In season of surprises, none bigger than Mets’ Dickey

Among first-half surprises, the Padres’ rise, the Cubs’ collapse, Jose Bautista’s slugging and now-retired Ken Griffey Jr.’s non-slugging top the list. But don’t forget the Mets.

After a troubled offseason that seemed to put their general manager and manager on the firing line before the season opener, many figured the club would be buried in bad news by now.

But the Mets are hanging tough in the NL East. They have lost their past two games but trail the Braves, another surprise (a mild one, anyway), by just 1.5 games.

Surprise! R.A. Dickey has helped pitch the Mets into contention.
Surprise! R.A. Dickey has helped pitch the Mets into contention.

Just as surprising as the Mets’ climb into contention has been one of the key reasons behind their good fortune. If you pegged R.A. Dickey to be 6-1 with a 2.98 ERA at this point, you should be living in Las Vegas.

When the Mets agreed to a minor league deal with Dickey this past December on the same day the cross-town Yankees acquired Javier Vazquez, Dickey barely made it on the transactions page. He was an aging righthander who hadn’t cut it as a conventional pitcher but didn’t want to give up, so he converted to full-time knuckling in 2005. That didn’t work so well, either, and Dickey spent about as much time in the minors as the majors over the next four years.

Well, score one for persistence. Dickey put his name in the Mets’ record book by winning his first six decisions after he was promoted in May. He might have saved not only his career but the Mets’ season, too. Dickey has had plenty of help, of course, but the club is 24-13 since his debut.

For now anyway, Dickey’s career is spinning in the right direction after he conquered the difficult (and disappearing) skill of throwing a baseball without spin.

"It’s not so much that it’s working better, it’s just working more," Dickey says. "The movement I’m getting is late in the strike zone. That was happening before but just not as often."

As for any pitcher, the key has been throwing strikes. Dickey is walking only 2.6 batters per nine innings this season after averaging 4.1 per nine over his previous two seasons in the majors. "I’m in year five of throwing the pitch and feel like I’ve put in enough work to where my muscle memory is starting to take it over. Like anything, there comes a point when you don’t want to have to think about what you’re doing on the mound. You just want it to occur very organically, very naturally. That’s happening more than ever."

Because pitchers like to put doubt in hitters’ minds whenever they can, knuckleballers often say they don’t know where their pitch is going. "We all play into that big time," former knuckleballer Tom Candiotti admits. Don’t buy it, at least not completely.

Candiotti, who walked 2.9 per nine innings in a 16-year career, says throwing strikes isn’t that difficult once you have down the mechanics. "You try to drill the catcher in the mask," he says.

Do that and the knuckleball likely will drop into the strike zone. "Once in a while you throw the one that goes crazy but most of the time, the ball is going to break one of three ways — down to the left, down to the right or straight down," Candiotti says.

Knuckleballs confound hitters, embarrass catchers and bore scouts but they’re a special, if often overlooked, part of the game. Look at it this way: If you’ve ever played catch, you’re probably tried to throw one. It’s no wonder knuckleballers stick together.

"At one point, I was the only guy in the big leagues who threw a knuckleball," says Candiotti, who pitched from 1983-99. "Around 1987, (then Rangers pitching coach) Tom House, who had a huge interest in knuckleball pitchers, told me, ‘Congratulations’ one day. I said, ‘Thanks, what did I do?’ ‘You’ve become the 20th pitcher in the history of baseball to become a full-time knuckleball pitcher.’ I know it was important to Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough and those guys for me to carry the torch.

You don’t have to be knuckleballer — or a Mets fan — to root for Dickey. Anyone who values perseverance can appreciate the years it has taken to have even six weeks of success. "It was a real grueling transition," Dickey says. "But I always had the hope that it would end up on the other side."

Now that he has made a successful transition, he could stick around for a while. The stress of throwing knuckleballs is not much greater than playing catch. "I was in the eighth inning (of a recent start) and felt like I had only thrown a couple of innings," Dickey says.

Considering that good knuckleballers typically last well into their 40s, Dickey, 35, hopes he is just starting. He points out that Tim Wakefield, Niekro and Hough all had plenty of success after turning 35.

"I’m still a prospect," Dickey says. "Like I’m 28 in knuckleball years."

That remains to be seen, but at least he has been able to spin the Mets’ season in the right direction — without any spin on his pitches, of course.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Among first-half surprises, the Padres’ rise, the Cubs’ collapse, Jose Bautista’s slugging and now-retired Ken Griffey Jr.’s non-slugging top the list. But don’t forget the Mets.

After a troubled offseason that seemed to put their general manager and manager on the firing line before the season opener, many figured the club would be buried in bad news by now.

But the Mets are hanging tough in the NL East. They have lost their past two games but trail the Braves, another surprise (a mild one, anyway), by just 1.5 games.

Surprise! R.A. Dickey has helped pitch the Mets into contention.
Surprise! R.A. Dickey has helped pitch the Mets into contention.

Just as surprising as the Mets’ climb into contention has been one of the key reasons behind their good fortune. If you pegged R.A. Dickey to be 6-1 with a 2.98 ERA at this point, you should be living in Las Vegas.

When the Mets agreed to a minor league deal with Dickey this past December on the same day the cross-town Yankees acquired Javier Vazquez, Dickey barely made it on the transactions page. He was an aging righthander who hadn’t cut it as a conventional pitcher but didn’t want to give up, so he converted to full-time knuckling in 2005. That didn’t work so well, either, and Dickey spent about as much time in the minors as the majors over the next four years.

Well, score one for persistence. Dickey put his name in the Mets’ record book by winning his first six decisions after he was promoted in May. He might have saved not only his career but the Mets’ season, too. Dickey has had plenty of help, of course, but the club is 24-13 since his debut.

For now anyway, Dickey’s career is spinning in the right direction after he conquered the difficult (and disappearing) skill of throwing a baseball without spin.

"It’s not so much that it’s working better, it’s just working more," Dickey says. "The movement I’m getting is late in the strike zone. That was happening before but just not as often."

As for any pitcher, the key has been throwing strikes. Dickey is walking only 2.6 batters per nine innings this season after averaging 4.1 per nine over his previous two seasons in the majors. "I’m in year five of throwing the pitch and feel like I’ve put in enough work to where my muscle memory is starting to take it over. Like anything, there comes a point when you don’t want to have to think about what you’re doing on the mound. You just want it to occur very organically, very naturally. That’s happening more than ever."

Because pitchers like to put doubt in hitters’ minds whenever they can, knuckleballers often say they don’t know where their pitch is going. "We all play into that big time," former knuckleballer Tom Candiotti admits. Don’t buy it, at least not completely.

Candiotti, who walked 2.9 per nine innings in a 16-year career, says throwing strikes isn’t that difficult once you have down the mechanics. "You try to drill the catcher in the mask," he says.

Do that and the knuckleball likely will drop into the strike zone. "Once in a while you throw the one that goes crazy but most of the time, the ball is going to break one of three ways — down to the left, down to the right or straight down," Candiotti says.

Knuckleballs confound hitters, embarrass catchers and bore scouts but they’re a special, if often overlooked, part of the game. Look at it this way: If you’ve ever played catch, you’re probably tried to throw one. It’s no wonder knuckleballers stick together.

"At one point, I was the only guy in the big leagues who threw a knuckleball," says Candiotti, who pitched from 1983-99. "Around 1987, (then Rangers pitching coach) Tom House, who had a huge interest in knuckleball pitchers, told me, ‘Congratulations’ one day. I said, ‘Thanks, what did I do?’ ‘You’ve become the 20th pitcher in the history of baseball to become a full-time knuckleball pitcher.’ I know it was important to Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough and those guys for me to carry the torch.

You don’t have to be knuckleballer — or a Mets fan — to root for Dickey. Anyone who values perseverance can appreciate the years it has taken to have even six weeks of success. "It was a real grueling transition," Dickey says. "But I always had the hope that it would end up on the other side."

Now that he has made a successful transition, he could stick around for a while. The stress of throwing knuckleballs is not much greater than playing catch. "I was in the eighth inning (of a recent start) and felt like I had only thrown a couple of innings," Dickey says.

Considering that good knuckleballers typically last well into their 40s, Dickey, 35, hopes he is just starting. He points out that Tim Wakefield, Niekro and Hough all had plenty of success after turning 35.

"I’m still a prospect," Dickey says. "Like I’m 28 in knuckleball years."

That remains to be seen, but at least he has been able to spin the Mets’ season in the right direction — without any spin on his pitches, of course.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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