Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey likes feedback and he got plenty of it from the batting cage Sunday as Toronto hitters faced live pitching for the first time this spring.
There were sighs, laughs, gasps and some wild swings as last year's National League Cy Young Award-winner worked his magic on a chilly, windy 10-degree day during a live batting practice session.
"After you throw a good one, it does some funny things so you get some good reactions," said the 38-year-old Dickey.
Spring training has just started, but the former New York Mets ace is already befuddling batters.
"I think most of the hitters will tell you, they were in there and halfway through their swing I think they were laughing," said pitching coach Pete Walker. "Because they just realized they had no chance today.
"They're just getting into the swing of things themselves as hitters, but he's got tremendous stuff. That ball moves so much and late and he can pound the strike zone with his knuckleball."
The Jays divided their pitchers across several fields at the club's training complex Sunday in what promised to be a one-sided exercise. At this stage of the preseason, the pitchers have the edge as batters are only beginning to work on their timing.
"It didn't matter who you faced today, it was going to be tough," said first baseman/designated hitter Adam Lind.
But those unlucky enough to find themselves on Dickey's field — like Lind — were definitely behind the eight-ball.
Cy Young Award-winner. Knuckleballer. All that was missing was a pitchfork and cloven hooves.
A pair of bodies stationed in the outfield to retrieve balls essentially remained glued to the spot during Dickey's 40-pitch session.
Dickey had Brett Lawrie talking to himself at the plate as he tried to make sense of the knuckleball, not to mention Dickey's other pitches.
After working him over repeatedly with his 75 miles-per-hour knuckleball, Dickey threw a fastball past the Canadian.
"If a guy has tracked 10 or 11 knuckleballs in a row and then you throw a fastball in there, it's a whole different animal," Dickey said. "It looks a lot harder than it really is so you can kind of play with the optical illusion from time to time."
The good news for Blue Jays fans is that there is more to come.
"The knuckleball that you guys might have seen today will not be the knuckleball I carry into the season with me," said Dickey, already named as Toronto's opening day starter. "It will be, hopefully, a little but more consistent than it was today. It certainly will probably be moving a little bit more as the days heat up, the humidity gets going a little bit and my arm gets a little bit stronger.
"All those things will come into play. But that's the natural progression of things. Today I felt good and I'm happy to take that and run with it."
Dickey reinvented himself seven years ago by embracing the knuckleball. As he explains, he subtracts spin from the baseball — conventional pitchers try to add to it.
It makes for a pitch that takes a strange, unpredictable journey to the plate.
"That's part of the beauty of the pitch," Dickey said of the knuckleball. "If I don't know where it's going, the hitter for sure doesn't."
But Dickey does have a feel for the ball going into the strike zone.
"But where in the strike zone? How low, how high, which direction? That's up to the ball and the way the seams rotate and the wind resistance and all the physics that I know nothing of," he admitted.
Dickey can change speeds with it and, "from time to time," can control the height of the delivery.
One of those facing him Sunday was infielder Mark DeRosa, whom Dickey noted was a teammate of his with the Texas Rangers in 2006 when he gave up six home runs — tying a major league record — in three innings.
"R.A. is one of a kind," said DeRosa. "He's a great guy and a great pitcher."
Their friendship didn't stop Dickey from running the gamut of his arsenal.
"I was just having some fun out there. Slowing them down and speeding them up. It's early. That's the first live pitching those guys have seen so that's not very fair," Dickey said with a giggle.
The batters' reactions did not go unnoticed by Dickey
"I am trying to get my work in out there and it is business," he explained. "And part of that business is if I see those guys talking or shaking their heads or saying something to the catcher, I know that it's probably moving pretty good.
"That's good feedback for me. Because I don't always know what it's doing closer to the plate. I know how it feels when it leaves my hand."
Toronto manager John Gibbons, while saying live batting practice doesn't mean much, acknowledged that Dickey's knuckleball was impressive.
"It's nasty," he said. "I can see why guys have trouble hitting it."
Added Walker: "To say he's ahead of schedule would be an understatement."