There have been only 26 pitchers to use the knuckleball as their primary weapon in the Major Leagues since the early 1900s. The lack of overall data has led to more questions than answers about what outside forces make that type of style effective.
Does the ball have better movement when exposed to the elements or is there an advantage to having a game inside the controlled atmosphere of a dome? With R.A. Dickey now the bona fide ace of the Blue Jays' pitching staff, these are the type of questions people around Toronto have begun to ask.
"It's really a great place to pitch," former Major Leaguer Tom Candiotti said of Rogers Centre. "I pitched with the roof open, I pitched with the roof closed, and I always preferred the movement of the ball and the consistency of the movement with the roof closed because it was the same every inning. But it sure is nice open, too, as long as it's not cold."
Candiotti spent a significant period of time pitching at what was then called SkyDome. He played for Toronto in 1991 and came through the area multiple times as an opposing pitcher.
It's easy to see why Candiotti enjoyed the friendly confines in Toronto so much. He recorded an impressive 3.21 ERA in 13 starts at the retractable-roof stadium, compared to an overall career ERA of 3.73.
But while Candiotti might have been more comfortable with the roof closed, most of the numbers tell a different story. The sample sizes are hard to compare, but Candiotti owned a 4.31 ERA in 179 2/3 innings inside of a dome, compared to a 3.69 ERA in 2,545 1/3 innings when pitching outside.
The careers of Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield tell another tale. Their numbers when pitching inside compared to outside are almost identical, with only several percentage points separating the two categories.
The reality of the situation is that the environment likely doesn't play much of a factor, except in a few specific scenarios.
"The hardest thing with the knuckleball is throwing when it's cold, because you lose a little bit of feeling in your fingertips. [If] you lose a little feeling, you lose a little command, and there you go," Candiotti said.
"If I was going to go pitch in say the Metrodome or Rogers Centre, compared to Candlestick Park, that was so bad because of the wind. That's kind of an extreme, but the wind would swirl and it would change from inning to inning. It would be cold, it was tough. That was a tough place to pitch. And if you have a place like a dome, you eliminate all of that."
Dickey won't be able to avoid all of the cold conditions, but it does help that at least some of his games in April and September will be played with the roof closed at home.
In their research, the Blue Jays didn't uncover any major advantages between pitching indoors versus outdoors. The main benefit is that Dickey occasionally will get to avoid pitching in the rain.
When conditions become too wet at Major League ballparks, play is often suspended. But there are just as many times that teams are forced to play through heavy mist or light rain in order to get the game completed as scheduled.
That, more than anything, is the type of weather Dickey can avoid at Rogers Centre. The only time it rained there was during a game this past season when the roof malfunctioned.
"It was so foreign to us, we tried to do our best to analyze and study it," general manager Alex Anthopoulos said when asked what factors went into evaluating Dickey. "Temperature wasn't an issue so much, but rain certainly seemed to be. It is for anybody, but especially for R.A. You look at some of the starts where he really got hit. One game in Atlanta, it was just pouring and he gave up a ton of runs.
"Certainly having a dome, where you can control the elements, that's a nice bonus. But it didn't really carry the day, because the guy has been unbelievable the last three years -- won the Cy Young, an ERA at 3.00 or below three the last three years, and he's done it without a dome."
For his part, Dickey doesn't want to read too much into moving from Citi Field to Rogers Centre. Dickey does own a 1.72 ERA in 52 2/3 innings while pitching indoors over the past three seasons, but he doesn't feel there is a major advantage to the closed setting.
In fact, Dickey actually prefers to pitch with the roof open when there are games in a retractable-roof stadium. The humidity increases a little bit during the summer months, and the extra wind can also be a good thing as long it doesn't change directions each inning.
It just needs to be a somewhat predictable setting. That's when Dickey can make the necessary in-game adjustments and get the most out of his primary pitch.
"I haven't looked at the statistical analysis of indoor versus outdoor, but I feel like it's pretty good," Dickey said. "I know I love pitching in Tampa, I love pitching indoors during the course of my knuckleballing career, so I don't expect it to be much different in Rogers Centre.
"I am hopeful that I am going to get time to be able to explore it a little bit before the start of the year -- go back and look at some past outings -- but I'm confident that I'll be able to replicate the product that I've been featuring the past few years."
All of this might be a moot point, because Dickey's less susceptible to the elements than a lot of the knuckleballers who came before him. He throws the pitch with a lot more velocity than his predecessors, and as a result, he has less issue with the wind carrying his ball though the zone.
It's a noticeable difference from Wakefield's knuckleball, which was more of a floater and typically thrown in the 60s as opposed to Dickey, who often reaches high 70s or low 80s.
Overall, it makes Dickey a lot more prepared to handle the elements than a stereotypical knuckler.
"With R.A.'s knuckleball, he throws it hard enough that it doesn't really come into play that much," Candiotti said. "It's almost like a maximum-effort pitch for him, he's letting it go. He's letting it go as hard as he can, for the most part. He doesn't change speed that often with it, he just jams it in there. So once he locks in with it, he's just going to go, no matter what it's like outside."