What to Make of R.A. Dickey’s Struggles


I think it’s safe to say that this was not the start to his Blue Jays’ career that R.A. Dickey had in mind. In addition to being 0-2, take a look at his stats through the season’s first two starts.

IP H BB ER K ERA WHIP
vs. Indians 6 5 4 3 4 4.50 1.50
vs. Red Sox 4.2 10 2 7 5 13.5 2.57
Total 10.2 15 6 10 9 8.44 1.97

Now, as Clave pointed out, Dickey was not the only ace to struggle this season. Indeed, Dickey joined Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Yovani Gallardo, James Shields, David Price, Stephen Strasburg, and Jered Weaver as No. 1 starters to put up some ugly numbers in their second start of the year.

Still, with the possible exception of Weaver, who was actually injured in his bad outing, Dickey’s stands out a little bit more than the others. There are a few reasons why, and most of them deal with the knuckleball. So, let’s start with the few that don’t.

 

Age

Father time is undefeated. At some point, everyone realizes that they just physically can’t do what they used to do with no problem. There’s no place where this is on display more than in sports, where just about everyone over 30 is either on the downhill slide, or rapidly approaching it. Well, Dickey is 38.

Granted, between 2010 and 2012, he put up an ERA/WHIP of 2.95/1.15, but his numbers before that were 5.43/1.57. He certainly found a nice groove in his last few years with the Mets, but age hits fast sometimes. So, his early season struggles give you more of a reason to be concerned.

Expectations

Throughout his entire career, Dickey has played on one team that made the playoffs, the 2009 Twins. He was primarily a reliever on that team and in 64.1 innings, had an ERA of 4.62 with a WHIP if 1.62.

Not only is that the only playoff team he’s ever played on, that’s the only team he’s ever been a part of that had any expectations. None of the Rangers teams that he played on were realistic contenders, nor were the Mariners his one year there. While pitching in New York always brings a heavy spotlight, the Mets were not even close to a contender in any of his three years there.

Now, while the Blue Jays haven’t made the playoffs since 1993, their offseason is certainly indicative of a team that has high expectations. The American League East isn’t as strong at the top as it has been in the past, and the Blue Jays loaded up with high priced, big name stars. Dickey, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, certainly qualifies.

Big expectations can take some getting used to. It’s certainly possible that Dickey is a bit more nervous, knowing that this is a team and fanbase that is realistically expecting to be playing ball into October.

 

Now, let’s take a look at everything that centers around Dickey’s bread and butter, the knuckleball.

  • One-Trick Pony

This isn’t anything that nobody knows about, but knuckleball pitchers tend to rely exclusively on that pitch. Most other top of the line starting pitchers have at least three pitches that they can count on. So, if they’re missing spots with the curveball, they’ll throw a change, or a fastball.

But if a knuckleball is off, the starter isn’t left with much. Sure, they have a “fastball,” but it’s nothing more than a batting practice pitch.

So, if he’s not hitting his spots with the knuckleball and the pitch isn’t sharp, there isn’t a player in Major League Baseball that won’t rope him. If a knuckleballer is off with that pitch, the best he can hope for is that the line drives go right defenders. That may work for an inning, it may even work for a start, but it won’t work for anything more than that.

The knuckleball isn’t necessarily a pitch that makes a lot of bats miss, but the contact shouldn’t be loud. Through two starts, it’s been loud.

  • New Catcher

I know that Dickey and J.P. Arencibia worked together in the offseason and at the WBC. But if you’re not used to catching the knuckleball, there’s nothing like it. This is why catchers use bigger gloves when catching it. It’s also why knuckleballers tend to throw to backup catchers (ie: Doug Mirabelli, not Jason Varitek, generally caught Tim Wakefield). Dickey threw to Arencibia in the opener, then to Henry Blanco in his secon start. Neither went especially well.

Now, both Arencibia and Blanco’s are professionals and I fully expect them to work hard with Dickey to understand the pitch, and the pitcher. But I am expecting a little bit more of an adjustment. Heck, regular pitchers often struggle early when they’re dealing with a new catcher. The struggles are going to be magnified with a knuckleballer.

  • Domed Stadium

This is something I didn’t hear too much talk about in the offseason, but it’s worth mentioning. A good knuckleball will have virtually no spin on it. From the time it leaves the pitcher’s hand to the time it hits the plate, it will have next to no rotation on it.

So, if you get even a little bit of wind, the ball will blow around like a feather. As you can probably figure out, that’s not exactly easy for a hitter to get a bat on.

Well, if Dickey’s in Toronto for half of his starts, the wind isn’t going to help him at all. This may not seem like a lot, but think about this. The spot on the bat that the ball hits for a home run is not even inches away from the spot it hits for a popup to the second baseman, or a weak groundout, or even a complete miss. Even a little bit of wind assistance can make a huge difference.

When you think about some of the most accomplished knuckleball pitchers of all-time, not many played in a domed stadium. Joe Niekro spent most of his prime in the Houston Astrodome, but struck out fewer than five hitters per nine innings as an Astro. He was relying on contact, and hoping his park helped him. The Astrodome was perhaps the most pitcher-friendly park of the modern era, so he had some success in doing that. Rogers Centre is significantly more live, I don’t like Dickey’s chances anywhere near as much there if he can’t miss bats.

 

What are we looking forward to?

Assuming he takes the ball every fifth day for the Blue Jays, let’s take a look at Dickey’s remaining starts in April.

  • at Kansas City Royals
  • vs. Chicago White Sox
  • at Baltimore Orioles
  • vs. Boston Red Sox

Two outdoors, two domes. Four opponents that can do some serious damage to pitchers. We’ll learn a lot from his outing against the Royals. They’re not a bargain, but that’s probably the most manageable lineup of that group. I also do like the fact that it’s outdoors, as we may learn how much (or little) of a factor the dome could be, as Dickey’s first two starts were indoors.

 

Overall outlook

I have Dickey in one of my leagues, and I really can’t say I’m that optimistic right now. The start I’m really looking at is the one against the White Sox. They’re a dangerous offense, but can be pitched to. If he does well against the Royals but poorly against the White Sox, what does that tell you? A pitcher whose home park is a dome needs to be able to pitch there. If Dickey is going to struggle all year there, I’m pretty concerned.

Ultimately, I’m with Clave about not overreacting. People do that all the time in fantasy baseball, forgetting just how long the season is. But if I don’t see some signs that Dickey has adapted to his environment by the end of the month, I’m looking at other options. Maybe move him into a spot starter role, maybe look to trade him, maybe even just cutting him.

Again, I wouldn’t do much until the end of the month, but I wouldn’t let my patience extend beyond that point.

Tags: Fantasy Baseball Pitching R.A. Dickey Struggling Aces Toronto Blue Jays