Last year, R.A. Dickey was a walking, talking reminder of one of the coolest realities of baseball: Anyone can excel at it. Even knuckleballers in their late-30s who have spent the majority of their careers fending off irrelevancy.
Now here we are in 2013, and Dickey is a walking, talking reminder of one of the not-so-great realities of baseball: Glory in this sport can be fleeting. Dreams that come true can come untrue in a hurry.
But I wouldn't panic about Dickey. Not yet, anyway. It's too early, and he's not broken.
The numbers certainly look bad. Dickey has made three starts for the Toronto Blue Jays, and he owns a 5.82 ERA and a 1.65 WHIP. Opposing hitters have an .889 OPS against him.
This is a guy who had a 2.73 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and .640 opponent OPS in a Cy Young campaign for the New York Mets last year. As spectacular as it was, though, it did have an out-of-nowhere vibe to it. Hence the reason we (admittedly meaning I) can even begin to ponder doomsday scenarios.
But then there's this reality: Dickey wasn't so great through three starts last year either.
He was pretty bad, actually, as he boasted a 5.71 ERA, a 1.70 WHIP and a 1.019 opponent OPS. Those numbers were largely inflated by an eight-run, three-homer stinker against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on April 18, but they were discouraging all the same.
Dickey's slow start to the 2012 season obviously didn't end up mattering. He had a 2.50 ERA the rest of the way, winning 18 of the 20 games that helped earn him the Cy Young.
A deeper dive helps reveal why Dickey's slow start last season didn't end up mattering. If one looks at how he actually pitched, one will see some consistency between his first two starts, which were good, and his third start, which was bad.
Everything in the following graph is from FanGraphs with the exception of Dickey's overall strike percentage (Strike%) and looking-strike percentage (LookStr%), which come courtesy of his 2012 Game Log on Baseball-Reference.com. The "2012" row is where Dickey ended the season in each category.
If you're lost on the lingo here, here's what you need to know. "F-Strike%" is first-pitch strike percentage. "Zone%" is the percentage of pitches inside the strike zone, in this case according to Baseball Info Solutions. "SwStr%" is swinging-strike percentage. "Swing%" is just what it sounds like, and "O-Swing%" is the percentage of pitches swung at outside the strike zone.
Add it all up, and what you can see is that Dickey was pretty consistent in the way he pitched in his first three starts last year. He got ahead in the count, found the zone and got hitters to swing at his pitches.
In the end, the numbers he compiled in those first three starts proved to be eerily similar to the numbers he finished with. That's as good an indication as any that Dickey was locked in from Day 1 last year.
So what happened in that stinker against the Braves on April 18?
That's where BrooksBaseball.net can help. I can't repost the graph here, but go take a look at Dickey's at-bat results in that start and where the pitches were. What you'll notice is that two of the three homers he gave up were on pitches up in the zone.
That's the old knuckleball saying at work: When it's low, let it go. When it's high, let it fly. Dickey's unlike any knuckleballer any of us have ever seen, but he's still going to live and die by the unpredictability of the pitch itself as much as the next knuckleballer.
And that's also what makes Dickey's disappointing returns early this season so hard to diagnose.
I'll break things down further in just a second, but for now take a look at this graph. It contains the same sort of information as the one above, except for Dickey's first three starts this year. It also shows how his numbers so far this year compare to his numbers from 2012.
There's some consistency here, but overall the numbers aren't on par with the numbers Dickey put up last year. That suggests that there's something legitimately wrong with his pitching, with the main problem being his inability to consistently throw the ball in the strike zone.
But it's not so simple. Each of Dickey's three starts tells a different tale.
Against the Cleveland Indians, you can see that Dickey wasn't getting ahead in the count with first-pitch strikes that much. That gave Indians hitters an excuse to be patient against him, and you can see by the Swing% and O-Swing% columns that they did a fine job of that.
But Dickey also got squeezed. The credit goes to Chris Cwik of RotoGraphs for noticing this first, but BrooksBaseball.net can show that three of the four walks Dickey issued against the Indians came on pitches that were in the strike zone. Those missed calls made life more difficult for Dickey than it should have been.
Against the Boston Red Sox, Dickey had a day sort of like the one he had against the Braves last April 18. He gave up a couple jacks to Will Middlebrooks, and the BrooksBaseball.net graphs show that they came on pitches too high up in the strike zone. A couple of the other hits he gave up also came on pitches up in the zone.
So Dickey's first two starts basically saw him get burned by the unpredictability of the knuckleball. That happened to him during his Cy Young campaign, and it's going to happen to him this year. It's just unfortunate that it happened in his first two starts when expectations were so high.
It's the start Dickey made against the Kansas City Royals, however, that was the weird one.
It was Dickey's best start of the young season, as he held the Royals to just one run over 6.1 innings. He allowed five hits, walked two (a perfectly acceptable number) and struck out four.
When I first saw Dickey's small Zone% and big O-Swing% for that start, I had it pegged as a fluke. What happened seemed to be him benefiting from facing an overly aggressive lineup rather than him actually pitching well.
The Royals offense fits that bill. Their offense ranks 26th in the league in walk percentage and is in the top 10 in the league in Swing% (see FanGraphs).
But then I noticed that PITCHf/x had Dickey's Zone% for his start against the Royals at 47 percent. There's a huge difference between that and Baseball Info Solutions' 37 percent, so what gives?
Once again, the BrooksBaseball.net data can help. It shows that Dickey wasn't in the strike zone that much, but he was around the strike zone quite a bit. He got some borderline strikes and a few outs on pitches that weren't quite in the strike zone, but close enough.
Dickey wasn't as wild and thus didn't get as lucky as the 37 percent Zone% figure would indicate. And if you switch that figure out for the 47 percent figure that PITCHf/x came up with, then it looks like Dickey is as much on the right track as his actual results against the Royals suggest he is.
Lest you think there's something wrong with Dickey's knuckleball, think some more. There's no telling what defines a "right" knuckleball from one pitch to the next. It's not supposed to move the same way twice, and that's the whole point. A knuckleball that barely budges can fool a hitter just as well as a knuckleball that moves all over the place.
And lest you think this has something to do with Dickey's transition over from the National League to the American League, he proved in interleague play between 2010 and 2012 that his knuckleball was just as baffling for AL hitters as it was for NL hitters. Over 10 starts spanning 64 innings, he racked up a 1.97 ERA.
This isn't to suggest that Dickey surely has another Cy Young in his future, mind you.
In terms of the strike and plate-discipline numbers we looked at, Dickey still has work to do to get back to where he was last year. He's no doubt doing that work, but his knuckleball isn't necessarily going to go along with what he wants to do. It's going to continue to be unpredictable, so a regression from where he was last year is certainly possible.
But to foresee doom for a pitcher this early in the season, there need to be clear signs that something is legitimately wrong. There need to be clear signs that the pitcher in question is broken, be it mechanically, velocity- or stuff-wise or health-wise.
I don't see any clear signs like that with Dickey. Asking him to be as dominant as he was last year is asking a lot, but his dream-come-true story should still have a few chapters left.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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