DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The regular season is still six weeks away but R.A. Dickey already has hitters muttering under their breath.
Dickey threw to live batters for the first time in camp on Sunday afternoon, and most of the Blue Jays came away from the plate shaking their heads.
The veteran knuckleballer displayed impressive movement that baffled the likes of Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind and Mark DeRosa. There were moments of laughter and also complete bewilderment as they stepped into the box for the first time against last year's National League Cy Young Award winner.
"It looks like a paper airplane coming at you," DeRosa said. "It's going every which way and you really can't time it up because now he's able to add and subtract velocity on it, and occasionally sneak his heater by you.
"He's just got so much confidence with the pitch and he's able to do kind of what he wants to do with it, whereas before he was just kind of throwing it at the same speed."
Dickey almost exclusively throws a knuckleball but does have the ability to mix in a fastball/changeup combination. Last year, he threw the fastball approximately 14 percent of the time, and while the pitch typically is thrown in the low 80s, it often appears much faster.
Lawrie was one hitter who experienced that first hand. Following a series of knuckleballs, Dickey challenged the third baseman with a fastball and Lawrie seemed incapable of getting the bat off of his shoulders.
Lawrie, 23, watched helplessly as the pitch sailed by. He walked away from the batter's box shaking his head and muttered "right down the pipe."
Those are the type of reactions that Dickey was able to generate a lot last season, and even though Sunday marked the first time he threw to hitters in 2013, it was a positive sign this early in camp.
"It's good feedback for me," said Dickey, who went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA last season. "I am trying to get my work in out there and ... if I see those guys talking or shaking their heads, or saying something to the catcher, I know it's probably moving pretty good.
"I don't always know what it's doing there closer to the plate. I know how it feels when it leaves my hand. Getting those reactions from guys, even during the game, if I see guys over the course of the game chuckle to themselves or say something to the umpire going back to the dugout, those are little things I look for to know if it's moving well or not."
Dickey, 38, appears to have mastered the art of the knuckleball in the past couple of years. It's a notoriously hard pitch to command but he's figured out how to control its height and on his best days also has the ability to -- at least slightly -- manipulate its movement to the plate.
The progression certainly wasn't easy. Dickey began throwing the pitch in 2006 but didn't really become comfortable with it until 2010 when he was presented with the opportunity to join the Mets' starting rotation on a full-time basis.
Before that, there were plenty of ups and downs, and for a while it seemed as though Dickey would never be able to take the pitch to the next level. The low point came in 2006 as a member of the Rangers when he tied a Major League record by surrendering six home runs in a game.
Dickey said the only current semblance to his former self can be found with his long flowing hair and trademark beard. On the mound, he's a completely different pitcher, and that's something to which DeRosa can attest.
"I was there in Texas in '05 and '06 when he first started throwing a knuckleball, struggling on the mound to figure it out," DeRosa said. "So to watch him develop and see all the hard work he put in pay off, it couldn't happen to a better guy. I couldn't be happier for the way he's matured with that pitch and to see him win the Cy Young. To face him in the first day was pretty special."
Dickey threw approximately 40 pitches on Sunday but said he could have easily gone up to 100 if required. The fact that he's so far along should come in handy when he departs for the World Baseball Classic in early March.
Dickey will be joined on Team USA by batterymate J.P. Arencibia. That's a crucial element of the upcoming tournament because it will give the Blue Jays an opportunity to see how well the two work together.
It has been expected that either Josh Thole or Henry Blanco will become Dickey's personal catcher once the season begins, but that's something Arencibia would like to avoid. He's set out to prove that he's more than capable of handling the knuckler, and his goal remains to be in the lineup on Opening Day when Dickey takes the mound at Rogers Centre.
"I think I've expressed that enough and from Day 1 they've told me I'll have an opportunity to catch him," Arencibia said. "I feel comfortable with him.
"Like I've said before, I want to catch him, I want to be back there as much as possible and that's our guy on Opening Day, our No. 1, and that's the guy I want to catch just like I want to catch No. 1 through No. 5."