Sometimes there is a randomness to the knuckleball that can be maddening.
Take R.A. Dickey’s most recent outing against the Chicago White Sox, for example. For the first four innings, only an error kept the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander from being perfect, striking out six while leaving his opponents mesmerized.
Then came the fifth, which went Jose Abreu home run, strikeout, groundout, Dayan Viciedo home run, Alejandro De Aza single, strikeout. After a clean sixth, the seventh went Abreu home run, Adam Dunn walk, Alexei Ramirez home run. Just like that, he took the loss for a third straight start.
The pitching line, however – six innings, five runs on five hits and a walk with nine strikeouts – didn’t make sense.
How could Dickey be that dominant with his stuff, and end up with a line like that? Can the pitch really be that random?
"Some of it you have to accept, any knuckleballer will tell you that," Dickey said afterwards. "There comes a time where for me I can maybe step on the gas a little more, or let up on the gas a little more, to try and get more movement or less movement depending on what I'm trying to do. Outside of that you really have to surrender to the outcome once it leaves your hand the way you want it too.
"The last three outings I haven't walked a lot of guys, I've been in the strike zone pretty much the whole game, I felt really good."
Dickey (6-7, 4.24 ERA) hopes to feel even better after he starts Thursday night at Oakland against the Athletics and Sonny Gray (7-3, 3.20 ERA) in the opener of a four-game series. For a different viewpoint, Sportsnet chatted with catcher Josh Thole about what he's been seeing from Dickey of late.
SN: Josh, in recent starts it seems like Dickey will be dominating, then suddenly lose it for a moment and suffer some costly damage. What have you seen that might be causing that?
THOLE: "Nothing in particular. It always seems to be the third time through the order, but when a guy is throwing a knuckleball, that's about as unpredictable as what's happening, know what I mean? You get one to move off the barrel once, next thing you know it's a completely different ballgame. We're going to have to figure something out."
SN: There have been starts this season where Dickey's used the fastball more often. What might changing up the mix accomplish?
THOLE: "His knuckleball has been so, so good in his last few starts that there's been no reason to deviate from that. Like I said, we're going to have to figure something out here. I don't know what the answer is, we're going to have to sit down and talk and decide which direction we want to head, because we're going to have to do something different."
SN: Have similar adjustments been needed in years past?
THOLE: "Yeah, especially in the big-leagues. Even when he had his great year in 2012, that's as good as I've ever seen it obviously, but there were still points where you were tinkering, making an adjustment, no matter what it is, whether it's a lineup where we could throw more fastballs or have to change speeds, or whatever. From start-to-start you're doing that, but the other day (against the White Sox), his knuckleball was as good as I've seen it for the first four innings. It's like, why fix something that's not broken? Next thing you know you roll out, something happens and everything unravels."
SN: Do you look to issues with his mechanics?
THOLE: "I would not say it's mechanical, whatsoever, because as you'll notice, it goes for a minute, they put up a two- or three-spot, and then all of a sudden he's back to where he was for the next two innings. That's why you don't go right away into panic mode because the knuckleball really has been good."
SN: During Dickey's outings you rarely go out to the mound. How come?
THOLE: "If he covers first base I go out and give him a breather, or if I see something, I'll go out there, but I try not to go out there. There's only so much I can tell him. The guy throws a knuckleball. Plus, even when I'm giving him a breather, there are certain times he doesn't want that. Unless things are really unravelling, there's no reason to go out and break the rhythm up."
SN: How does Dickey handle his current inconsistencies?
THOLE: "He's been through way bigger struggles than this, and his outings aren't terrible, it's not like we're just getting boat-raced out there each night, he's keeping us in every ballgame, he really is. Everybody wants to do well, I want to do well just for his sake, more than anything, nobody wants to get embarrassed out here, so yeah, on that end of it, it's tough, I couldn't imagine it not being tough. But I think you look at the bigger picture, what direction we're heading here, when things aren't going well you've got to do your best to keep us in ballgames because we've got a potent offence. He understands that, but like I said, he's been through way bigger struggles than this in the game."
SN: How much of a difference will cleaning up his little blips make?
THOLE: "He goes to dominating, putting up zeroes for eight or nine innings. It's easier said than done, but when he gets that monkey off his back where it's just one dominating performance, I think you'll see him take off, I really do. Hopefully that's soon. I'm not even saying put up zeroes, but what you saw for the first four innings the other day, like that, all the way through. I think you're going to see him take off at that point. This game is all about confidence, if you think you're good you're going to be good. If you're waiting for something bad to happen, something bad is going to happen. I'm not saying that's what he's doing, I'm just saying in general. I just think if he can get that one dominating game, the rest of the way is going to be the R.A. of 2012."