R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball was 57 percent less hittable than the average Major League Baseball pitch as the New York Mets’ right-hander tossed the first back-to-back one-hitters in almost a quarter-century.
Dickey, who hasn’t allowed an earned run in 42 2/3 innings, had a whiff percentage -- how often batters swung and missed -- of 33 percent against his knuckleball in the one-hitters on June 18 against the Baltimore Orioles and June 13 against the Tampa Bay Rays, according to Bloomberg Sports data. The major-league average this season is 21 percent.
With a baseball-best 11-1 record, Dickey makes his next start June 24 at Citi Field as the Mets host the New York Yankees and pitcher CC Sabathia. While Sabathia and the Mets’ Johan Santana each are Cy Young Award winners as the best pitchers in their leagues over a season, Dickey has been the best in baseball for the past two weeks.
“The thing that you don’t see from knuckleballers -- certainly not from me -- is the command,” said Charlie Hough, who used the pitch and won 216 games over a 25-year major-league career. “It’s crazy good. Too good.”
Dickey, 37, is the only active major-leaguer who throws a knuckleball, typically a slow-moving pitch that doesn’t spin, making the ball move erratically. It’s difficult for hitters to predict where the ball will go.
He’s thrown the knuckler -- at an average 78 miles per hour (125 kilometers per hour) -- on 83 percent of his pitches this season. Sabathia, who is 9-3 with a 3.55 earned run average, uses a slider, a faster pitch that often looks like a strike before diving out of the strike zone, as his so-called strikeout pitch. While his whiff percentage is 46 percent, he only uses the slider 33 percent of the time. Sabathia won the Cy Young as the best pitcher in the American League in 2007.
Dickey told reporters after his latest outing that he couldn’t explain his success. His knuckleball whiff percentage over his last five starts is 27 percent, and he has yet to throw a wild pitch this season.
Dickey went 8-13 in 2011 with a 3.28 ERA. His knuckleball whiff percentage was 20 percent, 8 percentage points below where it is this season.
The Toronto Blue Jays’ Dave Stieb was the last previous major-leaguer to throw consecutive one-hitters, in 1988. No one has every pitched three straight one-hitters, according to MLB.
Hough, a minor-league scout in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization, went 216-216 his career. He’s a member of the knuckleballer fraternity that includes Hall of Fame members Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm and the recently retired Tim Wakefield, who won 200 games. Niekro was probably best at throwing the pitch, Hough said.
“I don’t know that Phil ever put together a 10-game stretch this good,” Hough, 64, said in a telephone interview. “I pitched a couple of one-hitters but they were years apart, and I lost them both.”