Be Careful How You Bucket R.A. Dickey

Mike Stobe

The Mets are in a high profile contract negotiation with their knuckleballing ace. If they won't budge past their current numbers, it's possible they are comparing Dickey to the wrong people.

We've done this thing so many times, it's almost a template. Player X wants a contract. Find all players of the same age as Player X, and what they signed for. Take Player X's last three-years numbers and try to find a true talent. Age that true talent over the life of the contract. Compare to the comps. Done.

Hey, it worked for David Wright and got us within a couple million bucks of the final figure, so why not do it with R.A. Dickey?

Highly-paid 39-year-old pitchers are rare, but you do have Kevin Brown, Derek Lowe and Randy Johnson, who all made $15 million or more in present value dollars at that age. Take Dickey's last three Wins Above Replacement totals and give them your standard five-three-two weighting, and you get a true talent around 3.6 wins. Age that -- with the penalty for a player over the age of 37 -- and you get $43.5 million using $5 million per win.

Already, it doesn't make any sense that $25 million for three years should be the end of negotiations. Even if you don't believe in his Cy Young work and treat him as a true-talent two-win pitcher next season, he should be worth more than $25 million once the television money inflates the price per win in 2014 ($20 million without inflation). Really, given his comps and probable true talent, $15 million per year wouldn't be a stretch right now.

But it's even worse than that. The nerdy-normal ways of finding comps don't work for Dickey. He doesn't fit your normal 38-year-old buckets.

For one, knuckleballers have long been known to be an asterisk in DIPS theory.

Defense Independent Pitching Statistics find that a pitcher has little control over a ball once it is in play. That's the backbone behind FanGraphs' pitcher WAR, which uses a pitcher's strikeouts and walks and home runs allowed to credit them with the things they have under control. Basically, the batting average on balls in play around baseball is .300, so to credit them with stifling the success of balls in play would be erroneous.

Except that's not true for knuckleballers. Using this custom list of knuckle-dudes, I found that they have shown a .274 BABIP over the history of baseball. Dickey himself has had a BABIP between .275 and .278 the last three years, so he fits right in. Using FanGraphs WAR to represent his talent takes away this hit-suppression skill, which his real peers have shown us is likely to be real.

If you instead use his Runs Allowed per nine innings win totals, you get a completely different picture of his skills. Now he's got 14.9 wins over the last three years, or 13th-most in baseball over that time period. Now his true talent lies in the 5.3-win range, and his next three years might produce 13 or so wins and $60+ million in value.

It gets better.

Why put Dickey in the regular 38-year-old bucket when he admits that he throws with about 75% of his full effort? Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens -- they all suffered velocity loss and the types of back and trunk injuries that just come with old age. Dickey won't worry about velocity loss, and as he showed with his various ailments so far, he can pitch through a lot of pain at 75%.

It's possible you don't even want to put the regular steep aging curve on the end of Dickey's career. Tim Wakefield wasn't quite the pitcher Dickey has been, but he put up 12.6 RA/9 wins from 35 to 38 years old. From 39 to 43? He put up 15.9 RA/9 wins.

Doesn't it make sense to compare R.A. Dickey to fellow knuckleballers? Be careful what buckets you put him in when trying to figure out what he's worth. The knuckleball may seem inconsistent, but it consistently beats what we think we know about pitching. DIPS theory, and regular aging curves -- these things may not apply to R.A. Dickey.

Three years, $31 million, for a Cy Young winner that is likely to age more gracefully than his peers? That's a no-brainer.

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