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R.A. Dickey’s Knuckleball Slows as Batters Become Less Befuddled

R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball is proving almost as difficult for him this season as it was for batters in 2012.

It’s slower, the Toronto Blue Jays pitcher is throwing it more and right-handed batters are finding it easier to hit, according to Bloomberg Sports data.

Dickey, who won the Cy Young Award as the National League’s best pitcher last season with the New York Mets, has mostly struggled through his first five starts after being traded to Toronto in December and signing a two-year, $25 million contract extension. He’s scheduled to start against the Yankees this weekend in New York.

He’s been pitching through an upper back and neck injury that has reduced his velocity. Right-handers are averaging .302 against him this season, 84 points higher than in 2012, according to Bloomberg Sports. The right-handed pitcher’s strike percentage is down to 62.6 percent from 68.9 percent and he’s walked 11.1 percent of hitters faced, almost twice the 5.8 percent he walked last year.

Unlike other pitches, knuckleballs don’t spin, causing erratic, unpredictable movement. Batters may be catching on: Last year they swung at 31.5 percent of his pitches outside the strike zone. They are swinging at 21.8 percent in 2013.

“It’s a tougher pitch than any other pitch is to repeat, so if you have something nagging at you, it’s definitely going to affect it,” Mitch Williams, a former All-Star who pitched in the major leagues from 1986-97, said in a telephone interview.

Slow Start

The Blue Jays, in last place in the American League East with a 9-14 record after last night’s 5-3 loss at the New York Yankees, have started slowly after offseason acquisitions that included pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, shortstop Jose Reyes and outfielder Melky Cabrera, all of whom have been All- Stars. Reyes probably is out until the All-Star break in July with an ankle sprain.

Dickey will face Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes in his next start April 28.

The 38-year-old went 20-6 last season with a 2.73 ERA for the Mets, becoming the first knuckleballer in Major League Baseball history to win the Cy Young Award.

He moved to Toronto in a seven-player swap after agreeing to the contract extension. Dickey is making $5 million this season in the final year of his previous deal.

Dickey has relied on his knuckleball more this year, throwing it 89.5 percent of the time, compared with 84.8 percent last year. The velocity of his fastball has dipped to 82.3 miles per hour from 83.4 mph, while his average knuckleball speed, which has decreased in each of his starts this season, is 75.7 mph, down from 77.2 mph in 2012.

Release Point

“Obviously, when you’re throwing a ball that’s not traveling as fast, you’ve got to start it higher in order to get it to the plate and strike zone,” Dickey told reporters after his last outing, according to MLB.com. “If I throw a 79-mph knuckleball, I can start it a little bit more on plane. I’ve done it before, I can continue to do it, I’m just trying to get ahead of the condition here.”

Dickey throws the knuckleball harder than any of his major league predecessors and he relies on that speed and late movement of the pitch, said Williams, who now is an analyst for MLB Network.

“So he’s got to get himself healthy, because if he’s thinking about his neck and his back, he ain’t thinking about the release, and that’s the most important part of a knuckleballer,” Williams said.

“If you look back to last April his numbers are almost the same,” he said. “So as long as his neck and back get right, I expect Dickey to be fine.”

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To contact the reporter on this story: Mason Levinson in New York at mlevinson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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