Is R.A. Dickey Still Good?


May 6, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey (43) reacts in the dugout against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 8-7. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Five days ago ESPN Stats and Info provided us with an article leading up to the semi-historic Cy Young Matchup involving R.A. Dickey and David Price. This piece by Katie Sharp and Mark Simon focused on the relative struggles of both pitchers compared to their magical 2012 campaigns. Dickey pitched well that game but has yet to show more than flashes of the dominance he carried all of last season. So should fans in Toronto to be worried about the aging pitcher who is signed with the Toronto Blue Jays throughout the 2015 season?

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about how Dickey is not throwing same the “hard” knuckleball that he was last season. ESPN references that the slashline on Dickey’s sub-80 MPH knucklers is similar this year at .226/.294/.397 compared to last year when it was .241/.293/.382. They mention that this season he is missing the hard knuckleball that was so puzzling for hitters to figure out and was really what made him such a rare breed.

According to ESPN, Dickey threw almost 500 knuckleballs in 2012 that were at least 80 MPH. On these pitches, batters only managed to hit a miserable .146, struck out a ridiculous 92 times and had an OPS of .407. Going into his last start against the Tampa Bay Rays, again according to ESPN, he had thrown only 12 knuckleballs over 80 MPH and never more than three times in any one start.

So Dickey’s not throwing the knuckleball as hard this year. But does he have to? His slash line is actually slightly better this year on sub-80 MPH than it was last year. He’s also 38 years old. I don’t think throwing 500 knuckleballs over 80 MPH per season is really sustainable at this point. But I don’t believe he needs to be throwing that hard to be effective. Looking at his pitch hot zones on ESPN, it appears he is making up for the loss in velocity with more movement, which ties in nicely to our next point.

I talked about Dickey’s BB/9 ratio this year in my Cy Young Matchup preview and fellow Jays Journal writer Alex Dineley mentioned his BB% previously so we’ve already covered the fact that his walks are up. But why? Hitters are simply not swinging the bat. Last year opponents chased at pitches outside of the zone a mind-boggling 1/3 of the time. ESPN compared this to his recent start in Seattle where the Mariners chased at only 16% of pitches outside the zone.

So why didn’t batters just start laying off pitches last year? Because they couldn’t. Again I defer back to ESPN’s pitch zone tracker. Dickey was all over the strike zone last year – I don’t have specific stats but I’m sure the ridiculous chase ratio was helped by the fact he was always ahead and working out of a lot of 0-2 counts. This year he is missing more and more in the same spot – his knuckleball consistently flutters out and to the right from the mound.

It’s obvious that scouts and hitting coaches have picked this up as most teams have allowed Dickey to create his own mess by allowing too many baserunners. Although he pitched well his last start, he allowed another five walks in five innings of work to balloon with BB/9 to 4.1. In order to get this horrendous ratio back down to respectability Dickey will be forced to make adjustments and once again find a way to work the strike zone early in the count.

Overall Dickey seems like he’s a pretty savvy baseball guy. It’s the only way he’s managed to survive all of these years. He’s already reinvented himself once after it was discovered he doesn’t have an ulnar collateral ligament and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that he’s been battling nagging back and neck injuries. So I have confidence he will once again find a way to get the job done on a consistent basis. But if he doesn’t find a way to adjust Robert Allen Dickey’s days as a dominant MLB starter may soon become a memory of the past.