Knuckleball saved Dickey's career

R.A. Dickey planned to call Tim Wakefield before the New York Mets opened a series against the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday night. How often, after all, can one knuckleballer get direct intelligence on a team he is about to face from a fellow knuckleballer?

The Phillies face the knuckleball-throwing duo in consecutive games, with an off day in between. Dickey couldn't recall the last time a team would have seen knuckleballers in back-to-back games. Wakefield tossed eight scoreless innings in Boston's 8-3 win in Philadelphia on Sunday.

"Golly, you've got to go back to maybe like Wilbur Wood and Charlie Hough, or Hoyt Wilhelm and somebody like that," Dickey said. "I'm trying to think of just the knuckleballers in my era, like Tom Candiotti. But I don't remember two in a row. … It's good that he threw a shutout instead of giving up 15. I'll tell you that much."

After assuming Oliver Perez's spot in the rotation, Dickey limited the Washington Nationals to two runs on five hits and four walks in six innings in his Mets debut Wednesday. The 35-year-old right-hander suggested it should not be detrimental that Philadelphia has just seen a knuckleballer.

"If it's good that day, it's good that day," Dickey said.

When he was a conventional pitcher with the Texas Rangers with a fastball in the low 90s, Dickey pitched against Wakefield on July 29, 2003, then again against him at The Ballpark in Arlington on May 2 of the following season. At the time Dickey would incorporate a couple of hard knuckleballs per game into his pitching repertoire. When an injury to the rhomboid muscle, which contributes to shoulder movement, forced his velocity into the mid-80s, Dickey committed to reinventing himself as primarily a knuckleball pitcher.

Wakefield, hearing of Dickey's intent, reached out to him to offer advice. The two have been "friends ever since," according to Dickey. "You can trace us both back in some way to Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough," Dickey said. "We both worked under both of those guys. And I've worked under Tim, actually, for a little bit. It's a small fraternity and we're pretty tight."

Dickey said when he was learning the knuckleball in 2005, '06 and '07, he studied a lot of film and learned pretty quickly he had to develop his own style. "If I spend a lot of time trying to be Tim Wakefield, I'm going to lose who I am," he said. "And that spells bad news."

Still, he does rely on Wakefield for help. "We talk a different language when we talk to each other," he said, "a lot differently than a pitching coach would address a traditional pitcher. He's done everything from look at my tapes to watch my bullpens."

As Dickey noted, all knuckleballers are not created the same.

"We have two different styles," he said. "I still have more arm strength than he does, just because I was a conventional pitcher before I became a knuckleballer. He was a position player. I still have a little bit of a fastball. And my knuckleball is probably on average about 6 or 7 mph harder than his.

"That doesn't make it better. That's just the way it is. If you ask somebody that was intimate with what a knuckleball does and is, I'd say they would probably liken me more to Joe Niekro, Phil's brother -- a guy who threw kind of hard and mixed in other pitches as well from time to time. But if we're throwing it good, then it's good. It comes out with no rotation and then it's hard to hit."

Dickey's pitch selection for a game usually includes 80-85 percent knuckleballs. He actually reinvented himself five years ago at the suggestion of Orel Hershiser, his pitching coach with the Rangers. Hershiser knew Dickey had a good knuckleball and suggested that he go down to Triple-A to work on it.

"My velocity had gone from about 91, 92 down to 86, 87 mph. But I felt great," Dickey recalled. "I just didn't have any more bullets -- at least hollow-point bullets. I still have some bullets, but not the armor-piercing ones. So I had to come up with something if I wanted to keep chasing a dream. That was kind of the beginning."

If a knuckleball does what it does while floating through the air after being released, what purpose could there be in getting a scouting report on the Phillies from Wakefield?

After all, even Dickey noted about reviewing video: "It doesn't do me much good to go in there and watch the Phillies, for example -- like watch Ryan Howard's weaknesses -- because he's getting a knuckleball. He knows it and I know it. It's just a matter of throwing a bunch of good ones."

Dickey indicated there still is value in questioning Wakefield.

"Like if he threw fastballs to hitters, what were the locations?" Dickey said. "Did he have more success with a knuckleball that swept away from a righty? Or was it the one that came in to the righty? What was his hand position most of the day? Things like that. How many bad ones did he throw and get away with? What was the height?"

Dickey's fastball now registers 85 mph, more zip than that of the pitcher he will oppose in Tuesday's series opener, 47-year-old Jamie Moyer.
As for Dickey's knuckleball, it fluctuates from 69-77 mph. Wakefield's fastball sits at 71-72 mph. Dickey watched him throw a knuckleball Sunday as slow as 59 mph. The speed differential is the key, according to Dickey -- that, and ensuring the motion when delivering the occasional fastball is the same, so a batter isn't tipped to when the more traditional pitch is coming.

Dickey said Wakefield is so polished, he once saw him strike out former Rangers teammate Michael Young on three straight 71 mph fastballs.

Given his rebirth as a knuckleballer, and Wakefield's success despite limited velocity, Dickey doesn't believe his career will be done anytime soon.

"I really feel like I'm about 26 in knuckleball years," he said. "Hopefully we've got five or six good ones left."

Adam Rubin covers the Mets for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.