DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It's not very often that knuckleballers talk about the velocity of their pitches, but then again, R.A. Dickey has never been the prototypical knuckleball pitcher.
One of the main reasons behind Dickey's rise to fame in New York was his ability to throw the trademark pitch with some authority. Not only would the ball dance all over the zone, but it would also arrive at the plate with upper-70s and low-80s velocity on the radar gun.
That type of speed was absent during his first couple of months in a Blue Jays uniform. An upper back and neck injury took away some of his comfort level on the mound, changed his release point and impacted his overall effectiveness on the mound. The good news is that the high velocity appears to be on its way back.
"This time last year, I remember peeking back there and seeing high 60s and low 70s," said Dickey, who topped out at 75 mph during his first start of the spring on Thursday. "I obviously feel better at this point than I did last year, which I hope will carry out throughout the spring and into the opening game."
The velocity is expected to trend upwards as Dickey gets deeper into Spring Training. The goal is to add a few more miles per hour to his knuckleball before the start of the regular season, which would have him sitting around 77-78 mph -- the range where he was during his 2012 National League Cy Young Award-winning year with the Mets.
An average speed in the high-70s also will help improve the overall range of his pitches. In the past, Dickey's had an ability to top out in the low 80s while mixing in a mid-60s slow knuckleball that was used almost in the same way that other pitchers throw changeups.
The discrepancy between all of those speeds will only make things tougher on opposing hitters. It limits their ability to get comfortable in the box, keeps them off balance and prevents a tendency to sit on one speed and swing for the fences.
"Ideally, towards the end of the spring, I like to have my comfortable knuckleball around 76 or 77 and my low one around 75," Dickey said. "I probably have three miles per hour to add on each of the high and the low from now until the end of spring. I want my fastball to be anywhere from 83-86, right in there. I'm off to a good start, feeling good, body feels great."
Dickey arrived in camp a couple of weeks ago and talked openly about his desire to fix a couple of patterns that emerged during the 2013 season. The first was his lack of velocity during the early part of the year, and the second was his ability to throw strikes on a consistent basis.
Knuckleballers often have a tough time limiting their number of walks. The pitch is notoriously tough to command, but in the past, Dickey always found a way to get his knuckleballs in the zone. From 2010-12 with the Mets, he never averaged more than 2.3 walks per nine innings, but last season, that rate rose to 2.9.
By the time the year came to an end, Dickey had issued 71 walks, which was 17 more than his previous high. The fact that Dickey surrendered the second-highest amount of home runs in the Major Leagues isn't what he found most alarming, it's the number of those that came with men on base. Cutting down the walks is the first step in rectifying that problem.
One thing that makes the adjustments a bit easier this time around is that he doesn't have the added stress of needing to prepare for the World Baseball Classic. One year ago, Dickey had to rush through the various stages of spring so that he could be ready to pitch for Team USA.
"Last year was a challenge," Dickey said. "This year I don't necessarily have those same challenges, but I have other challenges. I don't look at it as a time that I regret at all. I simply look at it as a time to learn from and try to apply what I learned to this year."
The first step in Dickey's preparation came on Thursday with a two-inning outing against the Phillies. The start included a pair of walks in the first, which was less than ideal, but the positive sign is that he quickly made an adjustment and induced a lot of weak contact.
Nobody is expecting perfection -- especially this early in camp. It's all about taking things one step at a time and slowly but surely making those adjustments.
"It was moving quite a bit," said Dickey, who allowed one unearned run in the 7-5 win over Philadelphia. "It was a little tough to find the zone there for a minute because it had so much depth late. It was a good sign all around. They only hit pieces of it really, the two hits I gave up were little flares. I was able to change speeds already with it and felt comfortable with that, so there were a lot of positives."