MLB: Reasons R.A. Dickey Makes the Blue Jays The Best Team In The AL East

ALL AFLUTTER: Reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey and his knuckle ball are officially Blue Jays

 BY THOMAS DRANCE

On Monday, Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopolous concluded his whirlwind month of mega-transactions (during which he remade the Blue Jays roster and gave desperate sports fans in Toronto a much needed cortisone shot) by acquiring and extending 2012 Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.

The improvements to the Blue Jays starting rotation this summer have been substantial. The Jays were one of the league’s worst pitching teams last season and now boast one of the deepest, most impressive rotations in the major leagues. Ricky Romero, for example, was last season’s opening day hurler and yet he may reasonably be considered the team’s fifth starter at this point. While that says a lot about Romero’s performance last season too, it takes nothing away from the impressive display we’ve seen from Anthopolous this winter.

Not that these moves came cheap – well; Buerhle, Johnson and Reyes came cheap, even if R.A. Dickey didn’t – but the Blue Jays are the talk of the town in Toronto and across Canada as well. They’ll go into next season as the prohibitive favoUrites in the toughest division in baseball, and for good reason. So let’s go over five major reasons why the Dickey trade is something of a game-changer, and makes the Blue Jays the presumptive “Top Dogs” in the AL East – at least from mid-December point of view.

1. DICKEY’S CY YOUNG SEASON WAS NO FLUKE
The idea that Dickey’s Cy Young caliber season in 2012 came “out of nowhere” is something of a popular misconception that some baseball fans subscribe too when evaluating R.A. Dickey. Clearly, from Anthopolous’ comments and the price in prospect wealth that he paid to acquire Dickey (not to mention the three year commitment he just made to the 38 year old), this is a school of thought that the Blue Jays general manager rejects completely.

He’s absolutely right to, as R.A Dickey has in fact been a capable front of the rotation pitcher for several seasons now. In a must read post by Dave Cameron, who bludgeoned the “R.A. Dickey was a one year fluke” myth, he pointed out how similar R.A. Dickey’s and Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price’s performances have been over the past three seasons:

It’s hard to tell 2010 Dickey from 2010 Price. Their K/BB, HR/9, BABIP, and LOB% are all basically the same, and not surprisingly, they both were among the league leaders in run prevention; Price ranked #7 in MLB in ERA-, Dickey was #10.

In 2011, both went backwards in terms of results, as they both gave up more hits and home runs which led to lower strand rates, and again, they basically posted the same ERA-, though this time, it represented good results rather than great ones….

Then, last year, both Dickey and Price put it all together. They were again among the league’s best at preventing runs, but both did it with dramatically better peripherals than in 2010. Rather than just having ace-like results, both pitched liked aces, and were honored with Cy Young Awards for completing their first season as a legitimate #1 starter…

If you’re going to call one of them a one year wonder, you have to call them both a fluke. Personally, I’ll just go the other direction, and call both of them elite starting pitchers, worthy of all the adulation you want to throw their way

Dickey’s career has been completely unconventional – he was a journeyman for a decade before he figured out the knuckleball, and he didn’t become a Cy Young winner until he mastered that pitch (more on this later). For three seasons now, however, he’s been a pitcher who you can slot in at the top of any major league rotation, eat up a tonne innings and dominate – or at least pitch well above league average – while doing so.

When you strip away the layers, it becomes clear that the notion of Dickey as a “fluke” who has only had one good season, is based almost solely on the idea that: because he didn’t have success earlier in his career – when he was a completely different pitcher – he’s probably just lucky. It’s ludicrous and for what it’s worth, Anthopolous has done an impressive job identifying “late bloomers” whose success was derived from changing their game, rather than an unsustainable burst of luck.

Here’s the thing to remember in my view, that Dickey is improving at his “knuckleball” craft. Paradoxically, he’s getting deadlier with age and I think there’s a chance that he’ll continue to trend upwards – especially because his K% spiked as a direct result of Dickey adding a second type of knuckleball pitch. Dickey is basically throwing a pitch that no one has ever seen in baseball history, his knuckler goes about 15 mph faster than the stuff that Tim Wakefield was throwing a half decade ago for the Red Sox, and his mastering that second knuckler coincided with the spike in his strike rate.

Interestingly, Anthopolous specifically compared Dickey with Jose Bautista – an elite slugger who changed his swing in his late-20s and became one of the most feared hitters in baseball – in his conversations with the media about the trade on Monday. The gamble is that Dickey has figured out this second knuckler and may be able to sustain his higher K%, at least somewhat, going forward.

2.  DICKEY IS A FRONT OF THE ROTATION PITCHER
Admittedly, R.A. Dickey comes with several red-flags (which is part of the reason his contract is eminently reasonable). In particular he’s 38 years old (more on this later), he doesn’t have a UCL (doctors say it should be painful for him to even open a door), his track record is relatively thin and as we already covered his K% spiked exorbitantly last season and would superficially appear to be unsustainable. For all of those concerns, however, I tend to think that there’s good evidence suggesting that Dickey’s success – unlike his knuckleball – isn’t a mirage, and that Anthopolous is absolutely correct when he characterized R.A. Dickey yesterday as a “front of the rotation pitcher.”

As we’ve previously covered, there are reasons to believe then that Dickey can sustain his Cy Young performance of last season, but it remains more likely that he’s due to regress somewhat. Realistically, that’s totally fine for the Blue Jays. Here’s how Keith Law tackled the sustainability of Dickey’s performance for ESPN (insider article):

The problem with assuming Dickey will continue to pitch as an ace — or even at a level close to it — is that he’s such an atypical case. Three years ago, he was barely a big leaguer, and while he was among the best pitchers in baseball in 2012, he’s also entering his age-38 season and has just that one year of elite-level pitching behind him.

Admittedly there’s a good deal of variance in the way that Dickey projects going forward, and it seems to me that Law’s conservative analysis on this is compelling. While Dickey’s 2012 performance wasn’t necessarily an “out of nowhere” fluke, it’s also hard to be bullish on Dickey’s chances of repeating last season in a tougher league with the Jays this coming year. The point being that Dickey doesn’t necessarily have to repeat his 2012 performance to provide the Blue Jays with enormous value.

In 2011, for example, Dickey’s performance was worth 3.1 bWAR which would have put him narrowly outside the top-15 among all National League starters, and the year before that he was worth 3.4 bWar. For the Blue Jays, who even before the trade profiled as an 85 win team (give or take a couple games), those extra 3 wins could be the difference between making the playoffs or missing out on October baseball entirely.

I think it’s revealing that Anthopolous didn’t call Dickey an ace in his media cyle on the trade yesterday. Partly because he may not believe that Dickey is necessarily an “ace”, and also partly because that’s not what he paid for. Rather, Anthopolous was specific – that Dickey is a front of the rotation starter, and that’s what he expects to get from him. Based on his performance over the past three season, I like that bet.

After all, if Dickey’s success with his power knuckler isn’t sustainable then he’s very probably still a legitimate number one or two starter for the Blue Jays. If it is, he has a chance to be a dominant number one starter. Worst case scenario, Anthopolous has acquired a valuable piece that could put the Blue Jays over the top as it were; best case scenario, he’s acquired a dominant pitcher.

3. KNUCKLE BALLERS DON’T AGE LIKE OTHER PITCHERS
The Blue Jays haven’t been good for a long, long time; and as a result many of their fans are addicted to over-valuing prospects. So when the club traded Noah Syndergaard and Travis D’Arnaud – two preferred vessels for the hopes and dreams of Blue Jays fans over the past couple of seasons – for a 38 year old pitcher, some fans were irrationally upset.

As opposed to a fastball however, a typical knuckleball travels about 70 MPH. As a result the delivery of that pitch is a lot less taxing on a pitchers arm, and knuckleballers tend to be able to pitch later into their careers. The most recent successful knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, for example, was more effective between the ages of 38 and 42 than he was between the ages of 33 and 37. Tom Condiotti pitched 200 innings when he was 40, while both Nierko brothers pitched (and pitched well) into their 40s.

image courtesy @checktheticker

Grantland’s Rany Jazayerli summed it up perfectly in a post earlier this week:

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.)…

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.

Now we need to qualify this a little bit, because, as we mentioned already – Dickey throws the knuckle ball harder than any of those knucklers did. But we’re still talking about a pitch that tops out in the low 80s, and any way, Dickey hasn’t been a workhorse over the past decade – he’s been a journeyman who struggled to stick around in the majors and often performed out of the bullpen – so his arm doesn’t have a lot of mileage.

To complete the deal, the Blue Jays locked Dickey up for his age 38, 39 and 40 seasons (with a team option of his age 41 season). Based on the pitch Dickey throws and the history of other knuckleballers in major league baseball, his age really doesn’t seem like any cause for concern…

4. SILLY ROTATION DEPTH
In the wake of November’s blockbuster trade with the Marlins, I wrote that Jays’ rotation depth was a reason to remain pessimistic about the club’s chances:

It would take something resembling a miracle for the Blue Jays’ rotation to stay healthy throughout next season. Josh Johnson has dealt with a multitude of injuries over the past few seasons and only made nine appearances in 2011 as a result of inflammation in his right shoulder. Brandon Morrow was hurt last season and has yet to throw 200 innings in a single season in his career. Ricky Romero has been a workhorse for the past three seasons, but he’ll be coming off of arthroscopic surgery on his throwing arm. Mark Buehrle throws 200 innings so reliably you can set your calender to it, but he’ll turn 34 in late March and at some point that streak has to end.

By adding R.A. Dickey – who led the National League in innings pitched last season – the Blue Jays have rendered that concern completely irrelevant. At some point a starter will probably get hurt, but with five innings eaters in their starting rotation (as opposed to four and J.A. Happ), the Blue Jays strike me as well poised to overcome the inevitable attrition of injuries to their pitching staff.

Having watched three Blue Jays starters go down with serious injuries in the span of a week last season, I imagine this type of flexibility was a priority for Anthopolous this winter. Without doubt, this is a lingering concern that has been completely addressed at this point; though it would still be cool to see the Blue Jays take a run at re-signing Carlos Villanueva.

5. THE IMPACT ON THE BULLPEN
The R.A Dickey trade gives the Blue Jays an enviable starting five of: Morrow, Johnson, Dickey, Romero and Buehrle. Importantly, it also pushes the capable J.A. Happ out of the starting five and into a “swing-man” role. Instead of starting, Happ will be the long-relief arm, able to step into the starting five in case of injuries (or in case Gibbons wants to get cute, and give Dickey an extra day off so that he gets an indoor start). With Happ moving into a long-relief/swingman role, Brad Lincoln moves into a specialist role and becomes something of a luxury bullpen arm (he can also start, if the injury situation gets really ugly).

It’s something of a domino effect, and one can reasonably describe the acquisition of Dickey as a move that indirectly shores up the Blue Jays bullpen. Basically everyone in the bullpen now moves down a slot, and should Darren Oliver (who is considering retirement) decide not to return to Toronto next season; the Jays are now better positioned to withstand such a loss. In Steve Dalabar, Brad Lincoln, J.A. Happ, Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos (who should return from injury in time to start the season), the Blue Jays bullpen is significantly stronger than it was in 2011 when it was the club’s achilles heel. Also, depending on what happens with Carlos Villanueva and Darren Oliver over the balance of the offseason – Toronto’s bullpen could be just as nasty on paper, as their top of the order and the starting five appear to be.