Dispelling 5 Myths About R.A. Dickey … And Why Toronto Trading Top Prospects For Him Is 100% The Right Move

My life is a war.

Since Friday night, both New York and Toronto have been on fire with rumors and speculation surrounding R.A. Dickey going to the Blue Jays in what now appears to be a seven-player deal.

ra-dickey-trade-toronto

Acquiring R.A. Dickey – even at a steep prospect price – would be a slam dunk for the improving Blue Jays. (Image credit: AP via NorthJersey.com)

The Blue Jays would get R.A. Dickey, the reigning National League Cy Young winner, catcher Josh Thole, and a player to be named later. In exchange, the Mets would get two of the Jays’ top prospects, Travis D’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard, recently reacquired catcher John Buck, and another player to be named later.

It’s amazing the uninformed nonsense that has come up as a result of this likely impending deal (apparently the deal is nearly done; the Jays, however, would need R.A. Dickey to agree to an extension before agreeing).

Many have talked about Dickey being a “one-year wonder” or referencing the fact he’s 37 years-old as red flags. Furthermore, many Toronto fans can’t bear to part with the amazing potential of D’Arnaud and Syndergaard.

I’m fighting some serious urges to call these people prevaricators and sycophants. The bright side is, based on how they have treated this trade, they won’t bother to look up what those words mean, so nobody will get mad at me.

I’ll get to the value of prospects in a moment. Right now, I’m settling all the R.A. Dickey to Toronto issues through the magic of facts and statistics.

Myth: Dickey Had Just One Good Season

While 2012 was Dickey’s finest season, he has actually been among the best pitchers in baseball for the past 3 seasons.

We’ll start using the metric ERA-, which strips away many of the intangibles that affect a pitcher’s ERA by accounting for variables such as defense and Park Factor (so don’t get sassy with me about Rogers Center, Fenway, or Yankee Stadium being “hitters parks”).

Between 2010 and 2011, 61 pitchers threw at least 350 innings. During those two years, Dickey posted an ERA- of 81. That means he prevented runs at a rate 19 percent better than the league average (average being 100).

That placed him 18th best in the majors. This was in the two years before his “fluke” season. As a point of reference, David Price and Matt Cain each had an ERA- of 80 in that stretch.

Now, let’s include his Cy Young-winning 2012. Over the past three seasons, his ERA- is 78. The full list of pitchers with an ERA- between 75 and 80 over the last three years: David Price, Cole Hamels, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Gio Gonzalez, Matt Cain, and R.A. Dickey. (Thank you FanGraphs. Link will be provided at the bottom of the article.)

I’m guessing most of you had no clue Dickey was that good. His numbers have actually been adversely affected by playing with the Mets, in much the same way we have seen Felix Hernandez’s traditional numbers hurt by playing in Seattle.

Myth: Pitchers Should Fear Move to AL East

I won’t deceive you. Any move to the American League hurts a pitcher. The logic is as simple as the designated hitter rule. However, the AL East move is not the death knell it once was. The last section handled any ballpark argument, so let’s get to the teams.

I dare you to argue that there is anything left to fear in the Red Sox lineup. They traded away most of the offensive talent that was supposed to help them dominate to the Dodgers. They are not the same offensive juggernaut they were in the 2000s. They are a team with more question marks than answers at this point.

While the Yankees still have major talent, much of that talent is depreciating in value. Try and convince anyone that the 2013 versions of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are anything to fear. Much of the supporting cast (Nick Swisher, Russell Martin) will not be back as the Yankees look to lower payroll for the first time in seemingly forever.

These are two former superpowers trending downward.

The Rays added James Loney (.630, .574 after moving to the “dreaded” AL East) and Yunel Escobar (.644), who were among the very worst players in OPS at their respective positions in 2012 (among players that qualified for the batting title), to a team with major offensive problems.

The Orioles’ Run Differential was the coolest part of their improbable playoff run last year. I don’t want to speak ill of one of baseball’s great stories, but you have to agree that this is not a team that beats you with the lumber.

Where exactly is the threat in moving to the AL East?

Myth: Dickey Throws the Same Ol’ Knuckleball

R.A. Dickey is a different breed of knuckleball pitcher. Most people didn’t notice, because they were too caught up in inspirational stories and fantasy bargains to actually watch him pitch.

People act as though his knuckleball is one pitch. Dickey throws two very different knuckleballs. The speeds ranged from 54 mph. to 83 mph.

I definitely added those for dramatic effect. Typically though, Dickey utilizes at least two different knuckleball speeds, occasionally stepping it up in the low-80s and as low as the mid-60s (usually though the differential is around 8-10 mph., in the 70s).

Dickey typically opens with the slower knuckleball, establishing the pitch (63.08% of 0-0 pitches), before amping up the speed when ahead in the count (91.67% fast knuckleballs when 0-2, 93.50% when 1-2). The knuckleball is hard enough to hit, let alone when you can change speeds and it can also throw your timing off. This, along with a newfound mastery of the upper part of the strike zone, is what lead to the spike in strikeouts for Dickey.

Again, I don’t see this as a fluke. It’s an acquired skill of a man learning how to outsmart the opposition.

Dickey’s knuckleball is not unpredictable like many would assume. Traditionally a difficult pitch to control, he had a 4.259 K/BB ratio last year, the 4th best in the majors.

People continue to spin their old wives tale about how wild the knuckler is. Reality: Dickey threw only 4 wild pitches last season.

There is also a bizarre argument that the Rogers Center would adversely affect Dickey’s knuckleball. It’s an unfairly small sample size, but Dickey has only pitched one game in a dome since joining the Mets. That one game just happened to be a 12 strikeout, one-hit shutout of the Tampa Bay Rays (part of that scary AL East).

Myth: Dickey is Too Old

As far as the age issue, Dickey is heading in to his age-38 season. There have been seven knuckleball pitchers to qualify for the ERA title (162 IP) in their age-38 season:

  • Dutch Leonard (17-12, 2.68 ERA, ERA- 67)
  • Ted Lyons (14-6, 2.76 ERA, ERA- 60)
  • Johnny Niggeling (15-11, 2.66 ERA, ERA- 71)
  • Joe Niekro (15-14, 3.48 ERA, ERA- 103)
  • Phil Niekro (16-20, 4.03 ERA, ERA- 95)
  • Charlie Hough (17-10, 3.79 ERA, ERA- 89)
  • Tim Wakefield (16-12, 4.15 ERA, ERA- 92)

The Niekros were the least impressive of the bunch, and those are still acceptable seasons. Just look at the likes of Leonard, Lyons, and Niggeling though, that is some scary company Mr. Dickey will have.

By the way, all seven of these pitchers met the ERA innings minimum again in their age 40 season.

While there is an inevitable tipping point, knuckleball pitchers often get better with age. That pitch is a skill, not a natural talent that will diminish over time like a high-90s fastball.

There is a reason the Jays are looking to extend Dickey to complete this trade. They don’t just see a short-term shot at the World Series, they see at least a few years of strong pitching from the first knuckleballing Cy Young winner.

Myth: The Jays Are Paying Too Much

I don’t want to demean the Jays prospects that appear to be headed to the Big Apple, but I do frequently get annoyed with the seemingly insatiable love sports fans (Toronto ones seem worse than most) have for prospects.

Maybe it’s the hope they represent. Maybe, like the cute girl you met at the mall, they are perfect until proven otherwise. Well, just like getting a phone number, there is no guarantee they will turn out to be anything.

The talent is good. D’Arnaud, 23, is the Jays’ top prospect. He was ranked 17th in baseball by Baseball America coming in to 2012. He hit .333/.380/.595 with 16 homers and 52 RBI in just 67 games last season for Triple-A Las Vegas. His season was cut short when he was injured trying to break up a double play.

Noah Syndergaard, 19, had a 2.60 ERA, 1.080 WHIP, struck out 122 batters in 103 2/3rd innings and allowed only 3 home runs, in Class A last season.

There is nothing about those two players that is not impressive. It’s easy to see why Toronto fans have trepidation in dealing these two future superstars. At least, they think they are future superstars.

No matter how good Syndergaard is, he is a 19-year-old, Class A level, pitcher. There is absolutely no guarantee he will ever be good enough to pitch in the majors. While he is viewed as an elite talent, baseball is one spot where more often than not, prospects fizzle out and never make it. There is no guarantee.

D’Arnaud likely would have made his MLB debut last season had it not been for his injury. He’s very close to major league ready, and his talent, especially at catcher, is nothing to take lightly. The problem is, again, he is unproven. For every Mike Trout (who nobody in their right mind would compare to d’Arnaud), there are 20 Dallas McPhersons, or Lastings Milledges, or Brandon Woods, Andy Martes , etc.

Actually, didn’t the Jays just end a long experiment with another “future star” named Travis? How quickly people forget.

Even further, D’Arnaud’s 2012 numbers, when calculated to represent a full season, are eerily similar to the 2010 PCL MVP campaign of current Jays’ catcher JP Arencibia (.301 with 32 home runs, 85 RBI and a .986 OPS). Arencibia is by no means a star, and likely will never be one.

Do I even need to explain how Matt Wieters went from being on the cover of Sports Illustrated in March of 2010, to hitting .249 for the Orioles in 2012? Where does this “can’t-miss” hubris come from?

Could D’Arnaud and Syndergaard be future superstars? Absolutely.

Is it definitely going to happen? No. Neither have played a single inning in the majors. One of them, may never even get the chance.

Reality: This Move Is 100% Right for Toronto

In August 1992, the Blue Jays traded one of the greatest second basemen in baseball history, Jeff Kent, to the Mets for David Cone (the Mets eh?). They had never won a World Series and Cone may or may not have made the difference (he was a key contributor though). I don’t know too many people in Toronto who would change that deal now.

The mood is similar up north again. The Blue Jays have done nothing besides make big moves this offseason in order to contend in 2013 and beyond. The entire Alex Anthopolous game plan has been leading to this stretch.

In R.A. Dickey, the Jays are getting, arguably, the best pitcher in baseball last season. I hope any non-believers look at the numbers I provided and can see that just because you didn’t know who Dickey was before 2012 doesn’t mean he isn’t exactly as good as everyone else wants to be. He would immediately become the ace of a staff that would also boast Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Brandon Morrow and Rickey Romero. That rotation suddenly gets a whole lot better.

The time is now for Toronto to make this move. Obviously, only time will tell how this deal will be remembered, but I see very little downside here for a team that is making a dramatic move to contend like the Jays are.

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References

I couldn’t have backed up my opinion without the help of FanGraphs.com, BaseballReference.com and these four articles in particular. I encourage you to read them. They are swell.

http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/The-312/June-2012/The-Wonderful-Physics-of-RA-Dickeys-Knuckleball/

http://www.amazinavenue.com/2010/7/28/1592880/knuckling-under-with-two-speeds-ra

http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy/index.php/can-r-a-dickey-repeat/

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/r-a-dickey-and-the-myth-of-one-great-year/



About Pat Suley

Comments

  1. Full disclosure: I’m a Mets fan.

    I agree that this was a great move by the Jays. Dickey is amazing, and came a lot cheaper than any other pitcher remotely of his ability this off-season. The Jays gave up a lot of value in terms of prospects, but they get a fantastic pitcher and a damn good contract with him.

    I only have one quibble with your analysis, which is the J.P. Arencibia/Travis d’Arnaud comparison. Arencibia did have that MVP-caliber year in AAA, but it was his second go-around in the league. Travis d’Arnaud pulled the same numbers in his first year. There is a distinct difference there in my mind.

    • Very good point Ben. D’Arnaud also did it one year younger than Arencibia. All signs do point to him becoming a better player. The question is just how good he will become.

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