MLB: ALCS-Kansas City Royals at Toronto Blue Jays

Why We Should Better Appreciate R.A. Dickey

The Blue Jays have a great many decisions to make at the end of the 2016 season, with several free agents on the roster. While most of the focus has been on the two sluggers, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, one player, who arrived with such fanfare, carries very little debate: R.A. Dickey, knuckleballer, and now the team’s elder statesman with playoff passenger LaTroy Hawkins having sidled off into retirement. Barring a seismic shift in his or the team’s performance, the Blue Jays will let Dickey walk at the end of the year. This will make some people happy. While that’s understandable, Dickey still did yeoman’s work over his time with the Jays.

Dickey was one of the crown jewels of the Jays’ flashy 2012/13 off-season, the “ace” that this club hadn’t had since trading Roy Halladay to the Phillies. He was a knuckleballer, sure, but he’d supposedly figured out the unpredictable trick pitch. He threw it hard and had befuddled hitters over three fantastic seasons with the Mets. He was old, sure, but he was a knuckleballer! He didn’t have the miles on his arm from years of throwing high heat. And, he was smart. He wrote a book. He seemed to embrace the team. With Dickey and the other new faces, it was easy for fans to be excited about the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays.

The 2013 season need not be revisited, of course. It was bad. Dickey struggled immediately with his new team, putting up an ERA that was a full 1.50 runs higher than his 2012 with New York. He had the highest expectations, and clearly failed to deliever. Of course, he wasn’t alone in failing to meet expectations; Josh Johnson, Melky Cabrera, and Jose Reyes all had their own unique setbacks which contributed to the team’s lackluster performance. It was Dickey though, who kept going out there every five days during that garbage heap of a season, who was viewed as the biggest disappointment, and he still carries some of that perception to this day.

While the initial frustration with Dickey had much to do with the unrealistic expectations placed upon him, he is now resented for Not Being The Guys For Whom They Traded Him. Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard are now mainstays on a Mets team that made the World Series, and look to be anchors for years going forward. At the time, it was acknowledged to be a high price for Dickey, and as those players developed, that price tag was higher than even we could have anticipated. Such is the risk of trading prospects. For every R.A. Dickey trade, there is a Josh Donaldson trade. Time will tell as to whether the bounties paid for David Price or Troy Tulowitzki end up being anything worthwhile, but judging trades with the benefit of hindsight is not the point.

There are several legitimate reasons that the Blue Jays can and should move on from Dickey at the end of the year. He will be 42 years old by the end of the season, and knuckleballer or not, that’s old for a baseball player. His presence on the roster also necessitates the Jays carrying the aggressively mediocre Josh Thole as the backup catcher, instead being able to carry a useful, traditional backup. Allocating two roster spots for one starter is tough for any progressive team to stomach.

All of that being said, when we review Dickey’s time with the Jays, we can see that he’s actually been a reliable pitcher on the whole. “Reliable” is a strange word to use in connection with Dickey. As we’ve mentioned, the knuckleball is hard to predict. Our memories also betray us. We recall the initial struggles in 2013, the long stretches of seasons where it never seemed like Dickey got past the sixth inning, or the seemingly endless occasions when he walked a lot of hitters. We remember the bad start to 2015, which had some wondering if the Jays would even pick up his option, or his last, unfortunate playoff start against Kansas City, pulled in the second inning as the Jays’ season hung in the balance.

It can definitely be tough to get past gut feelings and reactions to see what value Dickey has brought to the team. However, when we throwing out wins and losses, there are a couple easy yardsticks we can use to see just how useful Dickey has been: innings and starts.

The benchmark that players and fans like to use for a great starting pitcher is 200 innings a season. It’s a nice round number, and with quick math, we can say that’s 33 starts (a number Dickey matched or exceeded all three years) at a hair over six innings each. In that three year span, seventeen pitchers have thrown an average of 200 innings a season. So that’s good for Dickey, demonstrating that he’s a workhorse in a game that doesn’t have many. However, of those seventeen pitchers, Dickey is dead last in fWAR, coming out to 5.4 total over those three years. That’s worse, suggesting a home more towards the back-end of the rotation.

From 2013 to 2015, R.A. Dickey made 101 starts, tied for the most in baseball with James Shields, and threw 654.2 innings, the fifth-most in baseball. Certainly the conventional wisdom of “he gives us innings” has been mostly dismissed; the innings don’t amount to much if they’re not effective. But in that three-year stretch, Dickey notched a 3.95 ERA, which is fine, but certainly no ace; among the top 20 in innings over that three-year period, Dickey’s ERA is third-worst. While some would argue for FIP as a more effective measurement, the stat is notoriously unreliable for knuckleballers, so ERA will win out here. His DRA, which uses a little more context, fall into the same ranking as the ERA.

Now let’s look at some of those numbers in the context of the Blue Jays, who have struggled for great starting pitching for a while now. We know that Dickey and Mark Buehrle have been mainstays in the Jays’ rotation over the past three seasons, but there has been a rotating cast of characters around them.  200 innings is our barometer for reliability for one season, but even if we chop that in half the numbers are striking: only seven players have thrown more than 100 innings as a starter for the Blue Jays over the past three seasons. One of those seven is Esmil Rogers, currently attempting to ply his trade in Korea. That speaks to the difficulty the Jays have had acquiring and developing starting pitching.

This is where Dickey shows his value. Can you imagine the damage to the pen without his 215 innings per season? Even assuming they didn’t pay the ransom to get Dickey, it’s unlikely the Jays would have been able to replace those 200+ innings per year internally. They were already banking on a lot of young pitchers, imagine if they had to fill another spot. They would have had to throw resources- cash, or prospects, or players- to get that player. So while it would be foolish to argue that Dickey worked out the way they hoped – he has been no Cy Young winner –  but we can  definitely say that he has filled what would have otherwise been a gaping hole.

All that said, the Blue Jays will probably be in a better position after this season to move on from Dickey. The development of Stroman and Sanchez, along with the acquisitions of J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada have given the team the kind of insulation they lacked for most of Dickey’s tenure. Maybe Drew Hutchison rebounds from a disappointing 2015, and prospect Connor Greene is knocking on the door by September. If these things happen, the it will be much easier for the new front office to send Dickey and his personal catcher packing at the end of this season.

Even as the team attempts to plan for life without Dickey, we can look back and see that Dickey played a valuable role in the team’s recent history. If the Jays win the World Series this year, maybe it makes it all worth it. All the banking on the “capricious animal” of a pitch that made watching the Jays a white-knuckle experience during his starts, wondering if this is the one that makes the hitter look silly, or the one the hitter puts into the seats. Living through the agony of 2013, and experiencing the joy of 2015. All of it, forgiven.

The team went through a lot of changes over those last three years, and Dickey was here for all of it, continuing to go out every five days as players came and went around him. Though Dickey wasn’t the ace everyone hoped he would be, he was a dependable starter for a team that didn’t have many, and someone who may prove more difficult to replace than we realize.

Lead Photo: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

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