The Knuckleball Effect and the Phillies

Saturday’s exhibition game against the Toronto Blue Jays and R.A. Dickey prompted me to send out this tweet:

Every time the Phillies face a knuckleballer, a part of me expects the experience to send the entire lineup into a prolonged funk. So, I set out to see whether my uneasy feelings have any rational basis.

The origin of my fears surrounding opposing knuckleballers is easily discernible — a horrendous stretch in late May 2010.

On Sunday, May 23, the Phillies lost to Red Sox knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield, and his 8 shutout innings. The Phillies had an off day on Monday and then Tuesday they faced R.A. Dickey of the Mets for the first time. Dickey picked up right where Wake left off and threw his knuckleball for 6 innings of shutout baseball, after which the Phillies proceeded to score zero runs for the entirety of the 3 game series at Citi Field.

In a ten game stretch beginning with the Wakefield game, the Phillies went 2-8 and scored 14 runs, an average of 1.4 runs per game. Their slash line during that time frame was .210/.281/.287, considerably diminished from the .260/.332/.413 line they averaged throughout the 2010 season.

The Phillies were in an epic funk at a time which coincides with facing Wakefield and Dickey back-to-back, but is the knuckleball the reason?

Here is a look at how the Phillies offense fared in the 5 games immediately following each knuckleball match-up since May 2010 in comparison with the team’s full season slash lines:

  • 2010 Phillies season averages: .260/.332/.413
  • Wakefield game: 6/13 — next 5 games: .261/.345/.523
  • Dickey game: 8/8 — next 5 games: .250/.309/.355
  • Dickey game: 8/13 — next 5 games: .261/.309/.392
  • Dickey game: 9/24 — next 5  games: .251/.316/.439
  • 2011 Phillies season averages: .253/.323/.395
  • Dickey game: 7/15 — next 5 games: .249/.316/.367
  • *Dickey game: 9/24 — next 5 games: .306/.364/.451
  • 2012 Phillies season averages: .255/.317/.400
  • Dickey game: 4/13 — next 5 games: .244/.283/.308
  • Dickey game: 7/5 — next 5 games: .231/.271/.350
  • Dickey game: 9/17 — next 5 games: .244/.301/.410

*This stretch occurred after the Phillies had already clinched the division.

Their final Wakefield encounter seemingly had no ill-effects, but there is a noticeable dip in performance by the Phillies offense in post-Dickey games. The dip is particularly pronounced during Dickey’s masterful 2012 season.

Did facing Dickey’s knuckleball actually hurt the Phillies offense beyond the one game? It’s impossible to say definitively with such limited data, but I do know that I’m glad the Phillies won’t be facing him during the regular season this year.

Of course if the World Series is a 1993 rematch, I’m likely to stress out a bit about “the knuckleball effect.”

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