RA Dickey and the Deceptive Ease of Greatness

Great athletes make it look easy. Things that would be well beyond the physical capabilities of an average human are no obstacle to the special athlete. It’s not just that they can perform the feat, but they make it look nearly effortless.

Sure, you or I could swing a bat. I do, in a slow-pitch softball these days. I popped out twice last Monday night. But we will never possess the ability, and balance of Miguel Cabrera or David Wright to hit balls pitched so hard we could barely see them, or spinning so quickly that we have no idea where they will be next, and blister them in all directions.

Sure, you can run or even sprint. You can even jump, a whole 26 inches maybe. Now sprint a few hundred feet, jump to the top of a wall and catch a baseball hit 380′. Mike Trout can do that and walk away smiling.┬áMost humans, and most baseball players cannot do that.

Sure, you can go throw a baseball with a friend or a teammate. RA Dickey can make his knuckleball dance (video here) in unpredictable ways. No humans and no other baseball players can do that. Indeed, Dickey’s knuckleball is unlike any knuckler ever seen before (this is a nice discussion of the physics and movement patterns).

Does it look impossible when RA Dickey is making hitters look silly swinging at a pitch that isn’t there? Now, you try to throw an 80 mile an hour offering that turns Giancarlo Stanton into a hacking littler leaguer.

A couple people have asked me, based on Dickey’s Cy Young award win whether it is worth teaching failing (or failed) minor league pitchers the knuckleball. Sure, you can try, but Dickey and his pitch stand alone in history. It is a better, harder pitcher than that thrown by Tim Wakefield or Charlie Hough. Most people, even baseball players cannot do, mentally or physically, what Dickey does. It’s that simple. Dickey spent years and years refining the art of the knuckleball.

Dickey, even before his Mets’ resurgence, was no ordinary player. He was a good enough athlete to merit a first round draft choice even without an ulner collateral ligament, so he started from a talent base at the extreme far right of the talent distribution. There are hundreds of professional baseball players drafted and signed every year, and before his physical revealed that he was a ligament short of standard; he was among the top 20 in 1996.

Is there a player development angle here? Sure, here are a few I draw: pitching is hard; Predicting player career paths is hard; bet on the best athletes; bet on the players who will put in the work and bet on the smart players.  The lesson I do not draw: teach every struggling minor league pitcher a knuckleball.

RA Dickey makes a baseball do absurd things, and makes it his routine every fifth day.

Perhaps his greatest feat, and the greatest deception of the great athlete is that they make the average fan think “I can do that.” You can’t.

Now go get working on that knuckleball.

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