R.A. Dickey, 33, with significant big league experience on his resume, is reinventing himself as a knuckleball pitcher, and he is creating a very favorable impression with the Mariners in the process.
The knuckleball almost is a lost art, not that it was ever a particularly prevalent art. It is a pitch that appears to act on whims of its own choosing, making it extremely difficult to hit, but also making it potentially a very trying experience for the fellow who is throwing it.
Dickey is making a full-fledged commitment to the pitch, to the art of throwing it. The commitment is working. In nine innings over four Spring Training appearances, he has an ERA of 2.00, has given up just six hits and three walks and struck out four. Dickey throws his knuckleball harder than most practitioners of the art, and he still has enough conventional stuff to succeed on days when the knuckleball is not at its best. But he estimates he is throwing the knuckler 85 percent of the time. He is a knuckleball pitcher, and there is more to that designation than a mere phrase.
"The knuckleball demands that you be in the moment more than anything I've ever done," Dickey said on Friday in the Mariners' clubhouse at the Peoria Sports Complex. "What I mean by that is my best outings as a knuckleballer are where I am so present with the pitch from pitch to pitch, at the end I'll look up and there's a bunch of goose eggs. But it's almost like the goose eggs are an afterthought.
"My thought is how to throw a perfect knuckleball on every pitch. By committing to that system of belief and staying in the moment with every pitch, being cognizant of the game situation, but not being two batters ahead or two batters behind, really being in the present with it -- when I got that, it started to really be good.
"There is a discipline, a mental discipline in trying to do that. This is my 12th year playing professional baseball, and I'm just now -- the last year and a half -- kind of tapping into what that means. And I don't know that I would have ever gotten it completely had I not switched to the knuckleball."
On a Mariners team that won 88 games last year, is a legitimate postseason contender and greatly fortified its rotation with the addition of Erik Bedard, Dickey could be a valuable, versatile member of the staff. With the knuckleball, he could pitch in a variety of relief roles or as a spot starter, and he could pitch often. In this way and in other ways, he has made a positive impression on the Mariners, who picked him up from the Twins in the most recent Rule 5 Draft.
"He can do any role and you can use him a lot," Mariners manager John McLaren said on Friday. "He brings something to the table where you could possibly take another bench player, because he could pitch every day and it wouldn't bother him.
"He was a fastball pitcher, a traditional-type pitcher, and now he's learning the knuckleball. It's a new dimension for him. He actually throws extremely hard for a knuckleball pitcher. I've been impressed. He's a real professional and a great teammate. I like what I've seen of him."
For the bulk of his career, Dickey had a conventional pitching repertoire, with velocity in the low-to-mid 90s and an effective changeup. He did throw a hard knuckleball, but only occasionally. With the Rangers, his pitching coach, Orel Hershiser, suggested that if he wanted to prolong his career, he could focus on the knuckleball.
After a back injury deprived him of some velocity, Dickey decided in 2005 to take that route. It would not be a nice, steady linear progression, but it would be a journey into a kind of knuckleball self-awareness. A pitcher who heads off in this direction leaves behind the kind of precision he was attempting to achieve with his other pitches and puts his faith in the knuckleball and his ability to persevere through its many vagaries. But don't think about becoming a "master" of the knuckleball.
"You don't 'master' it," Dickey said with a smile. "That's No. 1. There's no mastery of that pitch. No. 2 is you kind of have a relationship with the pitch. It's not a pitch to be tamed. It's a pitch that you have an idea what to do with and you have an idea how to manipulate it a certain way, but if it doesn't want to go that way, it's not going to go that way.
"There's a lot of real growing pains. It's a transition, even mentally, psychologically, to leave who you were behind completely and really make an investment in being this new person. I knew if I could get on the other side of that, if I could persevere, at least keep pushing to get on the other side of the pain of that, there might be something nice on the other side. And sure enough, it clicked."
It clicked well enough last season with the Brewers' Triple-A Nashville affiliate that Dickey went 13-6 and was named Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year. There are few plying the knuckleball trade these days, but plenty of good advice still is available.
Charlie Hough, who used the knuckleball to fashion a quarter-century big league career, has been a mentor to Dickey. Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre is an obvious source of wisdom on all pitching matters. And Dave Wallace, Mariners special assistant to the executive vice president, worked extensively with knuckleball specialist Tim Wakefield in Boston.
But at the end of the day, out there on the mound, it's just Dickey and the knuckleball.
"Charlie Hough told me the first day: 'It took me one day to throw a good knuckleball and a lifetime to throw it for strikes,'" Dickey said. "It really does require patience and a lot of humility and the endurance mentally to keep pushing."
Look at those requirements: patience, humility, mental endurance. The knuckleball may open up a new and rewarding chapter in Dickey's career, but this knuckleball lifestyle will demand something significant in return.
"It's a hard lifestyle," Dickey said with a small smile. "My mind wants to go to all the hopes that I have, being like Charlie Hough, projecting myself out four or five years in advance. I have to be disciplined enough to recognize that and bring myself back to, 'Here we are in Peoria, talking to you and trying to do this well.'"
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.