05/26/2010 12:50 PM ET
Salfino: Dickey's cheap trick may pay off
Can knuckleballer be viable scrapheap pickup?
By Michael Salfino / SNY.tv
R.A. Dickey's strikeout rate in the Minor Leagues does not suggest he will K batters in the Majors. (AP)

I want you to want R.A. Dickey.

Teams spend too much money getting name brands to fill the back of the rotation when there are cheaper guys available. But even better than mere cheap are those with a trick pitch like Dickey. Cheap tricks are wild cards. After Tuesday night's stunning outing, in which he shut out the Phillies for six innings by bewildering with his knuckleball for a career high seven K's, let's examine Dickey more closely.

Start in Buffalo, where this year in 60 2/3 innings Dickey had 37 strikeouts and eight walks. More on his ERA in a bit.

That's great control for a knuckleballer but not many K's. His K-rate with the pitch is bad throughout his minor league career. It hasn't been above 6.3 per nine innings at any Minor League stop, and that translates to about 5.0in the Majors. That's borderline.

Maybe his velocity with the pitch is too high, sacrificing movement but gaining control. Is that a wise tradeoff? Who knows? That's a combination not typically seen in knuckleballers. His batting average on balls in play allowed will indicate if the contact he's allowing is of the weaker variety, as we would expect given this profile. Throwing harder also presumably makes Dickey tougher to run on and that's the Achilles heel for all knucklers.

Here's retired knuckleballer Tom Candiotti talking about Dickey to the Philadelphia Inquirer before Tuesday's game.

"Dickey throws a really hard knuckleball, but he doesn't have command of it," Candiotti said. "You can't throw a great one unless you take a little bit of movement off it, get guys to hit the ball."

Candiotti is talking about command and not control. Clearly, Dickey can find the strike zone with the pitch, which he threw 75 percent of the time Tuesday at an average speed of 75.7 mph. Candiotti seems wrong about Dickey not letting opponents hit the ball, as that's precisely what he has been doing in the Minors.

But less speed will clearly help generate movement. Here's a brief primer on knuckleball physics. The key takeaway is the note that the pitch should be thrown about 50 mph to maximize the unpredictable effects of drag -- "the force of air resistance acting on an object in the air."

The radar readings are out of the hand, not as the ball crosses the plate. Pitches lose about 9 percent of velocity by the time they reach the plate and that, presumably is about where you want the maximum impact of drag.

Fellow knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is about 10 mph slower and probably about 60 mph when his pitches reach home plate. Given his success, Wakefield probably has been using a more optimal speed. Candiotti is probably correct about Dickey throwing too hard, though very likely not for his stated reason.

Why is 60 mph better than 50? Perhaps a pitcher gains more in disrupting timing than he loses with movement. Facing a pitch coming in at 50 mph, the hitter looking for the knuckler's fastball might have time to reload his swing.

SNY colleague Howard Megdal wrote at NYBaseballDigest about Dickey's Minor League trend line as measured by ERA converted to MLB equivalents. This year, it translates to 3.82. It's gotten steadily better, Megdal writes, presumably as Dickey's learned the pitch -- he began throwing it about five years ago. But ERA is a clumsy stat and not reliable enough for projection purposes. Strikeout-to-walk ratio is better, and strikeout rate is even better. If Dickey's K-rate had steadily improved with this presumed mastery, I'd feel much better about his chances to help the 2010 Mets.

The good news though is that he is just 35 so that means 10 or 12 more years in the rotation if he's for real. And knuckleballers can pitch all day. This Mets bullpen needs a break.

Fans could use a break at least one more day from the pain of watching Manuel manage it. Elmer Dessens on Friday night against the Yankees in the seventh inning of a scoreless game right off the Minor League bus? Really, Jerry? Just punch every Mets fans in the face the next time you want to hurt them. Cut out the middle man.

Another cheap starter who is basically a trick pitcher (with his delivery) takes the mound Wednesday in lefty Hisanori Takahashi. Here's a guy getting strikeouts (10.6 per nine innings) with Fred Sanford-level junk. The best news is that as long as he's in the rotation, we no longer have to worry about Manuel wasting him in low-leverage situations in long relief after Oliver Perez meltdowns.

Michael Salfino writes for the Wall Street Journal and Yahoo! and is a regular contributor to SNY.tv.
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