At the beginning of this year, R.A. Dickey had established himself as a league average pitcher, who could help stabilize a rotation. Despite the irregularity of the knuckleball, it was still effective. With it, Dickey was able to pitch with consistency, and usually improved as the season wore on. All told, he was more than deserving of the #4/#5 role in the Jays’ rotation.
Since then, Dickey has had an up-and-down season. Rather than display his usual consistency, he has raised plenty of questions. Even so, Dickey has continued to perform at a high enough level to warrant his spot in the rotation, despite what has been a relatively poor season. Although his numbers have not sparkled, they are still what should be expected from a fifth starter.
The Season at a Glance
Coming into this season, Dickey had a career ERA of 3.95 with the Blue Jays, threw his knuckleball for a strike ~65% of the time, and posted a quality start in 60% of his outings. Looking at advanced stats, Dickey posted numbers near to the league average in both RA/9 and RAA. The one area where he was off the pace was in FIP, though that does not treat knuckleballers very kindly.
With these numbers as a backdrop to Dickey’s Blue Jays career, they can be compared to this year’s performance. This season, Dickey’s ERA sits at 4.60, which is 0.7 runs higher than in 2015. That immediately raises some concern about his performance. Dickey has thrown the knuckleball for a strike 62% of the time, which is slightly below his norm, but is not particularly worrying. Finally, only 13 (read: 46%) of Dickey’s outings have qualified as quality starts. In comparison to his career norms, this season has been a disappointment.
It’s important to note that Dickey’s numbers have not been consistent across the season. He opened the year with an especially ugly April, before doing a 180 in May. Dickey continued that success through June, and then imploded in July. He followed that with one of the stronger months of August on the team. Monday’s outing against the Yankees has raised more questions. Will it be a bump in the road, or is Dickey on track for another month with an ERA of 6.00+. In past years, he has started slow, before picking up steam toward the end of the season. This year, he has been all over the place. Some have always felt that they don’t know what to expect from Dickey on any given day, and he has certainly played a part in legitimizing that perception this year.
Steve Russell – Toronto Star
The Usual Suspects
Dickey’s season has been hampered by several issues which have plagued his entire career. The knuckleballer has often been criticized for allowing too many baserunners, and giving up more than his fair share of home runs. He has reinforced that trend this season. While Dickey’s BB/9 was a decent 2.56 in 2015, it has jumped to 3.40 this year. Furthermore, his HR/9 has climbed by nearly 50 points, to 1.53. Dickey has also posted a career high, with a HR/FB rate of 15.3% (though, to be fair, it sat at a mere 3.0% in August). Dickey’s hard contact rate is also up this year. When someone makes hard contact with the knuckleball, there is a decent chance that it will leave the park. As a point of interest, Dickey often claims that more movement on the knuckleball leads to better results. However, this season, he has had stronger performances with less movement. That is in stark contrast to his previous seasons with the Jays, in which he gained more movement and better results over the course of the year.
All of this has translated into poor results. Dickey’s RA9 has increased by more than a run, to 5.26. Consequently, his RAA now sits at -14 (with 0 being league average), which is 17 runs lower than in 2015. Putting all of this together, it becomes clear that 2016 has undoubtedly been Dickey’s weakest season since joining the Blue Jays.
Duane Burleson – AP Photo
Is There A Better Alternative?
It goes without saying that Dickey is not one of the Blue Jays’ top four starters, despite his strong August. As of today, it is highly unlikely that he will make his way on to the playoff roster. Although it might seem like the Jays could improve their rotation, they do not have a more suitable replacement.
The only other starter available to the Jays is Francisco Liriano. The left-hander has had two solid starts for the Jays, and two that were less inspiring. As a whole, his numbers have been worse than Dickey’s. Liriano has struggled mightily with his control this year, and it does not appear as though Russell Martin will be able to sort him out over the next four weeks. As such, he does not seem to be worth the investment at this point in the season. Instead, the Jays can make use of Liriano in a more meaningful way.
Brett Cecil has continued to struggle in the bullpen, with no sign of shaking out of it. Thus, Liriano presents another option for the LOOGY role. That option speaks to Liriano’s versatility. Conversely, it is unlikely that Dickey would be able to succeed in a relief role. The knuckleball can sometimes take too long to start working, and could be ineffective out of the bullpen. Using Dickey as a reliever would also require a defensive substitution at catcher. Liriano may need to make more starts this month to give Aaron Sanchez some rest, but he will not take Dickey’s place in the rotation. Instead, he should be eyeing Cecil’s spot in the bullpen.
On its own and in comparison to Dickey’s previous seasons, this year has not been good. Yet, when compared to the rest of the league, Dickey is still fine for a 5th starter. When stacked up against the weakest regular starters from around the American League, Dickey stands out as one of the strongest. His walk rate is still on the high end, but his HR/9 and ERA are significantly lower than his counterparts. As such, he is still doing an acceptable job as a #5.
Throughout Dickey’s career with the Blue Jays, fans have had to adjust their expectations. That has been especially true this season. Dickey is never going to win another Cy Young award, nor will he post an ERA of 3.30, or keep his BB/9 at 2.50. But no #5 is going to do those things. For what he is, Dickey is still fine. To be fair, he is well above average for his role, but below average compared to most other starters. It would just help the Jays’ cause if he was a little closer to his usual self this year. With the rest of the rotation currently in a rut, and the offence still far removed from 2015, the team could use some consistently decent performances from their veteran.
To be perfectly honest, Monday’s outing has left me a little jaded. I am not feeling quite so great about Dickey today, but that doesn’t mean that he’s an awful pitcher. He is still one of the better #5s in baseball. Sure, that doesn’t mean that he is good, per se, but the Jays could do much worse. Looking around the AL East, I would still prefer Dickey over Ubaldo Jimenez, Drew Smyly, Eduardo Rodriguez, and whoever the Yankees turn to. Of course, those are not elite pitchers. Dickey still has not performed as well as was expected. Hopefully he can move past Monday’s outing, regain his August form, and finish the season on a high note.