Hocus Throwcus: How RA Dickey Fooled Us All (everyone except Major League hitters that is)

Imagine for a moment that you’re the GM of a Major League Baseball team. It’s something every fan has done at some point or another.  Whether you’re shouting obscenities at your TV or tinkering with your fantasy team, we’ve all imagined what it would be like to call the shots for a big league club.  Who you’d draft, who you’d trade for, trade away… baseball fans spend hours talking (read ‘arguing’) about moves that their team should or shouldn’t have made.

So anyway, you’re the GM of your favourite ball club.  The offseason has just begun and you need, among other things, a starting pitcher.  Your team lacks a bona fide Ace, a need you wish to address.  You’re discussing potential targets with a trusted, old-school scout and your top Sabermetrician.  The following scouting report comes across your desk:

RA Dickey – Pitcher

Height/Weight: 6’3” / 215 lbs

B/T: R/R

Last season’s stats: W/L: 20-6, IP: 233 1/3, H: 192, K’s: 230, WHIP: 1.053, ERA: 2.73,

Won NL Cy Young award.

 

Seems like a no brainer, right? I imagine old-school scouts would be split on this issue.  On the one hand, he’s had a fantastic season.  Sign him up, right?  But he’s 37 years old, so no, he’s past his prime.  Sabermetric supporters would be equally torn on the issue.  He’s 37, so what?  If he’s good enough, he’s young enough, right?

Robert Allen Dickey was originally a “normal” pitcher just like everyone else. Fastball, breaking ball… the usual.  Dickey also had a forkball, which he had christened “The Thing”.  He was drafted by the Tigers in the 10th round of the 1993 amateur draft, but did not sign.  He was drafted again three years later by the Rangers, this time in the first round (18th overall).  For years, Dickey toiled away in the Rangers farm system making brief, unsuccessful appearances in the Show.  After a few years of mediocrity, Dickey came to the realization that he wasn’t much more than an average pitcher.  Someone who could hold down the fort in AAA and make occasional appearances in the Big Leagues when injuries started to mount up.  His run-of-the-mill repertoire may have landed him in a team’s bullpen had he been a southpaw, but right-handed mop-up guys with AAA stuff are hardly a sought after commodity in big league ball.  Realizing he had to adapt, Dickey began tinkering with his forkball.  He discovered that by throwing it with less velocity he was able to make it knuckle and drift.

 

R.A.-Dickey-Grip1.png

“The Thing” 2.0

 

It wasn’t like it was a new pitch, he’d been throwing it for years, just too hard.  The gamble paid off and Dickey was named as the Rangers fifth starter for 2006.  Giving Dickey an opportunity to throw the dancer full time was… let’s just say… unwise.  In his first start he went just 3 1/3 innings, allowed seven runs on eight hits and gave up six (yes six) potatoes.  A recap of the carnage:

Top 1st

Brandon Inge – Home run

Placido Polanco – F9

Ivan Rodriguez – F9

Magglio Ordonez – Home run

Dmitri Young – 4-3

 

Top 2nd

Chris Shelton – Home run

Carlos Guillen – 5-3

Craig Monroe – F9

Marcus Thames – F8

 

Top 3rd

Inge – F8

Polanco – Single

Pudge – Single (batted ball hit Polanco. Polanco out.)

Ordonez – FC (6-4, Pudge out at 2nd.)

 

Top 4th

Young – K

Shelton – Home run

Guillen – BB

Monroe – Home run

Thames – Home run

And that’ll close the book on Dickey (thank god).

 

He was immediately sent to AAA where he continued to struggle going 9-8 with a 4.92 ERA. The experiment ended when the Rangers released him in October of 2006.

 

dickey-pulled

That last one looked too high…

Dickey joined the Brewers in early 2007 and was assigned to their AAA affiliate, Nashville. He showed promise by posting a 13-6 record and a 3.72 ERA and a 1.293 WHIP.  Despite a solid season in the minors, he never got a shot with the big club and was released at seasons’ end.  Dickey signed with the Minnesota Twins… where he remained for seven whole days before being selected by the Mariners in the 2007 Rule 5 draft.  He started 14 games for the M’s in 2008 and posted a 5-8 record and just 58 strikeouts over 112 1/3 innings.  A 5.21 ERA combined with a 1.558 WHIP again highlighted his ineffectiveness.  Seattle cut bait just nine months later.  Dickey signed with the Twins, and was again cut by the end of the season, but not before hurling 64 1/3 innings and posting a 4.62 ERA and a 1.617 WHIP.

 

When Dickey signed with the Mets it was expected to be more of the same. A veteran pitcher who can help your AAA team, mentor young pitchers and who can eat up innings when injury cover is needed by the big club.  But something seemed to click for Dickey in 2010.  While with AAA Buffalo he went 4-2 with a 2.23 ERA and a 1.038 WHIP.  His time in the Show was equally impressive – he went 11-9 over 26 starts with a 2.84 ERA and a 1.187 WHIP.  This was enough to secure him a spot with the big club for the 2011 season.  He went 8-13 the following year posting a more than respectable ERA of 3.28 and a WHIP of 1.227.  Dickey followed that up with a dominant, Cy Young award winning season in 2012 at the tender age of 37.  He baffled hitters from start to finish, going 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA and a 1.053 WHIP.  He punched out hitters at a rate rarely achieved by knuckleballers (8.9 K/9) and well above his career average of 5.57.  He’d tease them with slow, seemingly hittable pitches only to send them back to the dugout with a puzzled look on their face.  Meanwhile, some kid in the bleachers is hanging another “K” over the railing.

But let’s get back to our GM fantasy. You need an Ace.  There’s a Cy Young winner available (which is rare enough in itself) and he has just come off the most dominant season of his career.

Your Sabermetrician looks up from his laptop, “Before last season this guy has a combined record of 41-50, which is a 0.451 winning percentage, a 4.35 ERA, and a 1.408 WHIP. That’s over nine seasons with four different teams.”  Not exactly a track record of success.

The scout chimes in, “Maybe he’s found something.  Tweaked his delivery.”

Your stat head makes a face.

 

Normally, when a guy ‘finds something’ and has a breakout season, (see Jake Arrieta) he’s not nearing the end of his fourth decade of life. Based on the data, a regression toward the mean was almost a certainty for Dickey.  Remember, Arietta was still just 28 when he posted a respectable 10-5 record with the Cubs during the 2014 season.  Not necessarily young, but young enough that a team could get six or seven good, solid seasons out of him before his arm packed it in.  He followed that promising 2014 season up by taking the baseball world by storm in 2015 with a 22 win, 229 inning, 236 strike out Cy Young award winning season in which he posted an absolutely narsty WHIP of 0.865.  The Cubs agreeing to pay their newly minted gunslinger $25 million over the next two seasons looked like good value as far as starting pitchers go.  Dickey not so much.  Yes, he had a great season.  He was, for lack of a better word, dominant.  Despite his newfound talent, even the greenest Roto-head could see that Dickey’s 2012 season was clearly a statistical outlier in an otherwise underwhelming career.

In an attempt to push past the Yankees and Red Sox in the race for the postseason, the Blue Jays and their GM Alex Anthopoulos decide to ignore Billy Beane’s second rule; (“The day you say you have to do something, you’re screwed”), and orchestrate a trade for Dickey. Anthopoulos was on a shopping high, having acquired Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and a few others just a month earlier.  Perhaps he was a little overzealous or perhaps he just had bad intel, either way I think it’s fair to say that he whiffed on the Dickey deal.  The biggest kick in the pants isn’t the fact that Dickey was paid $41 million by the Jays to go 49-52 (0.485 win pct) with an ERA of 4.06.  It’s the fact that they gave up a slew of young players to get a 38 year old journeyman trickster and two jobber catchers who have since developed into absolutely nothing.

At the time of the trade, Mike Nickeas was a 29 year old with a MLB slash line of .180/.241/.238.  Upon joining the Jays he played exactly one big league game and registered zero at bats.  He retired following the 2014 season.  Thole, just 25 at the time, had a bit more upside, bringing his career MLB slash line of .261/.331/.333 to Toronto with him.  Since moving north of the border however, Thole has been brutal, eh.  He hasn’t appeared in more than 57 games in any given season and sports a slash line of .200/.275/.248.  He now plies his trade for the D’backs (presumably in their minors).

The guys Toronto sent the other way have had some setbacks as well.  d’Arnaud plays sporadically and owns a .245/.311/.393 slash line while John Buck lasted just 101 games in NY before being shipped to the Bucs. He retired after the 2014 season.  The jury is still out on Wuilmer Becerra who was just 18 when he was traded but as of 2016 he was still in high-A and slashed .312/.341/.393 while stealing seven bases.  So he’s essentially an outfielder with no power who is also lead-footed.  A .341 OBP is nothing to sneeze at but the fact that he has been hampered by injuries (304 games in five seasons) won’t instil the Mets with confidence.  We’ll call this one “doubtful” for the time being.

Which brings us to the crown jewel of this deal. In order for Anthopoulos to trade for a team’s Cy Young winning pitcher, their 20 game winner, their Ace, he knew he’d have to give them something of value in return, and rightly so.  In this case, the Jays front office had the bright idea to throw in their 6’6”, 240 pound, 19 year old, can’t miss, all go, no quit, FORMER FIRST ROUND PICK WHO LOOKS LIKE A VIKING AND IS AN ABSOLUTE FLAMETHROWER, NOAH SYNDERGAARD!!!  Whew, sorry.

Trading an atypical stud who is under team control for the next 5+ years, and thus can be paid far less than he would attract on the open market, for a 38 year old, soon-to-be free agent is questionable on a good day.  Even if the Jays could have predicted Dickey’s Cy Young award season and acquired him then, is it worth losing all the wins Syndergaard is going to accumulate over the next half decade and at a fraction of the cost?  The ‘Win Now’ strategy is fine, but it still has to make sense on paper (see Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs and Andrew Miller to the Indians last season).  Both those teams acquired players to help with their playoff push.  One team won the World Series and then let their mercenary walk and the other lost in the World Series but still controls arguably the most dominant reliever in baseball – and he’s still just 32.  Yes, Miller had a career year last season, just as Dickey did in 2012.  While Miller is unlikely to post better numbers in 2017, him regressing toward the mean (once he converted to a reliever and excluding 2016) gives us a 2.40 ERA, a 0.990 WHIP and 13.9 K/9.  A far cry from Dickey’s career averages prior to 2012 (4.35 ERA, 1.408 WHIP, 5.57 K/9).  From 2013 onward Dickey has regressed toward the mean by posting a 4.06 ERA, a 1.253 WHIP and 6.59 K/9.  He’s also near the top of the leader board in HR allowed every season.  If you’re looking for a guy who can go out there every fifth day, eat up innings and pitch .500 baseball, Dickey’s your guy.  But his numbers are more ‘rubber-armed workhorse’ than they are ‘Ace’.

dickeytopgun_ensbuwnh_1rva5b9z

This has nothing to do with anything, I just thought it looked pretty awesome.

The Jays wisely let Dickey walk at the end of the 2016 season. He signed with the Braves for $7.5 million with an $8 million team option for 2018.  In an uncharacteristically well thought out move, the Braves also included a $500k buyout option for 2018.  Don’t get the wrong impression, I have nothing against Dickey himself, or knuckleballers for that matter.  I’m just wary of the ‘halo effect’ that seems to perpetuate itself in pro sports.  A guy has one good season, some desperate team signs him to a mega-deal and he proceeds to underperform for the length of the contract.  You got a Bryce Harper or a Mike Trout? Sure, pay him.  Got an ageing Greg Maddux or someone else with over a decade of proven success?  Sure, take a chance and pay him.  Got a guy who’s been a .500 pitcher his entire career and somehow managed to have a career year at 37?  Maybe take a deep breath before you whip out your chequebook.

 

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