Keys to R.A. Dickey Succeeding Against Tough AL East Lineups

James O'DonnellContributor IIJanuary 29, 2013

Keys to R.A. Dickey Succeeding Against Tough AL East Lineups

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    R.A. Dickey has become one of the most interesting stories in baseball over the past few seasons, but now he's about to go from a feel-good story to one of the most scrutinized pitchers in baseball this season.

    Dickey won the 2012 National League Cy Young Award in November after a masterful performance in which he dominated opposing hitters all season long despite playing on a Mets team that finished 24 games back in the National League East last season. His knuckleball was downright unhittable at times—an observation verified by two near-no-hitters in the month of June of last season.

    Dickey pitched 233.0 innings, going 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA and 1.05 WHIP while striking out a National League-leading 230 batters (one ahead of 2011 Cy Young Award winner, Clayton Kershaw). Gaudy numbers for any pitcher, but especially impressive for Dickey, who just a few years prior was almost out of baseball entirely.

    The storybook season wouldn't have a happy ending, however. Dickey, now 38, sought a contract extension from the Mets after the season, but the two parties couldn't agree on a number. Reports claimed Dickey was looking for $26-28 million on a two-year extension, but the Mets refused to exceed $20 million.

    The negotiations continued, but it soon became clear an agreement wouldn't be reached. That's when things started to get ugly.

    Once the realization set in that the damage done to the relationship was irreparable, the Mets sought to trade Dickey, and the Blue Jays—already hot off a blockbuster trade with the Marlins—came calling.

    In the end, the Blue Jays got their man, netting Dickey and a pair of catchers (Josh Thole, Mike Nickeas) familiar with the reigning Cy Young winner, but it cost them a pretty penny. The Jays gave up the consensus best catching prospect in the game in Travis D'Arnaud, as well as highly-touted pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard.

    Given how his tenure with the Mets came to such a controversial conclusion, as well as the price the Blue Jays paid to acquire his services, one Robert Allen Dickey will have a lot of pressure on him in 2013.

    Dickey will have to adjust to a new team in a new division in a new league. A lot of people believe the American League East is the toughest division in baseball for pitchers, and rightfully so. The Rogers Centre is also a more hitter-friendly park than the pitching-oriented confines of Citi Field.

    Dickey has established a track record of success, but he will have to make some adjustments to continue his reign among the best pitchers in baseball. This article breaks down R.A. Dickey's keys to succeeding against the American League East in 2013 and living up to his newly-acquired reputation as an elite pitcher.

Keep Throwing the Knuckleball(s)

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    It's no secret that the key to R.A. Dickey's success has been the development and honing of his knuckleball.

    Since his emergence as a quality starter in 2010, Dickey has thrown the knuckleball over 80 percent of the time, according to PITCH f/x data. He threw pitches classified as a knuckleball 83.4 percent of the time in 2010, 76.4 percent of the time in 2011 and 85.4 percent of the time in 2012.

    The velocity of his knuckleball has also seen a slight uptick during this time span, going from 75.8 MPH to 76.0 MPH to a career-high 77.2 MPH last season.

    Dickey's 25.2 pitch value on his knuckleball made it the second-most valuable pitch in all of baseball last season, trailing only Clayton Kershaw's fastball (pitch value of 25.5).

    As someone who lives in the New York area and has been subjected to more Mets games than he could have ever wished to see over the last three years, I happened to catch a lot of R.A. Dickey's starts.

    And the one thing that has fascinated me is that, although we categorize a majority of his pitches as "knuckleballs," I noticed that there was a great deal of variation within this classification.

    Dickey actually throws a gamut of knucklers. He hit every speed at least once in 2012 on a range from 67-83 MPH with the knuckleball. Dickey can change the speed, the amount of movement and even the type of movement on his knuckleball pitches, and the great variation on the pitch lends to its unpredictability despite how frequently he throws pitches that ultimately get classified as the same type of pitch.

    Dickey's fastball—his secondary pitch—won't overpower hitters. Though he once threw in the 90s, his average fastball velocity sits in the low-to-mid 80s. That's the type of slow-moving fastball—if not properly offset by his knuckler—that could get smoked by the veteran power-hitting lineups of the AL East.

    Luckily for Dickey, his fastball doesn't have to blow hitters away. When Dickey is on top of his game and keeping hitters off-balance, feeding them a variety of low-speed knuckleballs, Dickey's fastball—about six to 10 MPH faster—comes in a lot faster than it seems. The success of his fastball is directly dependent on his knuckleball.

    Dickey will need to adjust in some aspects of his game as he transitions to life in the American League, but he doesn't have to give up the knuckleball. 2012 was his best season to date and he threw it more often with more variation than ever before. That's not merely a coincidence.

    Some things hold true across all of baseball. Dickey's arsenal of knuckleballs—from eephus-like floaters in the mid 60 MPH range to the "angry" knucklers in the low 80 MPH range—can be successful in any division if he continues to throw it as well as he has over the last three seasons.

    The biggest key for Dickey is not to worry about where he's throwing, but what he's throwing. His success begins and ends with the efficiency of his knuckleball variety, and he will need to keep throwing it a high rate in 2013 to succeed against the best either league has to offer.

Paint the Corners; Make Hitters Chase Bad Pitches

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    There are a number of interesting stats regarding opposing hitters' plate discipline against R.A. Dickey that, when combined, tell an interesting story about Dickey's success in 2012. The stats:

     

     

    O-Swing percent vs. Dickey in 2012 (percentage of pitches swung at outside the strike zone): 34.0 percent (up from 29.0 percent in 2011 and 29.4 percent in 2010, with a career average of 25.6 percent).

    Swing percent vs. Dickey in 2012 (percentage of pitches batters swung at): 50.6 percent (up from 48.2 percent in 2011 and 48.8 percent in 2010, with a career average of 47.2 percent)—first in the National League in 2012.

    Contact percent vs. Dickey in 2012 (percentage of times batters made contact with pitches at which they swung): 75.4 percent (down from 83.4 percent in 2011 and 82.0 percent in 2012, with a career average of 80.8 percent).

    Zone percent by Dickey in 2012 (percentage of pitches thrown inside the strike zone): 51.2 percent (down from 53.1 percent in 2011 and 52.9 percent in 2010, with a career average of 52.5 percent).

    SwStr percent vs. Dickey in 2012 (percentage of strikes that were swung at and missed): 12.2 percent (up from 7.8 percent in 2011 and 8.4 percent in 2010, with a career average of 8.8 percent).

     

    So what is the narrative told here by these numbers? According to the data, Dickey threw less pitches in the strike zone in 2012, inducing significantly more swinging strikes outside of the strike zone and producing a significantly lower contact rate and noticeably higher rate of swinging strikes.

    However, Dickey still threw a majority of his pitches in the strike zone and the percentage of pitches in the strike zone doesn't differ dramatically from his career average. Still, Dickey was giving batters less pitches "in the zone" to hit, and with his established reputation in 2012, hitters were more likely to chase bad pitches than sit and wait for one over the heart of the plate.

    These major improvements—higher rate of swinging strikes, more swings at pitches outside the strike zone—without a significant change in Zone percent could be explained by Dickey's faster knuckleball thrown in 2012. The traditional knuckleball is hard for a pitcher to locate with pinpoint accuracy, but Dickey's faster knuckler with less movement could have given him more control over where to place the pitch.

    Pitching accuracy isn't just about being able to put the ball in the strike zone, but it's about locating pitches. Dickey was able to exude more control over his faster knuckleballs, allowing him to paint the corners and induce hitters to chase pitches just outside the strike zone.

    The end result was staggering improvement in his percentage of swinging strikes, as well as a K percent that climbed to 24.8 percent (up from 14.6 percent in 2010 and 15.3 percent in 2011). Dickey's K/9IP went from a pedestrian 5.78 in 2011 to an elite-level 8.86 in 2012.

    In order to succeed against the AL East in 2013, Dickey will need to do more of the same. Dickey has the respect of opposing hitters now. He needs to use that to his advantage. The aggressive hitters of the AL East won't sit back and wait for Dickey to make a mistake; they're going to be looking just to make contact in some instances.

    That's when Dickey needs to take advantage of the situation by painting the corners, dancing around the strike zone and making hitters chase less-than-ideal pitches. Leaving pitches up over the heart of the plate is liable to get a pitcher rocked in the AL East, and Dickey has the luxury of being able to induce swings at bad pitches.

    His success hinges on sustaining a great strikeout rate in the American League, and one way to ensure that he does is to continue to pinpoint his faster knucklers to the best of his ability and make hitters open up themselves to hack at pitches outside the zone.

Keep the Ball Down; Lower the HR/FB Percent

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    Comparing R.A. Dickey pre-2010, before he honed his craft of the knuckleball to near perfection, to the pitcher he is now is a pointless exercise. Just look at that guy in his Bowman rookie card to the left; he doesn't even look like the same person.

    However, as Dickey has reinvented himself, one dramatic change worth noting has been the reduction in home runs allowed.

    From 2003-2009, Dickey had a HR/9 IP rate of 1.40 (the lowest single-season mark during that time was 1.12 HR/9 IP with the Twins in 2009). From 2010-2012, Dickey's HR/9 IP was a much improved 0.80 (never even approaching 1.0 HR/9 IP in any of the three seasons with the Mets).

    A number of factors could have been responsible for this drastic improvement, including Dickey's home park for the last three seasons, Citi Field. However, as Dickey relied less on his fastball and developed his knuckleball repertoire, he became less predictable and his pitches became more difficult to get good wood on.

    Whatever the reasoning for the sharp drop off in home runs allowed, it is important for Dickey to continue to avoid his past propensity for surrendering the long ball.

    According to MLB Park Factors, three of the five AL East home venues—Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Camden Yards—were in the top ten most home run-friendly parks last season. Additionally, the Yankees and Orioles ranked first and second in most home runs hit by team in 2012.

    These conditions are a far cry from the softer NL East Dickey faced in 2012. The Yankees and Orioles live and die by the long ball and the Red Sox look like they will field a healthier and more powerful lineup than they did a year ago. If Dickey wants to continue to be among the league leaders, he will need to avoid getting taken out of the park by some of the league's best home run hitting teams.

    In 2010, Dickey's HR/FB percentage was 8.5 percent and in 2011, it was 8.3 percent. However, last year, Dickey's HR/FB percentage climbed to 11.3 percent. That could continue to trend in the wrong direction in a tougher division in more hitter-friendly parks. So how does Dickey fix this?

    FanGraphs went to great lengths to dispel the convention wisdom that pitching down in the strike zone is less likely to yield home runs than pitching up in the zone. Though they make a very convincing argument that home runs are (nearly) equally likely to occur at all vertical locations in the strike zone, it is important to consider each pitcher's individual case when determining where to pitch hitters.

    With lower-velocity pitchers like Dickey, a pitch left hanging over the plate has a better chance of getting taken out of the park than harder throwers with some movement on their power pitchers. By nature, Dickey's floating knucklers and slower fastball are the types of pitches that, if left up in the zone, could be taken for a ride.

    Dickey has been known to use the entire strike zone, but he'll need to be more conscious about not leaving hittable pitches up in the zone in a division full of powerful lineups that feast on fastballs.

    Tying in with the last "key to success" of making hitters chase bad pitches, Dickey will need to induce more poor contact on balls put in play in the air and cut back on his HR/FB percentage if he wants to succeed in the more dangerous AL East.

Continue to Pitch Well out of the Stretch

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    R.A. Dickey didn't allow many base runners to begin with in 2012, to which his 1.05 WHIP (third best in the National League) can testify.

    However, what separated R.A. Dickey from the pack statistically last season is what he was able to accomplish once he did allow a runner to reach base.

    There are two parts to R.A. Dickey's success in pitching from the stretch last season:

    1) He is simply a better pitcher than the average major-league starter, but especially with runners on because he requires less of a wind-up as a non-power pitcher and was able to shut down potential rallies.

    2) He did a tremendous job at holding runners on base and limiting stolen bases.

    It will be of the utmost importance for Dickey to carry over these skills as he moves to the AL East in 2013.

    For starters, the four AL East teams he'll face more than anyone else had an average .320 OBP last season (compared to an average .316 OBP compiled by his four NL East division rivals in 2012). The AL has traditionally carried a slightly higher league-average OBP than the NL, and it is very likely that Dickey can expect at least a minor uptick in WHIP this season.

    First, Dickey was not only better than the average pitcher with runners on base last season, he was even more effective against hitters with runners on base than he was with no one on base and pitching from the windup.

    With no one on base, Dickey faced 582 hitters, who posted a meager batting line of .227/.278/.335 against him. Impressive numbers in any context, but Dickey was even more stingy once a runner reached base.

    With runners on, Dickey faced 345 batters, whose batting line dipped a bit to .226/.277/.325, striking out 79 and walking only 20 in those situations. Even more impressive, with runners in scoring position, Dickey stymied hitters to the tune of .177/.247/.239.

    As the pressure on Dickey increased with runners reaching base or getting into scoring position, Dickey only got better. He didn't wilt under the pressure of potential rallies, instead rising to the challenge of getting out of a jam.

    He was seventh in all of baseball, forcing 25 double plays, and was so adept at pitching from the stretch once a runner reached base that all season long he only faced six hitters with the bases loaded (not surprisingly, those hitters went one for six).

    With more runners like to reach base as he moves to the AL East in 2013—even if Dickey pitches just as effectively as he did in 2012—the importance of shutting down hitters once the opposing team gets a man on will increase significantly and will be a key to Dickey's continued success.

     

    In addition to being a great pitcher with runners on base, Dickey also did a phenomenal job of keeping those runners in check.

    According to Will Woods of Baseball Prospectus, in a wonderfully informative article written at the end of last season on how R.A. Dickey has minimized stolen base attempts against him, "only three qualified starters in all of baseball [had] allowed fewer stolen base attempts per stolen base opportunity than Dickey."

    The league average for stolen bases per 100 stolen base opportunities was 5.81 in 2012, according to Baseball Prospectus. Dickey allowed only 1.85 per 100 opportunities last season, drastically below the league average.

    There is some discussion in the article as to whether his pre-pitch movements amount to a balk, but Dickey has been able to tweak his mechanics to avoid being called out by umpires and his impeccable timing, plus a quick release, has kept runners on first more cautious than they would usually be.

    However Dickey does it, it's important he is able to keep runners in check with the same level of efficiency he did in 2012. Though he was a fantastic pitcher with runners on base and runners in scoring position last year, the less high-leverage situations he puts himself in against the explosive AL East lineups who can quickly overcome almost any deficit, the better.

Take Advantage of the Perks of Pitching for the Blue Jays

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    This final key to R.A. Dickey succeeding in the AL East in 2013 isn't some dig at the Mets. Pitching for the Mets offered a number of perks, including pitching in a division considered favorable for pitchers and pitching in a pitcher-friendly park, according to MLB Park Factors.

    However, the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays also offer Dickey a significant number of perks that were not previously available to him in Flushing, N.Y.

    Pitching for a franchise that has suddenly shown a much greater willingness to spend money and a greater appreciation for what Dickey offers as a pitcher will provide new benefits to Dickey's success going forward.

    Taking advantage of these "perks" will go a long way in helping Dickey succeed in his newest challenge: conquering the tough lineups of the American League East.

    These perks, which will be touched upon in this slide, include: pitching in Rogers Centre (yes, it can be to Dickey's benefit), having an improved offense behind him, having a choice of personal catchers and pitching in a city and for a team that are conducive to his success.

     

    Although Rogers Centre had a lower Home Run Factor than Citi Field last season, no one truly believes the Rogers Centre is the more pitcher-friendly ballpark.

    Despite the lower Home Run Factor in 2012, Citi Field had a significantly lower number the two seasons prior and there were still more home runs hit in the Rogers Centre in 2012 than in Citi Field. Rogers Centre also had a higher overall park factor, favoring hitters.

    Rogers Centre may be a more difficult place to pitch based on its dimensions, but the atmospheric conditions may be more preferable for Dickey.

    There have been a plethora of studies conducted, myriad of data gathered and an abundant amount of speculation made as to the effect of pitching in a domed stadium with a retractable roof will have on the knuckleball. No one knows what effect Rogers Centre will have on Dickey—there isn't much to go off of historically.

    One thing we do know is that Rogers Centre offers a much more controlled environment; some of Dickey's worst performances in the past three seasons—including his worst start of 2012 on April 18 against the Braves—occurred during adverse weather conditions. Heavy winds and rain can make the knuckleball increasingly unpredictable and hard to locate.

    In a domed stadium with a retractable roof, these issues should be minimized. Perhaps some light wind would be best for Dickey or perhaps no wind at all (we all saw how he dominated in his lone indoors start against the Rays last season) will be most desirable.

    What we do know is that in an environment like the Rogers Centre where the elements can be controlled, it is less likely that Dickey will have to battle with strong winds and rain.

    Tom Candiotti, a former knuckleballer, who pitched with the Blue Jays, said pitching in the Rogers Centre (back when it was still called the Skydome) was great, even if the numbers don't support his individual claim.

    Meanwhile, knuckleballers such as Tim Wakefield and Phil Niekro had almost identical career numbers when comparing pitching outdoors to pitching in a dome.

    One thing we do know is Dickey can at least avoid the egregious weather conditions that rendered his knuckleball extremely hittable in the past, including strong winds and rain. With less wind and the roof only open for favorable conditions, Dickey—in theory—should have more control over his knuckler in his home starts.

    So despite Citi Field being more "pitcher-friendly" in some aspects, Dickey may benefit more from the stable conditions of the Rogers Centre.

    Dickey will also likely see an increase in run support, giving him a slightly greater margin of error. Dickey actually got decent run support last season—the Mets averaged 4.61 runs in his starts. However, the Blue Jays got their only two qualifying starters, Henderson Alvarez (4.74 runs per start) and Ricky Romero (4.75 runs per start), slightly more support.

    Those numbers should only increase with the offensive improvements made by the Blue Jays in the offseason. Pitching with better run support on a team likely to be in contention should give Dickey all the motivation he needs to continue to excel for a full season.

    Dickey showed he could thrive under pressure and high-leverage situations—the few times they presented themselves last year—so he could benefit from finding himself pitching even better on a competitive team with a strong offense.

    The Jays have also done everything they can to show their appreciation for Dickey. They gave him the extension he wanted, so now all he has to worry about is going out and pitching as well as he has for the last three years.

    There are no off-the-field issues or bad blood with management. The Toronto media are less likely to stir things up than the media circus of the Big Apple. Dickey should benefit from all the intangibles of pitching in Toronto.

    The Blue Jays even gave him a variety of catching options who have experience with his knuckleball. They acquired Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas in the same trade in which they landed Dickey, giving the team two personal catcher options.

    Taking it one step further, they even inked Henry Blanco to a minor league and are poised to give him the backup catcher job, specifically to be Dickey's personal catcher.

    It's not a coincidence that in an interview last year, Dickey claimed Blanco was the best at catching his knuckleball of all the catchers he's had. The Blue Jays have done everything they can to make the transition as seamless as possible by taking as much stress as they can off Dickey.

     

    This isn't to say that pitching in Toronto is the ideal location for any pitcher, but there are a number of perks to R.A. Dickey being a Blue Jay and he will need to utilize them to succeed. He will need to take advantage of the stable conditions of pitching at home (and in Tampa) and take advantage of the fact that all he needs to worry about right now is going out every fifth day and pitching.

    The Blue Jays gave him the extension he wanted, gave him a good offense and defense to support him and even gave him a variety of personal catching options.

    Now it's up to Dickey to go out and pitch like he has the last three seasons, albeit for a new team in a new division.

    With his natural abilities as a pitcher combined with a new environment conducive to his success, all the "keys" are there for Dickey to succeed against the tough lineups of the AL East in 2013.