- The Braves' R.A. Dickey has been throwing well of late, including a seven-inning gem Friday. But Atlanta may not be the best home for the 42-year-old knuckleballer.
The knuckleball is an odd little thing. Ron Luciano called it the perfect pitch, in that no one could master it, hitter or pitcher. Willie Stargell compared it to throwing a butterfly with hiccups. Baseball can be a quirky sport, but no aspect is as quirky as the trajectory of the knuckleball.
Despite the oddities, the last two decades have been a knuckleball golden era. There was Tim Wakefield, who made an All-Star team in 2009 at age 42 behind the pitch. And there's today's best, R.A. Dickey. Even he knows it's been a life saver—"I feel like I'm 27 or 26 in knuckleball years," he once said—and it's true that it's changed his career. He was an average—at best— pitcher in Texas. In 2006, he had one start and he gave up six home runs in 3 1/3 innings. But that perfect pitch became his savior. In 2010, at age 35 with the Mets, he had his first season with an ERA under three. Two years later, at age 37, he went 20–6 with a 2.73 ERA, three complete game shutouts and a league-leading 230 strikeouts, an effort that won him the Cy Young.
And then he was traded, and despite remarkable durability in Toronto, he was never great. His lowest ERA was a 3.71 in 2014, but he mostly stayed around four and left Canada with a losing record.
Atlanta has has better for the 42-year-old. Entering Friday, he had a 4.44 ERA and a 6–5 record. But he's been pitching well of late. The Braves entered Friday night winning five of his last six starts. He's gone seven innings in three of those appearance and has allowed 25 hits with 30 strikeouts and just five walks.
He continued that hot streak Friday night. Going up against Washington and Max Scherzer, Dickey took a no-hitter into the sixth. He went seven, giving up one run and striking out seven. Over his last four starts, he's given up just three runs.
Maybe it's an NL thing. Or maybe that whirling dervish of a pitch has found new life. But Dickey has only given up five or more runs twice this year. He's gone five innings or more in every start. Just because Bartolo Colon couldn't hack it with Atlanta at age 44, doesn't mean another forty-something can't.
It's a bit of a weird fit, is it not? The Braves aren't going anywhere—and they blew a 4–1 lead in the ninth against the Nationals Friday evening before falling 5–4 in the 10th. Despite being under .500, they are second in the East, but that says more about the lack of quality competition there than it does about the Braves. They aren't making the playoffs, but there is certainly talent in the system, which MLB.com ranks as the best in the majors. No matter how hot his knuckleball is, Dickey is not part of the future in Atlanta.
So why shouldn't a contending team—preferably in the National League—make a run at him? He's not a typical 42-year-old. He's pitched over two hundred innings in five of the last six seasons. The Brewers wouldn't mind his experience. Could a knuckleball work in altitude? Might as well try.
And for Dickey, as his career winds down, it's worth appreciating the modern master of this perfectly unperfect pitch. He's not Phil Niekro, he's not Hoyt Wilhelm, he's not Charlie Hough. But he's been a reliable pitcher for the last eight years, a career renaissance that took place when most pitchers are looking for a new job. Like his pitch, Dickey's career has taken some twists and turns. Now he's looking to groove it home one last year. But with the way he's been pitching, it might turn out to be more.