June 19, 2012
A pitcher that was on baseball’s version of the scrap heap less than two years ago, New York Mets starter R.A. Dickey is suddenly one of baseball’s hottest commodities when it comes to recent success.
The 37 year old hurler is thriving at an age where most pitchers have shown signs of decline due to advancing age. Of course, Dickey is anything but normal when it comes right down to it. He doesn’t have a power arm. The radar gun is under no threat to read triple digits on any given pitch when he’s on the mound. In fact, his fastball tops out around 80 miles per hour, which puts him in Jamie Moyer country when it comes to the heater.
No, Dickey isn’t reliant on a high 90s fastball to put hitters away. Instead, he relies on a pitch that is as unpredictable as his career trajectory: the knuckleball. With the retirement of Tim Wakefield following the 2011 season, Dickey is the lone active knuckleballer in the major leagues. Unlike Wakefield’s floating knuckler or the knuckleballs of Joe and Phil Niekro, Dickey has a power knuckleball that he throws harder. His knuckleballs can vary in speed from 66 to 80 miles per hour depending on how he chooses to throw it.
It’s proved to be extremely unsettling for opposing hitters, especially so far in 2012. Dickey improved his record to 11-1 on the season with an impressive dismantling of the Baltimore Orioles Monday night at Citi Field. Dickey allowed just one hit, a clean single to Wilson Betemit in the fifth inning in a 5-0 whitewash of Baltimore, who came in winners of six of their last seven games. It was Dickey’s second consecutive one hitter; he turned the trick last Wednesday against Tampa Bay in a performance that was overshadowed by San Francisco’s Matt Cain tossing a perfect game against Houston.
Dickey became the first pitcher since Dave Stieb of the Toronto Blue Jays to throw consecutive one hit complete games. Stieb accomplished the feat in his final two starts of the 1988 season and would go on to throw a no hitter two years later. Dickey was also just the tenth pitcher since 1900 to have consecutive outings allowing one or fewer hits; Johnny Vander Meer of the Reds headlines the list. Vander Meer is the only pitcher in major league history to throw back to back no hitters. The last National League pitcher to meet or beat the standard was Jim Tobin of the Boston Braves in 1944.
Dickey started the decisive rally for the Mets in the sixth inning with a single off Jake Arrieta. Ike Davis would eventually clear the bases with a grand slam, giving Dickey more than enough offense to win the game. In the end, Dickey fanned a career best 13 hitters, besting his career high of 12 set in his last start against Tampa Bay. The numbers that Dickey has put up this season are nothing short of spectacular by any standards, more so when compared to his career numbers entering the season.
Dickey is 11-1 and those eleven victories lead the majors. He now holds the franchise record for the earliest point in the season that a Mets pitcher got to ten games over .500, besting Tom Seaver, who accomplished it in New York’s 77th game in the year of the Amazin’ Mets in 1969. Dickey accomplished the feat in game 68 for the team. He’s the first pitcher of the modern era to throw back to back one hit complete games with at least 10 strikeouts in each. He’s also the first pitcher in big league history to throw back to back one hit complete games in interleague play.
Dickey leads the majors in earned run average with a mark of 2.00, in complete games with three and he’s tied for the league lead in shutouts with a pair. He boasts the majors best WHIP at 0.889 and is tops in strikeouts with 103. He joined a select group of pitchers to boast at least 11 wins, an earned run average below 2.50 and average at least one strikeout per inning in the first 14 starts of a season. The others on that list include Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Francisco Liriano, who was the last person to pull the feat off before Dickey. Liriano did it in 2006.
Dickey has not allowed an earned run in his last 42.2 innings of work and set a major league record with five consecutive starts allowing no earned runs and striking out at least eight hitters. That puts Dickey in striking range of the franchise record; Dwight Gooden went 49 consecutive innings with allowing an earned run in 1985. Gooden went 24-4 with a league leading 1.53 earned run average with 16 complete games and eight shutouts en route to claiming the National League Cy Young. There are many that have that sort of buzz about Dickey. There is speculation that Dickey could get the nod as the starter for the National League in the All Star Game and he has the credentials, at least so far, to be considered for a Cy Young Award.
Dickey entered this season with a career mark of 41-50 with a 4.34 earned run average in 204 games, 106 of which were starts. He has plenty of minor league experience as well, pitching in 296 games, starting 169 of them in several different levels of competition. He was a closer at one point, picking up 38 saves in 1999 at Class A-Advanced Charlotte in the Florida State League. It wasn’t until 2000 that he began starting on a regular basis in the rotation.
He’s pitched for Oklahoma, Rochester, Tacoma, Nashville and most recently Buffalo in AAA ball. Over the course of those minor league stops, Dickey went 79-71 with a 4.25 earned run average. He was 70-54 with a 4.22 earned run average in 192 appearances, 148 starts, in Triple A and there were some who felt Dickey was the epitome of what is referred to as a “Quad A” player: good enough to excel in the minors but unable to make the transition to the big leagues.
The Rangers drafted him with the 18th overall pick in the first round of the 1996 draft but Dickey didn’t make his big league debut until April 22, 2001. He threw a scoreless ninth inning in a blowout 11-2 Texas victory over the Oakland A’s, inducing three fly balls. He would appear in four games for the Rangers, going 0-1 with a 6.75 earned run average over 12 innings, then wouldn’t be back with the team in the bigs until 2003.
Dickey was up and down as a starter and reliever over the next three seasons before realizing his forkball he was throwing was actually a hard knuckler. He spent the 2005 offseason working on perfecting the pitch and pitched well enough during 2006 spring training to earn the job as the fifth starter in the Rangers’ rotation. It was to be short lived: Dickey lasted only one start, in which he allowed a major league record tying six home runs, before getting shipped back to the minors for the remainder of the season. At the end of the season, he became a free agent.
Dickey signed a minor league deal with the Milwaukee Brewers and spent the 2007 season pitching for the Nashville Sounds, Milwaukee’s AAA affiliate. He went 12-6 with a 3.90 earned run average and was named the Pacific Coast League’s Pitcher of the Year. Milwaukee didn’t resign him, making him a minor league free agent. The Twins originally offered him an invitation to spring training, only to have the Mariners claim him in the Rule 5 draft. Dickey went 5-8 with a 5.21 earned run average in 32 games, 14 of which were starts. He refused a minor league assignment after the season and became a free agent again, signing with Minnesota. Dickey pitched decently for Minnesota, going 1-1 with a 4.62 earned run average in 35 outings.
Dickey has been with the Mets since 2010 and has pitched fairly well for the team. Counting so far in 2012, he is 30-23 with a 2.86 earned run average in 74 appearances, 72 of which were starts. He’s matched his career high in victories and is on pace to blow away his career high in strikeouts; he had 134 last season. The biggest winner out of this out of left field performance is the Mets; they hold a $5 million option on him for next season, which would be a bargain basement price for the performance they’ve gotten.
It’s refreshing to see a story like Dickey’s unfold and remind us that with hard work, dedication and perseverance, anything is possible. Congratulations to Dickey for seeing that pay off at this stage of his career.