You go through The Sporting News for the last one hundred years, and you will find two things are always true. You never have enough pitching, and nobody ever made money.”
Donald Fehr, who before he became vilified for standing up to NHL owners wore the same black hat on behalf of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said those words two decades ago. At least one of those things is still true today.
Pitching — particularly starting pitching — is as in demand as it ever was. Even the best starters throw fewer innings and make fewer starts today than they did in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1996, 18 pitchers made 35 or more starts during the regular season. Only five pitchers have done so in the past six seasons combined — and not once in either 2011 or 2012. As innings on the mound become more dispersed, teams need more pitchers to throw them all.
But with revenue throughout the game soaring, and because MLB possesses one of the most precious television commodities — DVR-proof programming — not even the most shameless team owners can cry poverty anymore. Jeffrey Loria, who has kept that crown for years despite fierce competition, didn’t even bother to claim that the semi-annual Marlins Fire Sale this winter was forced upon him by his franchise’s financial needs.
So it’s no surprise that an industry that’s flush with cash and scarce on pitching would be willing to trade lots of the former for some of the latter. Kevin Correia — who has never played a season where he made 10 starts with an above-average ERA — got two years and $10 million from Minnesota. Joe Blanton, whose ERAs the last three years were 4.82, 5.01, and 4.71, respectively, got two years and $15 million with the Angels. Jeremy Guthrie, a very solid no. 4 starter for many years, got three years and $25 million from Kansas City.
When extra guys are getting eight figures guaranteed, you can imagine what front-line starters can earn. Anibal Sanchez parlayed a bidding war between the Cubs and the Tigers into a five-year, $80 million contract with Detroit. And in this market, that doesn’t even seem like overpaying, not even for a pitcher who hasn’t had an ERA under 3.50 since his rookie season in 2006.
The prize of this year’s free-agent market, Zack Greinke, cashed in with the Dodgers for six years and $147 million, which is the highest annual salary ever paid to a pitcher on a multi-year deal. Even better for Greinke, his contract allows him to opt out after three years. If he’s still healthy and effective at that point, and the market continues to inflate, that clause should earn him millions more.1
Greinke was the best pitcher in baseball in 2009, but over the last three years he has settled in as a really good no. 2 starter. He has averaged over 200 innings a season, but with a 3.83 ERA since 2010.
Given the market for Greinke, you’d think that a true ace pitcher — say, a pitcher who won the Cy Young Award this past season — would be primed to cash in. David Price, who won the award in the American League, is three years from free agency, and already the clock is ticking on how long the Tampa Bay Rays can afford to keep him. The National League winner is just a year away from free agency, and ought to earn $20 million or more per season on a long-term deal. How fortunate for his team, then, that he’s willing to sign at a discount, asking for just a two-year extension for about $13 million a season. Any rational organization would have that contract on his agent’s desk before the words were out of his mouth.
There’s just one problem: The NL Cy Young winner was R.A. Dickey. And R.A. Dickey throws the ball funny.
Until this season, Dickey’s career was more notable for its narrative than its quality. After a stellar collegiate career at the University of Tennessee, Dickey was drafted in the first round by the Texas Rangers. After agreeing to terms, Dickey underwent a routine physical that revealed that he was — ahem — born without an ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Labeled damaged goods at that point, Dickey was forced to accept a vastly reduced bonus, then went out and proved the Rangers were right to be skeptical. He didn’t stick in the majors until he was 28, and in his first six cracks at the major leagues he had an ERA above 5 each time.
Faced with the realization that his conventional repertoire wasn’t good enough to get major league hitters out, Dickey started toying with a knuckleball. In 2006, he showed enough progress with it that the Rangers made him their fifth starter on Opening Day. He made one start. He gave up six home runs. It would be two years before he pitched in the majors again.
He would move on to the Mariners in 2008 and the Twins in 2009; his pitching during this time was most remarkable for tying the major league record for wild pitches in an inning, with four. He signed a minor league contract with the Mets before the 2010 season, and finally the knuckler clicked. After eight brilliant starts in Triple-A, Dickey was promoted to New York and threw quality starts in six of his first seven attempts. He finished the season seventh in the NL with a 2.84 ERA. He followed up the campaign by throwing 209 innings with a 3.28 ERA in 2011. Fifteen years after he was drafted, he had finally arrived as a quality major league starter.
After that season, Dickey announced he would climb Mount Kilimanjaro, in part to raise money for awareness of human trafficking in India. During spring training for the 2012 season, his autobiography Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball was released to wide acclaim. The book caught the media’s attention because Dickey revealed that he had been sexually abused as a child.
That was R.A. Dickey nine months ago: a quality starter better known for his backstory than for his exploits on the mound. And then 2012 happened.
Early in the season, Dickey wasn’t pitching better than he had in the past, but he was definitely throwing differently. Dickey had thrown his knuckleball harder with each passing year — from 71 mph with the Mariners in 2008 to 76 mph in 2011. In 2012, Dickey averaged 77.2 mph on his knuckleball. He really threw two knuckleballs: a more standard knuckleball in the low 70s, and a “power knuckleball” in the low 80s. As Rob Neyer has documented, Dickey’s power knuckleball is probably the fastest knuckleball any pitcher has ever thrown, and is essentially without parallel in major league history.
Batters reacted the way you’d expect them to react to a pitch that had never been seen before. From May 22 to June 18, a span of six starts, Dickey threw 48.2 innings (more than eight innings per start), allowed 21 hits and five walks, allowed two runs (one unearned), and struck out 63 batters. It was one of the most dominant months ever seen from a starting pitcher. Dickey ended the season having made 33 starts, thrown 234 innings, and struck out 230 batters (all three figures led the NL) while allowing just 192 hits and 54 walks. He finished second in the league in ERA (2.73), third in base runners per nine innings, and (if you like that sort of thing) second in wins, with 20.
There’s a debate to be had over whether Dickey was really the best pitcher in the NL, or whether it was Clayton Kershaw, or even Johnny Cueto. But there’s no debating this: In 2012, R.A. Dickey was an ace. He was the most prized commodity in the game, an elite no. 1 starting pitcher.
And for some reason the Mets don’t want to pay him like one. They don’t even want to pay him like a no. 3 starter. Dickey asked the Mets for a two-year, $26 million deal — a hair less than what the Red Sox just signed Ryan Dempster for — and the Mets turned him down.
There are two reasons why the Mets might be reluctant to sign Dickey. Of course, both reasons break down under the slightest bit of inspection.
First off, Dickey turned 38 years old in October. He’s nine months older than Alex Rodriguez, 16 months older than Lance Berkman, and to some observers that makes him suspect.
But to anyone who knows anything about knuckleball pitchers, Dickey’s age is a feature, not a bug. The knuckleball is so difficult to master that historically, knuckleballers don’t peak until their mid-to-late 30s. Yet the pitch is so easy on the arm — and it requires so little velocity — that those who throw it tend to pitch well into their mid-40s.
The most successful knuckleball pitcher of the last 25 years was Tim Wakefield. Wakefield had his best season when he was 28, his first season with the Red Sox, when he had a 2.95 ERA in 195 innings — he accumulated 4.7 bWAR (wins above replacement, as calculated by baseball-reference.com). His second-best season? It was 2005 — when he was 38 years old.
From ages 33 to 37, Wakefield was worth 10.5 bWAR. From ages 38 to 42, Wakefield was worth 12.4 bWAR. He was better at ages 41-42 than he was at ages 32-33.
Tom Candiotti is the other prominent knuckleball pitcher of the last quarter-century, but he wasn’t a strict knuckler, as he also threw a curveball a decent amount of the time. Candiotti had a pretty broad peak from ages 28 to 35, going over 4 bWAR six times in eight years, but was still effective until age 40, when he threw 201 innings with a 4.84 ERA in the height of the juiced era.
If we go back to the 1970s and 1980s, we see a lot more knuckleballers, and we see a lot more guys pitch well into their 40s. From age 38 to age 41, Phil Niekro led the NL in losses four years in a row. That doesn’t sound good — until you realize he led the league in starts all four years, in innings and complete games three times, and one year led the league in wins and losses.
In 1978, a 39-year-old Niekro went 19-18 with a 2.88 ERA in 334 innings. In 1979, he went 21-20 with a 3.39 ERA in 342 innings. It was a different era, of course, but even then his insane durability (averaging 43 starts and 336 innings a year from 1977 to 1979) stood out. In 1977, he was worth 8.6 bWAR, and in 1978 he was worth 9.6 bWAR.
Niekro would remain effective into his mid-40s. In 1985, he went 16-12 with a 4.09 ERA in 220 innings for the Yankees. He was 46 that year.
His younger brother Joe was never as good as Phil, but Joe also was effective into his 40s. Joe had the best season of his career in 1982 (2.47 ERA in 270 innings, 6.5 bWAR), when he was 37, and from 1983 to 1985 he averaged 37 starts, 246 innings, and a 3.44 ERA. In 1986, at age 41, he started to lose it.
Charlie Hough was a reliever for the first decade of his career, and didn’t start regularly until 1982, when he was 34. From 1982 through 1988, when he turned 40, Hough threw at least 228 innings with an ERA under 4 every year. He was worth at least 2.6 bWAR every year. He began a slow decline in 1989, at age 41, but as late as 1993 he was good enough to start the inaugural game in Marlins history. That year — at age 45 — Hough threw 204 innings with a 4.27 ERA.
With the exception of Candiotti, who wasn’t a pure knuckleball pitcher, every one of these guys was a well-above-average starting pitcher at least through his age-40 season. (And Dickey, keep in mind, just had his best season at 37 — Candiotti was already in decline at that point.)
And even though he wasn’t a starter for most of his career, Hoyt Wilhelm has to be mentioned. Wilhelm didn’t reach the show until he was almost 30. Then he spent 21 seasons in the majors. From ages 41 to 45 — in the heart of the pitching-dominated 1960s, granted — Wilhelm averaged 108 innings per season with a 1.74 ERA. After the 1970 season, when Wilhelm was 48, he was still pitching well enough that the Atlanta Braves traded for him.
So the next time someone tries to criticize Dickey by pointing out “he’s 38 years old!,” throw it back at them. “YES! HE’S 38 YEARS OLD!”
Based on the history of knuckleball pitchers, we should expect Dickey to remain close to this current level of effectiveness at least through age 40. Dickey’s request for a two-year extension, which would take him through his age-40 season, isn’t just reasonable — it’s a bargain.
The other main criticism of Dickey is that he’s a one-year wonder who hasn’t shown the ability to sustain this level of success. Which is wrong on two separate counts.
For one, Dickey is hardly a one-year wonder. While he has never pitched quite as well as he did in 2012 — few pitchers have — he was one of the 15 best pitchers in the NL in both 2010 and 2011. Consider this:
R.A. Dickey, 2010–2012: 91 starts, 617 IP, 2.95 ERA, 468 Ks, 150 walks
Zack Greinke, 2010–2012: 95 starts, 604 IP, 3.83 ERA, 582 Ks, 154 walks
In Greinke’s defense, he was the better pitcher in 2009. In Dickey’s defense, Greinke signed for three times as long and nearly six times as much money as Dickey requested from the Mets. To repay Dickey’s Cy Young performance this season, not only did the Mets turn down his request, they embarked on a misguided character assassination campaign against Dickey in the media. Dickey addressed his contract situation at the Mets’ holiday party? HE HAD THE AUDACITY TO ANSWER QUESTIONS FROM REPORTERS?! The nerve of that guy.
(Personally, I love this more: “Dickey issued the laughable threat that, if the Mets didn’t extend his contract, he’d bolt the organization after 2013.” Yeah, how laughable! What other team would want the NL Cy Young winner? OK, 29 of them, but how many of them can claim they finished fourth in the NL East, huh?)
Even if Dickey returns to the form he showed in 2010 and 2011, he’s worth $13 million a year. But there’s reason to believe 2012 wasn’t a fluke. Dickey struck out 14.6 percent of batters faced in 2010, and 15.3 percent in 2011, but with his power knuckleball in 2012, his strikeout rate vaulted to 24.8 percent. As a result, Dickey’s hit rate dropped significantly, but his walk and home run rates barely moved in 2012. That’s not the sign of a pitcher who’s having a lucky season; that’s the sign of a pitcher who’s making a qualitative leap forward.
The batting average against a pitcher on balls in play is the simplest gauge of whether his performance is dependent on luck. Because pitchers have minimal control over this stat, an abnormally low number would suggest a pitcher who benefited from good fortune. Over the last three seasons, Dickey’s BABIPs are as flat as Nebraska; they read .280, .285, and .280.2 Nothing in his statistical record screams “fluke” — or even whispers it.
The Mets’ unwillingness to offer one of the best starting pitchers in baseball a contract commensurate with that of a no. 3 starter comes down to one simple factor: Dickey throws a knuckleball.3 As much progress as the industry has made over the last 10 years, it still has a bias against pitchers who throw unconventionally, and none more so than knuckleballers.
Is there risk with Dickey? Of course — he’s a pitcher. He might get hurt, although knuckleball pitchers are almost immune to the sorts of injuries that often befall pitchers. (And Dickey doesn’t have an ulnar collateral ligament, so he can’t tear it! No Tommy John for him!) Plus, the fact that Dickey’s knuckleball is unique, even by the standards of other knuckleball pitchers, increases the uncertainly a bit. It’s possible that, since his knuckleball relies on velocity more than Wakefield’s or Niekro’s, Dickey might lose his effectiveness more quickly with age than they did.
On the other hand, the fact that Dickey’s knuckleball is different from theirs would explain why it’s also better. Dickey already showed in 2010 and 2011 that he could be an above-average starting pitcher with a more typical knuckleball, but by throwing his power knuckleball more in 2012, he was as effective inning-for-inning as any knuckleballer in history. (Niekro had better seasons, but that’s because he was throwing more than 300 innings a year.)
So while there’s a risk that Dickey can’t continue throwing his knuckleball as hard as he did in 2012, it’s also possible that in doing something no knuckleball pitcher had done before, Dickey unlocked the key to a pitching talisman that no one knew even existed. If that’s the case, 2012 might represent just the first year of an extended run as one of the best pitchers in the game.
Having refused Dickey’s gift of a contract extension for less than he’s worth, the Mets and general manager Sandy Alderson have salvaged the situation by trading him to the Blue Jays for an impressive package of prospects. I’ll let Jonah Keri analyze whether the Blue Jays gave up too much for Dickey, but there’s no question that in Dickey they got themselves an incredibly valuable commodity. He was already signed for 2013 at the ridiculous salary of $5 million — he’ll make roughly as much money as Luke Hochevar — so even with the extension Dickey has been asking for, the Blue Jays will have the reigning NL Cy Young winner on a three-year, $31 million contract.
The knuckleball is the victory of results over form, of statistics over scouting. The pitch is almost impossible to scout — scouts themselves will tell you that the only way they can tell the quality of a knuckleball is by how awkward the batters’ swings are. The knuckleball thumbs its nose at everything a baseball organization is taught to value in pitchers — velocity, command, predictable movement. The only thing a knuckleball does is get results.
The Mets, for whatever reason, didn’t place a priority on the results Dickey achieved for them. They were unable to appreciate the gem they had in their hands. Fortunately for Dickey, Alex Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays understand that while Dickey looks like a batting practice pitcher on the mound, he looks like Tom Seaver in the box score. His pitches look like meatballs for 58 feet — and then perform magic for the last two. For Toronto, Dickey represents the final piece of a full-scale renovation this winter, joining other new additions Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Emilio Bonifacio, and Maicer Izturis. The Blue Jays have every reason to hope that their offseason makeover has finished as sublimely as one of Dickey’s knuckleballs.
This story is an updated and adapted version of a December 4 post from the Rany on the Royals website.