Of Cy Young awards, the knuckleball and high altitude

The first knuckleballer to win the Cy Young Award seemed as good a person as any to ask about throwing baseball’s most unpredictable pitch at high altitude. Or, yes, high elevation for you wordsmiths.

Regular readers may recall that we are building an inventory of conversations about the challenge of pitching at baseball’s highest level, no pun intended, with folks who actually do it. Here are a few of the earlier installments:

Matt Belisle.

Alex White.

John Smoltz.

So as Mets righthander R.A. Dickey was preparing to come to Denver last week to accept the Branch Rickey Award for humanitarian service, I got a chance to ask him about throwing the knuckleball in Colorado.

Dickey was one of three finalists for the Cy Young Award at the time. He was named the winner today, easily outpacing the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and the Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez. Dickey received 27 of 32 first-place votes in balloting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Phil Niekro and Wilbur Wood each finished in the top five of Cy Young voting three times, Joe Niekro (for whom the knuckler was a complementary pitch) twice, and Tim Wakefield once, but Dickey became the first pitcher whose primary pitch is the knuckleball to actually win the thing.

I raised the question about altitude because fascination with the knuckleball comes up sometimes in conversations about how to pitch at Coors Field. Desperately seeking a pitch or approach that might work there for longer than a season or two, fans periodically ask whether the knuckleball could be a solution.

Knowing that curveballs often lose their bite a mile high and even two-seam fastballs tend to get less sinking action, I assumed the knuckleball would be the ultimate victim of thin air, relying as it does on air resistance to do its inimitable dance. When I looked at Dickey’s career, I found he has never started a big league game in Colorado. But it turns out he has thrown the knuckler here, both in bullpen sessions at Coors Field and in games at Colorado Springs as a minor leaguer.

First, some background on how Dickey came to throw the knuckleball relatively late in his career.

“I started the first few years of my career as a conventional pitcher, and I came to the point in 2005 where I’d kind of run my course as a conventional pitcher,” he said on the Dave Logan Show.

“My velocity had dropped, and just through general attrition, I just didn’t have the stuff I once had. So if I wanted to keep chasing the dream of being a major league baseball player, I had to come up with something that was a weapon that I could use to face big league batters.

“Orel Hershiser was my pitching coach at the time (with the Texas Rangers) and he suggested that I go to a knuckleball full time. He had seen me kind of piddle around with it on the side and thought that it might be good enough. So that’s when it began for me. It took quite some time to learn how to throw it correctly. I mean, it wasn’t until 2008 or 2009 where I really kind of felt comfortable with it. So it took a good three and a half years for me just to really have a mechanic that I could depend on that would produce a ball that doesn’t spin.

“That’s what a knuckleball is, for the people out there that don’t know. It’s a ball that when you throw it, does not spin. It has about a quarter of a revolution on it from the time it leaves your hand ’til the time it gets to the plate, which is a lot different than every other pitch that’s thrown. A curveball, you’re trying to impart really a lot of revolution on the ball to get it to manipulate the spin; a fastball the same way. But a knuckleball’s tough to throw, and it took me quite some time.”

In fact, Dickey enjoyed the best season of his career this year at age 37. His 20 wins and 2.73 earned-run average were career bests. Like Wood, the Niekro brothers, Wakefield, Hoyt Wilhelm and Charlie Hough, Dickey’s knuckler danced to an unpredictable tune of its own.

“I think one of the things that makes a knuckleball effective is if I throw it and I don’t know which direction it’s going to break, well, the hitter surely doesn’t know,” he said.

“So I’ve got an advantage there. It may break like a curveball at one point, it may break like a screwball at one point, it may not break at all on another one. I can throw 10 knuckleballs and they may do 10 different things. That’s the advantage of throwing a pitch like that, is that it’s going to probably do something a little bit different every time, and a hitter can’t track that. It’s tough for them to anticipate where the ball’s going to end up and put the barrel on the ball. Once you learn how to throw a knuckleball, the next step is how can you throw it for strikes. And that took me quite some time.”

So . . . about throwing it in Colorado. I mentioned that my research hadn’t turned up any Dickey starts at Coors Field.

“I’ve thrown bullpens in Colorado and I pitched in the minor leagues against Colorado Springs as a knuckleballer,” he said.

“It is tougher to throw at those high altitudes because there’s not much humidity for the ball to kind of resist against. At sea level, let’s say in New York, for instance, if I throw a mediocre knuckleball, well, it’s still going to move, it just might not move as sharply or as much. If I throw a mediocre knuckleball in Colorado, it’s going to be a b.p. (batting practice) fastball right down the middle that I’m going to have to either dodge or I’m going to just put my glove up for the umpire to throw me another ball because that one just went 450 feet.

“So it is tougher. You’ve got to be more perfect with your mechanic, with your release point, with the consistency of the rotation. You just have to be a little more perfect.”

So, no, sadly, the knuckleball is probably not a solution to the interminable search for an approach that will solve the riddle of making a career out of pitching at major league baseball’s only park a mile above sea level, home to the game’s highest team ERA (5.22) last season. It is that quest for perfection that has led to injury both physical and psychological in Rockies pitchers over the franchise’s first 20 years of existence.

Dickey might yet get the chance to give it a try on the hill at Coors. Though he just turned 38, the history of knuckleballers suggests he could be pitching for years to come.

“I do think that my body will be able to withstand pitching into my mid-40s,” he said.

“A knuckleballer is probably best when they are operating at about 70 percent capacity, which means you’re not taking a lot out of your arm. Now, other parts of your body can break down too, so it’s not only an arm issue, but most of the time the thing that stops someone from pitching another year is that they have arm problems or they just don’t want to deal with the pain that comes from pitching a game, throwing 120 pitches, and having to do it again in five days.

“Well, throwing a knuckleball takes away some of that concern because you’re throwing at about 70 percent capacity. So there’s less wear and tear, there’s easier recovery, you’re a little more resilient, and you’ve got a good mechanic where you could pretty much throw 300 or 400 hundred pitches and it would be no big deal. So that’s what’s different about being a knuckleballer and that’s why you can pitch deep into your 40s.”

Oh, and one more thing. About that humanitarian service that earned him the Branch Rickey Award and a banquet in Colorado.

“One of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about specifically playing in New York is that it gives you the platform to do things that might transcend the game, and I’ve always had interest in trying to use the platform of baseball to do that,” Dickey said.

“I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro last year in an effort to raise money for an outreach called the Bombay Teen Challenge, which rescues young girls and women from sex slavery and human trafficking in Mumbai, India.

“I had some exposure to that through a friend and he turned me on to the charity and I got involved intimately with the head of it. We raised over $100,000 for that outreach and they’re able now to purchase a clinic in the middle of the red light district in Mumbai, which was, ironically, once a brothel. It’s a really neat story and it’s a fantastic organization and it’s something that I’m thankful that I’m a part of.”

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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