Facing R.A. Dickey's knuckleball isn't easy. The only thing his knuckler respects less than the feelings of hitters is the laws of physics.
But here's another question: Can a day against Dickey's knuckleball have a lingering effect? Does his knuckleball have the power to embarrass hitters and give them a hangover?
Michael Salfino of the Wall Street Journal says the answer is yes, at least as far as things pertained to New York Mets starting pitchers in 2012. When they faced the same team Dickey did the day after one of his starts, they compiled a 2.38 ERA. By comparison, Dickey's own ERA was 2.73.
Salfino noted that Mets starters didn't enjoy the same kind of success when they followed Dickey, now with the Toronto Blue Jays, against the same team in 2010 or 2011. My own number-crunching turned up the same conclusion, as Mets starters had ERAs over 4.00 when following Dickey against the same team both years.
Based on this data, there's reason to wonder if the tremendous pitching carried out by Mets hurlers following Dickey's starts in 2012 was a fluke. The trouble is that this data only tells half the story.
What about pitchers from other teams who got to face Dickey's most recent opponent? Did they also benefit from a "knuckleball hangover" effect in 2012? What about in 2010 and 2011?
Here's what I found.
Dickey made 33 starts in 2012, and 21 of those came either at the beginning or in the middle of a series, thus allowing for one of his comrades to face the same team the next day.
That leaves 12 instances in which the lineup that faced Dickey got to move on to face another team with a different set of starting pitchers. Though not every single one of them followed Dickey the very next day, here's how those pitchers fared in Dickey's wake.
Allow me to condense this data down to the essentials. Following Dickey, pitchers from other teams averaged roughly six innings per start, 8.6 hits per nine innings, 3.1 walks per nine innings, 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings and—this is the important part—compiled a 5.49 ERA.
Based on this data, it was only Mets pitchers who were doing work in Dickey's wake in 2012. The 12 pitchers from other teams apparently weren't facing lineups that were completely discombobulated from having faced Dickey's knuckler.
Granted, some pitchers did well, namely Lance Lynn, Andy Pettitte, Tim Hudson, Clayton Kershaw, Yovani Gallardo and Homer Bailey, who pitched a no-no against the Pittsburgh Pirates a day after Dickey had racked up 13 strikeouts against them.
You'll notice, however, that these six hurlers all have something in common: They're all pretty good.
Pettitte, Hudson, Kershaw and Gallardo need no introduction. Lynn was in the middle of an All-Star first half when he got to follow Dickey in early May. At the time he pitched his post-Dickey no-no, Bailey was in the middle of an extraordinary hot stretch that carried into the postseason.
It's likely that these six would have done work no matter who they were following. Their post-Dickey success didn't necessarily have anything to do with Dickey himself.
So right about now, the knuckleball hangover thing isn't looking so hot, but let's see what 2010 and 2011 have to say about that.
Dickey made 32 starts in 2011, and by my count 24 of those allowed for another Mets starter to follow him against the same team the next day. Sounds about right seeing as how Dickey started the season in the middle of New York's rotation in the third slot.
Here's how the eight starters from other teams fared when following Dickey in 2011.
The essentials here: roughly six innings per start, 7.9 hits per nine innings, 1.7 walks per nine innings, six strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.00 ERA.
Numbers like these make one go "Hmmm..."
That ERA gets even more impressive if you take Ross Ohlendorf's stinker out of the equation and focus on the seven starts that preceded it. In those, hurlers compiled a 1.96 ERA.
The other thing you'll notice is that the above table doesn't feature as many star pitchers as the 2012 table. The non-Ohlendorf ERA was compiled by mid and back-end guys.
And that, indeed, looks like a point for the knuckleball hangover effect. There's a very reasonable doubt as to whether any of these guys would have been able to be as successful if they hadn't been facing lineups that had recently been subjected to Dickey's knuckler.
But let's see what the 2010 numbers have to say.
Dickey made 26 starts in 2010 and put the league on notice by compiling a 2.84 ERA in 174.1 innings. By my count, 18 of his 26 starts were situated so that another Mets hurler could follow him against the same team.
Here's how the eight post-Dickey starters from other teams fared.
The essentials here: a little over six innings per start, 9.0 hits per nine innings, 2.5 walks per nine innings, 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.17 ERA.
There's no outlier to remove here that would make the overall ERA in post-Dickey starts even more impressive, but a 3.17 ERA is still good. To put it in perspective, the league ERA in 2010 was 4.08.
And like with the 2011 sample size, you'll notice that there aren't many stars to note here. Only Cole Hamels sticks out, and he was certainly in his element in 2010 with a 3.06 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP.
Even if you take his start out of the equation and focus on how the less talented pitchers did, the ERA would only rise to 3.55. That's still well above the league average from 2010.
So the 2010 performances by non-Mets pitchers in Dickey's wake looks like yet another point for the knuckleball hangover effect, and that makes for something of a dilemma.
In the end, what we have are three points for the knuckleball hangover effect—provided by Mets starters in 2012 and non-Mets starters in 2010 and 2011—and three points against the effect—provided by Mets starters in 2010 and 2011 and non-Mets starters in 2012. As such, the data is split on the notion as to whether the knuckleball hangover effect is an actual thing or not.
So...What the heck?
So...What the Heck?
It would be a lot easier to reach a conclusion here if the Mets had awful starting pitching in 2010 and 2011, as that would help explain why their hurlers were unable to do work in Dickey's wake.
But that's not the case. Per FanGraphs, Mets starters tied for sixth in MLB in starters' ERA in 2010. Their starters managed just a 4.12 ERA in 2011, but that was only high enough to place them in the middle of the pack in MLB rather than way down at the bottom of the ranks.
So there's really not much to explain the split in the data from 2010 and 2011. The reality that Mets pitchers didn't benefit from following Dickey's knuckleball and the reality that other pitchers did cancel each out, thus making it hard to chalk anything up to a knuckleball hangover effect.
But really, 2012 is the key year in this discussion. Dickey's knuckler was good in 2010 and 2011, but 2012 was the year it became the single most dangerous pitch in baseball. If ever there was a year that hitters should have been dealt a hangover by Dickey's knuckler, it should have been last year.
Alas, it really only worked for Mets pitchers. Since other clubs didn't clearly benefit from a hangover effect, you're left with no choice but to tip your cap to Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen and the club's other pitchers. They certainly deserve some credit.
Because the Mets ended up having a rough season, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that their starting pitching was pretty good under Warthen in 2012. Mets starters had a 3.83 ERA (see FanGraphs) and logged the most quality starts in the league, according to ESPN.com.
Did Warthen come up with ways to exploit lineups the day after they had faced Dickey? My guess would be yes, he probably did. And if he did, that's more a credit to Warthen's ingenuity than Dickey's knuckleball. It's probably not capable of giving hitters hangovers all on its own.
So if I'm the Blue Jays—or, more specifically, Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker—I'm not ready to trust in the notion that Dickey's knuckleball can screw a lineup over for two days rather than just one. I am, however, ready to look into how to make it happen.
To that end, extensive film study and a phone call to Warthen is in order.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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