It was a warm evening in late spring, the perfect night for a drive. I had convinced the girlfriend (now fiancée) to head out to the nearest Five Guys with me (she's not a big burger person; yes, I'm marrying her regardless). In the car, the dial was turned to 660 to listen to the Mets–Phillies game, Wayne and Howie with the call. It didn't really command my full attention this evening, as on the mound was a journeyman righthander, best known for mixing a knuckleball into his otherwise fringy arsenal. In March, he had been just another piece of org depth bound for Buffalo. By May, with John Maine and Oliver Perez on the DL, he had been pressed into action. That evening's start was his second for the Mets. His first outing had been a serviceable six innings against the Nationals, the kind of outing you hope for when calling on your sixth or seventh starter. He had left with the game knotted at two, but the Mets' bullpen was still the Mets' bullpen. Fernando Nieve and Raul Valdes were the culprits this time, but, hey, it could have been anybody.
The knuckleball was his only pitch now, and he threw it much faster than the Tim Wakefields or Charlie Houghs of the world. Almost as fast as Jamie Moyer, his opponent that night, threw his fastball. I'm sure Wayne or Howie (probably Wayne) made that joke a half dozen times during the broadcast, but again, I was only vaguely paying attention. It's a long season, the broadcasts run together, and I became lost in Farmington twice, necessitating several stops by the side of the road to take a gander at Google Maps on my phone. As my attention waxed and waned, the fringy veteran pitched in and out of trouble, dealing with ten baserunners over seven innings. Yet somehow he always found the way back to the dugout with another zero on the scoreboard. The Mets' offense did its part as well. Bay and Francoeur each knocked in a pair, Reyes scored three times, and the team won an 8–0 laugher to get back to .500. It was a nice performance from a guy you didn't expect much from or expect to be around much longer. The eventual cheeseburger was pretty good, too.
Despite my best efforts, I can't quite recall the exact moment when R.A. Dickey became R.A. Dickey. It was probably somewhere over his next five starts, all Mets wins. Obviously, the
unintentionally intentionally sexual game story headlines didn't hurt. Neither did the Dickeyface pictures that began to creep onto the site, nor Dickey being an awesome dude with an entertaining twitter feed. By the time the Dickeyface competition debuted, Amazin' Avenue was caught in the grips of a full blown Dickeymania that continues to this day, one that has rightfully and righteously spread out across all Mets fandom.
And I suppose you don't really need me to relate to you the whole R.A. Dickey saga. Heck, Dickey himself wrote an entire book about his long and winding road to the majors. The backstory has become mythology at this point. The first-round pedigree, the discovered lack of a UCL, the years of struggle as a journeyman in Triple-A are to Dickey what being cast out into the sea inside a wooden chest, only to be discovered and raised by a fisherman, was to Perseus. Perseus, of course, had to quest all across Greece to find the Hesperides and obtain the weapons needed to slay Medusa. If he had had two different but equally awesome knuckeballs with which to baffle her, he could have skipped all of that. But of course you can't really tell the tale of Perseus without telling the whole story, even if the details are familiar. To abbreviate anything just . (Also, you'd miss out on the part where Zeus impregnates his mother by taking on the form of a golden rain. Oh, those crazy, kinky Greeks.) Likewise, if I'm going to tell you the R.A. Dickey story, I'm going to start at the beginning. Besides, it's one of those stories that never becomes less fun to tell.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (1996, and Dallas), R.A. Dickey was drafted in the first round by the Texas Rangers. He was the 18th overall selection out of the University of Tennesee. He wasn't an elite stuff guy but had good secondary stuff, some pitchability, and was coming off a strong season at the University of Tennesee. John Sickels has the scouting report:
He used a 90 MPH fastball, a strong breaking ball, and a funky delivery to go 9-4, 2.76 with a 137/33 K/BB ratio in 127 innings for the Volunteers. The Rangers offered him a $850,000 bonus. . .but rescinded the offer after team doctors discovered that Dickey didn't have an ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. The ligament wasn't damaged; it simply wasn't there, and it was possible that he was born without one. The condition was unprecedented for a professional pitcher. The (reportedly guilt-ridden) Rangers front office still offered to sign him, but cut their bonus offer back to $75,000, which Dickey accepted in August, knowing that no one would draft him if he reentered the pool in '97.
And so, R.A. Dickey was cast out into the sea and washed ashore in the Sally league. Sickels does quite the comprehensive job chronicling his minor league career, over the course of which his velocity started to tick down from average to fringy, and he became more strike-thrower than flamethrower. All told, R.A. Dickey would spent parts of eleven different seasons in Triple-A, mostly in the Pacific Coast League, and posted a 4.22 ERA over his 192 appearances there. His profile wasn't all that different from former Bisons rotation-mate Pat Misch, handedness aside. Both were guys who could give you reliably solid-to-good innings in Triple-A—Dickey was even PCL Pitcher of the Year in 2007—and provide a spot start or a couple weeks of middle relief work when the injury bug crept up on your 25-man roster. You wouldn't want to give either guy 150 innings, as Dickey proved with the Rangers in 2003–2004, but there's a decent living to be had being a competent, veteran org guy. This is especially true when you have Dickey's reputation with scouts for being a guy with good makeup and a strong work ethic. Personality matters on the bus and in the back fields.
Of course, Dickey didn't want to be just an org guy, and the Rangers didn't have much use for a righty with a mid-80s fastball. So after Dickey injured his shoulder in 2005, the Rangers presented him with the idea of becoming a knuckleballer when he returned.
O.K., so not many people have confused me with Nolan Ryan. But still, I've always been able to throw 92 or 93 miles per hour. I became an All-American at Tennessee and an Olympian and a first-round draft choice because I had a big league fastball and a big league changeup. Now I am supposed to say goodbye to all that and join the lineage of Hoyt Wilhelm and the Niekro brothers and Charlie Hough?
It is what I have to do, because radar guns don't lie, and this whole spring, my fastball has been topping out at 85 or 86. My arm feels fine and I cut the ball loose, and what? Nothing.
In my heart I know what is going on. I know my arm is spent. I have no backup plan if the Rangers let me go. Worse still, I have lost all belief in my ability. I feel overmatched. I imagine a future making widgets on an assembly line.
So I look at Buck and Orel and Goose, and I tell them: I'll do it. I'll go to the minors. I'll become a full-time knuckleball pitcher.
I stand up and shake hands with all three of them, a life-changing, seven-minute meeting complete. I feel as if a weight has been lifted, as if they're throwing a lifeline to me. Who cares about throwing 90? I'm tired of being average, or worse. Tired of being lost, hiding on the margins of life and the Rangers' roster. Tired of pretending I am something I am not. I have no idea how this experiment is going to go, but I can't wait to find out.
The experiment was far from an immediate success. Dickey started out throwing a much slower knuckler than the one he uses today, and he still liberally mixed in the rest of his repetoire. His struggles continued in 2006, as he pitched to a 5.25 FIP in Triple-A and found himself a minor league free agent at the end of the season. Dickey managed to catch on with the Brewers for the 2007 season, which allowed him to pitch close to home for the Nashville Sounds. There, he began to focus solely on the knuckleball. He explained why to our own Sam Page:
I had to go full-time knuckleball, because what I had to offer wasn't going to cut it. That's one answer. What makes me successful as a knuckleball pitcher is that the hitter thinks the knuckleball is coming every pitch. He can't sit on a fastball in a 2-0 count or a 2-1 count or a 3-2 count or a 1-0 count. When he's got count, he can't just sit there and say, "Here comes a fastball. I'm going to crush it." There's that little seed of doubt in his mind that, "This guy is going to throw me a knuckleball; that's what he does." So I've had to really commit to that. Like you said, I threw it 85% of the time last year, which is a good ratio for me--85-15 with the other stuff.
The second reason and a more indirect answer to your question is that when you're a knuckleball pitcher, it's a real tough thing to go back and forth and still keep the feel out of your hand of what it's like to throw a good knuckleball. So if I'm throwing fastball, fastball, fastball, and then I'll go to a knuckleball, it's a real tough thing to do, to repeat the mechanic that you need to throw a good knuckeball.
I had to learn this whole process. I learned with Charlie Hough, I learned with Phil Niekro, I learned with Tim Wakefield. You got to be able to repeat your delivery and repeat your mechanics in a way that you can produce a ball that doesn't spin out of your hand, eight out of ten times. And if I'm constantly going from sinker to slider to knuckleball to sinker, I can't do it. And I know my own limitations and that helps me to know that I need to throw a knuckleball 85% of the time.
The 2007 season was Dickey's most successful in Triple-A, but he never did get called up by Milwaukee. He started to bounce around, signing with the Mariners before heading to the Twins as a Rule 5 pick. He found some more opportunities in the majors, mostly as a swingman–spot starter type, but he was below average in 175 innings across 2008 and 2009. Dickey still hadn't quite managed to harness his new pitch, leading to both a high walk rate and a few too many home runs. After the 2009 season, now 35, Dickey once again found himself a free agent. It looked like he would end up a footnote, a short blurb in the knuckleballer chapter in the next Bill James Historical Abstract.
Then the Mets signed Dickey to a minor league deal in the 2009 offseason. This was a move that was greeted with a shrug by most—but not all. He was expected to just be R.A. Dickey, a pretty good Triple-A arm to keep the Buffalo beat reporters from excoriating the organization for another season (not that it stopped them). Sure, Dickey would be able to make a spot start or two when injuries crept up on the Mets' major league roster, as they always seem to, but in the end he was just a fringy arm that threw a unique pitch and fifteen free "Knuckleball Day" promotions for the Bisons. And Dickey obliged, even tossing a one-hitter for the Bisons among the eight very good starts he made in the International League. But as a collection of arms started to fill up the Mets' private wing of the Hospital for Special Surgery, it became clear that Dickey might be hanging around for more than just a few spot starts. All you could really hope for is that he would give you a few more outings like his first two.
And then, he gave us more than a few.
After his fifth start of 2010 comprised of seven brilliant innings against the Orioles, R.A. Dickey's ERA sat at 2.78. It wouldn't rise above 3.00 for the rest of the season. Dickey quickly transformed from injury call-up to rotation anchor, giving the Mets 175 excellent innings over the balance of the season. Unlike the rest of his knuckleballer fraternity, Dickey had superb control over the pitch, walking only a hair over two batters per nine innings. It also didn't hurt that he could still mix in the occasional mid-80s fastball when behind in the count to keep hitters guessing. Dickey made a rather unremarkable Mets season fun to watch, no moreso than when he one-hit the Phillies in August. It was his second one-hitter of the season, this one broke up by a Texas Leaguer off the bat of noted stupidface Cole Hamels. This is the Mets we are talking about, after all.
As good as Dickey was in 2010, there were some nagging questions about whether or not he was a one-year wonder. He did outperform his periphreals, though knuckleballers often tend to do that. Still, the league had gotten a good look at him now, and the knuckleball can be a fickle pitch. Dickey had accrued enough service time to be arbitration-eligible, and the two teams were far apart on dollars as the offseason began. The Mets also had a brand-new front office that used their computers to crunch numbers rather than paste Dickey's face onto Robocop. So there were a few whispered concerns about what would happen next.
Happily, any contract worries were short-lived, as Dickey and the Mets avoided arbitration and the knuckleballer inked a two-year deal with a team option for a third. Dickey celebrated by splurging on a hot new whip and then went out and put to bed any performance worries as well. Despite scuffling a bit at the beginning of the 2011 campaign due in part to a fingernail issue, Dickey finished the season strong, logging over 200 innings of above-average work (113 ERA+). His unsightly 8-13 record was due to run support that ranged from anemic to non-existent, as he registered 12 quality starts that resulted in a loss or no-decision.
So we enter the 2012 season with R.A. Dickey as the team's clear number two starter. And that's good news for Mets fans: Dickey was the sixth-best pitcher in the NL by rWAR last season and has been in the top 15 in ERA each of the last two. His strikeout rate ticked up last year while his groundball rate ticked down, but, all in all, he's been pretty consistent for 380 innings now, and as long as he stays healthy, should be good for 380 more. He spent last offseason climbing freaking Mount Kilimanjaro, so I'm going to say he's in pretty good shape, no matter how strange his training regimen might be. He's under contract for 2012, and the Mets hold a team option for 2013, after which Dickey will turn 39. Of course he's barely middle-aged in knuckleballer years, so he could be effective even as he approaches AARP membership. It might not be the worst idea to start having a few discussions about folding that 2013 option into another two-year deal. Sure, it's a calculated risk, but after all he's been through, are you really going to bet against R.A. Dickey?
Finally, I will note here that fWAR merely sees as him as a bit above average for his two seasons in the Mets' rotation, but we all need to remember our #TrueSABR shibboleth, "FIP hates knuckleballers." Tim Wakefield's ERA was a third of a run less than his FIP over 3000+ innings, and he generally had a lower than average BABIP. Charlie Hough's ERA was a half run better than his FIP during his equally long tenure in the bigs, and he somehow managed a .250 BABIP for his career. There does appear to be something in the knuckleball that supresses BABIP more than your standard four pitch arsenal. Or maybe R.A. Dickey is magic. Believe whichever theory you like; they both have their merits.
Why He's Here
Because he's awesome.
What, you want more?
Fine. Two years may not seem like much of a Mets career to hang your hat on, but they were two very good years, as Dickey compiled 8.2 rWAR in 383 innings. This is less than Trachsel, but Dickey has also thrown 600 fewer innings as a Met, and my weighting system rewards above average seasons. Also, and I am probably going to repeat this a lot while we are in the 40s, the Mets don't have a very long history as a franchise, and the bottom twenty slots or so are going to be very fluid. Some examples: If Dickey puts up another 4.0-win season, he would move into the low 30s on the raw numbers; Ike Davis is probably two good years away from cracking the Top 50; and (spoiler alert) you'll be seeing Angel Pagan in a few weeks.
But there is more to these rankings than just inputing weighted rWARs into an Excel spreadsheet (sorry, James K). I allowed myself a certain amount of leeway to bump guys up or down for subjective reasons, and R.A. Dickey was one of the benefactors of a small boost. I like watching R.A. Dickey pitch. Part of this is because he is quite good at it, and part of it is because he's a knuckleballer who makes crazy faces when he delivers the baseball. Then, when you mix those two together, some sort of strange transubstantiation occurs. I don't write this to demean what you might consider more authentic religious experiences, but watching R.A. Dickey pitch is a few hours of spiritual joy in a Hobbesian baseball world that has been otherwise cruel and unforgiving to Mets fans. Like Trachsel, Dickey has been a good pitcher on some pretty lousy Mets teams. But while a Steve Trachsel start was something to endure, a plodding, monotonous lecture on how to 'give your team a chance to win,' an R.A. Dickey start is the fourth movement of Beethoven's ninth, looped and downloaded directly into your hypothalmus.
Maybe the above veers off a bit into hyperbole.
You know what? I don't think so.
P.S., You Guys
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Dickey's awesome sartorial choices. Long may he reign over the Citi Field mound!
I rant about the selections for the Essential Games of Shea Stadium DVD set.
For Further Reading (and Listening)
Sam Page's Interview with the Dickster: