It’s Friday night and I am once again watching R.A. Dickey labor through his second inning of work. He has already thrown 40 plus pitches and the Blue Jays are in a 3-0 hole after coming to bat once. That hole is most likely to deepen before they hit again.
It’s obvious why this type of performance is frustrating. It’s also obvious why this isn’t a fair way to judge Dickey’s contribution to the team. Despite the ups and downs inherent to knucleballing, when all is said and done, Dickey will provide innings and value – posting ERA’s just under 4.00 and WARP’s of just over 2.5. At least he has in his first three seasons in Toronto. I know and understand this. So why do I feel so irritated with Dickey? A quick survey of Blue Jays twitter will show that I am not alone in feeling this way. On the flip side, many are often quick to point out how irrational it is to be upset with Dickey. How do I make sense of the frustration that myself and so many other fans feel towards the former Cy Young winner? And most importantly, is there any justification for it?
It is hard to not think about R.A. Dickey without thinking about Noah Syndergaard and Travis D’Arnaud. Not only is this an unfair way to colour your perception of Dickey, it’s an unrealistic approach to following any baseball team. The rise of Noah Syndergaard is no doubt a twist of the knife for Blue Jays fans imagining what could have been, but Dickey can’t help the players he was traded for, and positing a Blue Jays team with Syndergaard blowing 95 mile per hour sliders by the rest of the American League East is a revisionist history at best. This type of thinking strips away the context in which the trade and the player’s development was made – a context where the Blue Jays were looking to contend and Syndergaard was a twenty year old that hadn’t pitched above A ball.
Baseball is littered with examples of lopsided trades and missed opportunities – remember when your favorite team passed on Mike Trout and Albert Pujols? It’s littered with failed pitching prospects too. If you’re staying upset over one botched transaction you’re never going to be happy. You aren’t paying close enough attention either – focus on the time the Jays traded Brett Lawrie for Josh Donaldson.
All of that being said, I don’t believe the aggravation fans feel with Dickey is entirely about the players that the Blue Jays parted with in order to acquire him. Despite his reputation as an offbeat thinker – a refreshing change of pace from the “typical” Major League baseball player, Dickey has not endeared himself in the way that many expected. There have been several situations over the course of his career that give the impression Dickey isn’t always concerned with his team.
The year before Dickey was acquired by the Blue Jays, Dickey spent his offseason climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money/awareness for human trafficking despite formal requests from his team to abstain from doing so, and to use another avenue. Despite the incredibly worthy cause, the Mets understandably feared their star pitcher would risk injury in the process. To many, it often feels like Dickey is more interested in talking about things other than baseball, an observation that would never be made about some of his other teammates like Troy Tulowitzki, who seems to prefer talking exclusively about baseball. This is obviously not a good reason to dislike a player, but there are people who feel this way.
When it does come to talking baseball, Dickey doesn’t always say the “right” thing. After the 2014 season, reports surfaced that Dickey and John Gibbons clashed over his early removal from games and that Dickey was less than a positive influence in the Toronto clubhouse. Similarly, when the Blue Jays acquired Russell Martin, Dickey made comments in support of having Josh Thole make the 25 man roster, in order to act as his primary catcher. In the process, he was giving one of the game’s elite catchers what felt like a decidedly lukewarm welcome.
Now, none of this means anything in terms of Dickey’s relationship with the other 24 men on the roster, his dedication to the game, or his true personality. Maybe he’s great in the clubhouse and maybe he isn’t. Maybe he’s selfish and maybe he’s not. I certainly don’t know. But for better or worse, among fans, these kinds of words and actions create and project an R.A. Dickey that is less interested in the Blue Jays winning than most. Impression and reality are often separate entities, as Dickey is involved in many worthwhile charitable causes, like the aforementioned mountain climbing. However, impressions like this shape and create the character known to fans. All we know of these players is what they show us. Once again though, this doesn’t fall under the heading of “worthy of dislike.”
Ultimately, the reason why it is so hard to watch and root for R.A. Dickey has nothing to do with his results on the mound or his off field comments. It has to do with how he pitches. R.A. Dickey is randomness incarnate on the mound. The longer you watch him, the more it becomes obvious that his success is almost as random as his failure. Starts where he has his “best knuckleball” are some of his worst. When the knuckler isn’t working, all we can do is attribute it to the “capricious nature” of the pitch and hope for better next time. Rarely is there a mechanical adjustment or physical change to inspire better days ahead. There are outings where the knuckleball can lose effectiveness over a matter of pitches, and that’s without mentioning how passed balls only seem to compound the problem.
When Dickey is pitching well and the knuckler is dancing, it lacks the same viewing pleasures as seeing Marcus Stroman carve up a lineup or Aaron Sanchez overpower hitters with his electric stuff. It isn’t Marco Estrada setting a hitter up and then pulling the string on a changeup. It feels random, like he won a Powerball draw. So much of what makes Dickey so maligned isn’t what he’s doing or the results he gets, but how he does it. Is this irrational? Yes. But is it unreasonable in the same way it is unreasonable to resent Dickey for not living up to the players he was traded for or his on field results? I don’t think so.
Fans are entitled to feel however they want about the teams they watch, the moves they make, and the players they root for, even if some of these feelings and opinions run counter to rationality. To say R.A. Dickey is a bad pitcher or that he is responsible for being the players he was traded for is irrational. It also isn’t fair to RA Dickey. But part of the reason fans watch baseball is to be entertained, and a lot of what R.A. Dickey offers is not entertaining. To say that this is irrational isn’t fair to fans. The painstaking volatility that comes with delivering a knuckleball to home plate 85-100 times a game means that R.A. Dickey is not pleasant to watch whether or not he gets the job done.
You might want him on your team; you just might not want to watch him pitch. And if you do feel like this, you shouldn’t be admonished for it. Baseball is after all, entertainment. Dickey just might not be a great entertainer.
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