Figuring out John Farrell isn’t rocket science. He’s just another selfish guy loyal to himself and his career.
But this knuckleball stuff? This weirdness of subtracting spin and talking about the “one, last, subtle move” in the final 18 inches to the plate – not 21 or 23 or 14 but 18 inches, mind you, but 18 inches – just might be rocket science.
It’s certainly a great deal of fun. That’s why Monday’s spring training debut by R.A. Dickey was so eagerly anticipated by his teammates, including those who stayed around to watch even when they weren’t playing or pitching.
True, it was Grapefruit League action against a non-descript Boston Red Sox split squad, but the 34 pitches (24 strikes) that Dickey threw in a Toronto Blue Jays uniform were, the defending National League Cy Young Award winner acknowledged, a first baby step in preparation aimed at seeing how his pitch translated into the hurly-burly of the American League East. It was like finding yourself in the middle of a physics experiment, because the Red Sox started a minor-league pitcher trying to make a conversion similar to Dickey’s, Steven Wright, and brought along former knuckleballer Tim Wakefield to monitor the outing.
Wright struck out three batters in two innings, and like Dickey seemed to throw a harder knuckleball than the usual floating pitch so many associate it as being. Later, Dickey spoke at length about viewing his transition to the AL East as allowing him an opportunity to show that the pitch can be “trustworthy” in the AL. He has already resolved himself to the possibility that the 230 strikeouts he put up in 2012 won’t likely translate to the AL with the designated hitter and generally deeper lineups – “I don’t see a plummet,” he said, “but I can see, maybe, 200 strikeouts.”
Look: Dickey isn’t the first guy to throw a knuckleball, but given the fuss created by last season, it sure seems like it. The MLB Network created a show, The Next Knuckler, based on the pitch. And Dickey, who walked one and gave up four hits, shrugged when he was asked if he’d become some kind of pied piper.
“I think it’s maybe the success of the pitch,” he said. “Maybe front-office personnel are starting to trust that it can be an effective product for the team. A knuckleballer can gobble up innings, pitch on short rest … you can do a lot of things a conventional pitcher cannot do. Maybe there’s some progressive thinking going on that wasn’t there before.”
They were certainly a progressive 4,824 in attendance at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. Anybody expecting vindictiveness towards Farrell in what would turn into a 4-2 Red Sox’s win was disappointed. The snowbirds let you down, Blue Jays fans. Farrell was booed when his name was announced along with that of the Red Sox lineup, but other than the odd “Farrell, you suck,” the Red Sox’s skipper might be forgiven for thinking everyone else is as deluded as he is, and actually believes like Farrell that he was in fact traded to the Red Sox, as opposed to orchestrating his departure.
Farrell spun that yarn again for reporters on Monday, but soon everybody transitioned from talking about a knucklehead to talking about the knuckleball, and the 12 miles an hour wind blowing at his back probably made Dickey feel all the better about signing a contract extension with a team that pitches in a stadium with a retractable roof.
“The thing that makes a knuckleball good is late movement, particularly movement around the plate,” he explained. “If the wind is pushing it to the catcher’s mitt before it makes that last, little finish, you lose maybe one subtle break that causes a hitter to swing and miss. Days when that happens, you need to change speeds and mix in fastballs more.”
Catcher J.P. Arencibia’s ability to handle Dickey’s knuckleball will be one of the storylines of the spring, especially since it has emerged that there’s no guarantee Arencibia actually winds up catching Dickey when the two report to Team USA for the World Baseball Classic. Wild pitches and passed balls are part of the deal for catchers working with knuckleballers – it really is an ego-check – and Arencibia also acknowledged that framing pitches for umpires, which can lead to all important stolen strikes, is pretty much a lost cause with a knuckler. The rest of it is, in his words, “trying to wait as long as possible to catch it.” Speaking of which: Did you catch the one about the manager who weaseled his way out of his contract?