Alex Anthopoulos has bet a considerable amount of his currency with ownership and Toronto Blue Jays fans on the ability of R.A. Dickey's knuckleball to clear customs and be as effective in the American League as it was in the National League.
But he has not gone all-in on the possibility of teaching the knuckleball to selected pitchers in the Blue Jays' minor-league system. Not yet. It has, the Blue Jays general manager admitted, gone through his mind but not to the point that he's made a mental list of possible conversion candidates or even asked for such a list to be prepared.
"I'd like to let R.A. get settled in," Anthopoulos said last week. "As a staff, we need to learn more about this. We have more resources, too. Josh Thole will be in the system [at Triple-A Buffalo]. Henry Blanco's caught R.A. So, we have several people who know about the mechanics of the pitch, and what to look for."
In one of his few quiet moments early in spring training, Dickey turned philosophical about the knuckler and its place in the game. The fact that he isn't some gimpy-armed, tubby pile of goo and is in fact capable of unleashing an effective fastball in some ways hurts the cause as well as helping it.
Anybody can learn a knuckleball – former Montreal Expos third baseman Tim Wallach would pitch batting practice when the team was facing a knuckler; Tim Hudson of the Atlanta Braves threw one for yuks in a Grapefruit League game this past week to good buddy Adam LaRoche – but not just anybody can use it the way Dickey can use it. What Dickey hopes is that open-minded, progressive team executives will look at the pitch as being something more than a freak-show act.
The Boston Red Sox brought in Tim Wakefield to work with 27-year-old budding knuckleballer Steven Wright, who faced Dickey in a Grapefruit League game before being sent down with the message that the organization expected him to be in the major leagues this season. Wright tinkered with a knuckleball in 2011 when he was with the Cleveland Indians. The Baltimore Orioles called up Hall of Famer Phil Niekro for a week and set him loose with minor-leaguers Eddie Gamboa, 27, and Zach Staniewicz, 28. Neither has had much success as a conventional pitcher, for one reason or another.
Anthopoulos said there are practical issues with the teaching of the pitch. To begin with, some statistical analysts wonder how effective numbers can be in judging the effectiveness of a knuckleball because it is such a fickle thing. What would determine promotion? Swings and misses alone don't take into account the level of the opposing hitter.
"We kind of sat around one day and joked about how scouts would grade a knuckleball," Anthopoulos said, laughing. "I mean, if you grade on a scale of two to eight, what exactly is a big-league-calibre knuckleball? Thing is, if it was that easy, everybody would be doing it. And they're not."
Anthopoulos had his staff download Knuckleball: The Movie for him to view on the plane ride to Nashville from Toronto where he helped convince Dickey to agree to a contract extension that was the final stage in his acquisition from the New York Mets. From the documentary and his discussion with Dickey, Anthopoulos came away with a truth about the knuckler that he hadn't really thought about before.
"You need to be a really good athlete to throw it," Anthopoulos said.
Of course you would. Knuckleballers will walk batters. That's just the way it is. Knuckleballers can also expect to see the ball in play, which can be a toxic combination.
"R.A. works on his fielding like crazy in spring training, for that reason," Anthopoulos said. "I mean, he led the National League in comebackers last year. That's the thing with the knuckleball, it's not for everybody."
It was suggested to Anthopoulos that someone like, say, Dustin McGowan – whose career has been in triage seemingly for years – might be a candidate for the pitch. Nonsense, for now at least.
"The stuff's still there, in his case," he said.
An organization often walks to the tune set by the ace at the major-league level, but the only thing R.A. Dickey is expected to spawn for the Blue Jays in 2013 is a couple hundred innings and a playoff spot. That's enough, for now.