Not very long ago I endorsed RA Dickey as a candidate for the 2009 rotation, the idea being that he (or RRS, or Morrow, or some other low-cost scrub) would be able to slide into Jarrod Washburn's slot and provide similar ability for a fraction of the price. It was all part of my theoretical plan to cut costs where possible so that the organization could spend money to patch its biggest holes.
Well, a good chunk of time has passed since then, and while I'm all about giving Dickey more chances to right the ship over the rest of this dismal season, it's looking more and more like he just doesn't have what it takes. Like the only substantial difference between him and any other AAAA starter is that he chooses to allow his hits on a different pitch. A novel process is cool and all, but "novel" doesn't automatically mean "good", and at the end of the day, if the process doesn't work, it's generally time to look somewhere else.
Dickey is as novel as it gets - already a knuckleballer, he throws harder than any other primary knuckleballer in baseball history (I think), which makes him truly stand out from the crowd. But while this is all kinds of fascinating, his results blend in with the wrong kinds of names. His walk rate is high. He hasn't missed many bats. He hasn't generated many groundballs. He hasn't prevented line drives. He's been up and down as a starter, but the overall picture is one of a wreck, with today being just the latest car in the pileup. It hasn't been encouraging, to say the least.
Tim Wakefield is the default gold standard for knuckleballers, since he's the only other one for whom we really have a lot of information, and while it's probably unfair to compare Dickey to a group of peers with an n of 1 (so, group of peer), the numbers do not compare favorably.
-Wakefield is better at preventing solid contact
-Wakefield's knuckler has more variation in movement
-Wakefield's knuckler misses more bats
-Wakefield's fastball misses more bats
-Wakefield's knuckler finds the zone more often
And so on and so forth. The only clear advantage Dickey has over Wakefield is in generating groundballs, but that isn't nearly enough to make up for his other deficiencies. He's a worse pitcher, and the evidence that we've collected to date would suggest that he's rather significantly so.
In theory, Dickey is amazing. The idea that a guy can come at you with a butterfly and then follow that up with something in the mid-80s sounds like a sight to behold. But in reality, it hasn't worked that way. His fastball's been all right, but it's a contact pitch, as batters have only swung through 14 of 483 fastballs all season. And his knuckler has - to put it bluntly - been all over the place. It's gone for a strike on fewer than 56% of occasions, which is the same rate with which Brandon Morrow threw strikes in the first half last year (the first half in which he walked 33 batters in 32 innings). That's bad. That's bad command. And it's not like it's been a particularly effective pitch when it's found the zone, either; the line drive rate against Dickey's knuckler so far has been 20%, and it's missed a slightly below-average number of bats. Dickey is a knuckleballer, yes, but this fact is only of interest if his knuckleball does what previously successful knuckleballs did in their respective heydays. So far, Dickey's has not. It's just been a mediocre pitch that takes a more scenic route to its destination.
All of this is subject to small sample size variation. All of it. You'd probably be surprised how little a single season really tells you about a guy's true talent level. For this reason I'm not yet prepared to surrender all hope of Dickey becoming an effective pitcher down the road. But my optimism is a fraction of what it was when he first joined the organization, because all year long the question has been "to what do we regress Dickey's performance?", and so far the evidence suggests that just because he's a knuckleballer in the Major Leagues doesn't mean we should regress his performance to those of other knuckleballers in the Major Leagues. To do so gives Dickey the benefit of the doubt that his knuckler is on the same level as those of other guys who built a career around the pitch, and I'm not convinced that it is. We already know it's not on the same level as Wakefield's. Why should we believe that it's on Charlie Hough's, or even Steve Sparks'? That's kind of like regressing any lefty who throws a bunch of changeups to Jamie Moyer. God knows how many farmhands we went through proving that one wrong.
I don't know. It's impossible to say with any degree of certainty to what we should regress Dickey's performance, since the velocity with which he pitches as a knuckleballer makes him the rarest of the rare. Maybe the velocity makes him more subject to the same rules as everybody else. Maybe the velocity makes him better and his results so far are an anomaly. Maybe the velocity means nothing and he really should be compared to the other knuckleballers who've made it this far. I'm not sure. I don't think it's possible for anyone to be sure. All I can say is that, as much as I'm rooting for Dickey, and as much as I'd like to see him succeed, for 100 innings he's been bad, and I'm no longer particularly fond of the idea of letting him compete for an '09 rotation spot in the hopes he gets better. I'd be happy to keep him in the bullpen for continued monitoring and extra flexibility, but as a starter, I'm not sure anymore that his ceiling is really high enough to justify the risk. He needs to demonstrate more ability than he has all season, and now he's running out of time to open more eyes.
R.A. Dickey is, was, and will continue to be an interesting idea. But, like so many other interesting ideas the Mariners had coming into 2008, this one just hasn't worked out. Congratulations, R.A. I guess that means you belong.
Biggest Contribution: Ichiro, +4.2%
Biggest Suckfest: R.A. Dickey, -35.5%
Most Important AB: Ibanez DP, -9.7%
Most Important Pitch: Pierzynski double, -9.2%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): -38.1%
Total Contribution by Lineup: -11.9%
Total Contribution by Opposition: 0.0%
(What is this chart?)
We're so bad.