TO HEAR METS ACE R.A. DICKEY talk about the knuckleball is to hear a man talk about faith. "You either embrace it for what it is -- a pitch that is reliant on an amalgam of forces both seen and unseen -- or you allow it to drive you half out of your mind," writes the 10-year MLB vet in his 2012 autobiography, Wherever I Wind Up. "I embrace it."
And for good reason. At 37, Dickey had a career-best 18 wins through Sept. 13, after just 20 over the past three seasons. But his late success isn't all about faith. Metrics show that the righty's arm is nearly five years younger than a conventional pitcher's.
That's what Insider Dan Szymborski found in his study of throwers. First, he divided all hurlers in MLB history into two groups: regular pitchers and knuckleballers. He then broke down how much of each group's career remained after every season from ages 19 to 41. Both groups begin with a career expectancy average of about 99 percent, meaning a pitcher can expect that 99 percent of his career is left. But by 30, a knuckleballer's CEA is twice that of a regular pitcher's. At Dickey's age, a knuckleballer has a 13.4 percent CEA, almost equal to a 32-year-old conventional pitcher's.
The first-time All-Star has already lasted longer than three-fourths of the knucklers in our study, and he is far from finished. Szymborski found that knuckleballers who pitched 50 or more innings in the majors at 37 had an average of 814 1/3 innings left, or about four seasons. Dickey didn't adopt the pitch until 2005, but considering he's thrown about 1,000 innings in the majors -- knuckleball legend Tim Wakefield had twice that at 37 -- he might last even longer.
Truth is, it's shocking Dickey is still around. He doesn't have an ulnar collateral ligament, which often must be repaired by Tommy John surgery, and its absence puts stress on all other parts of the joint. "If a pitcher has no UCL, he must compensate with extra compression between his elbow bones and/or extra tension in the other ligaments and tendons," says Glenn Fleisig, research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute. "That is quite remarkable."
So how does the knuckleball help Dickey defy science? The pitch requires less velocity than a fastball to be effective, so the arm experiences less stress. "Ligaments and tendons are like rubber bands," Fleisig says. "Stretch them as far as you can and over time they'll develop small tears until they break. If you pitch at submaximal effort, the rubber band doesn't tear at all."
We can hear Mets skipper Terry Collins now: "Okay, guys, I want submaximal effort from everyone!"