knuckleball.

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About the Author

Deron Snyder

Deron Snyder is an award-winning journalist and Washington Times sports columnist with more than 25 years of experience. He has worked at USA Today and his column was syndicated in Gannett’ 80-plus newspapers from 2000-2009, appearing in The Arizona Republic, The Indianapolis Star, The Detroit News and many others. Follow Deron on Twitter @Its_Ball_Good or email him at deronsnyder@gmail.com.

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