by Dave De Wit
Last week I wrote about Billy Butler and how he took one step forward in 2012 only to take two steps back in 2013. When it came time to write this week’s column, I wanted to write about R.A. Dickey. Then I realized he also took a step forward in 2012 and two steps back in 2013. I guess I will continue my new, unintentional feature as we take two steps back with R.A. Dickey.
Entering 2012, R.A. Dickey was a good pitcher with a lot of question marks. He was coming off of back-to-back surprisingly good seasons of 2.84 and 3.28 ERA in 2010 and 2011, respectively, but he lacked the strikeouts necessary for him to be considered a fantasy ace.
However, in 2012 Dickey took huge step forward in strikeouts. He improved his strikeout percentage from 15 percent in ’10-’11 up to 24.8 percent in 2012, good for 9th best among qualified starters. His new swing and miss ability added with his solid ground ball rate, below league average batting average on balls in play and his ability to avoid giving up home runs led a 2.73 ERA and a Cy Young Award. It also made him the number 1 starting pitcher in fantasy baseball for the year.
Unfortunately after being traded from the Mets to the Blue Jays, the 38 year old journeyman was a dud in 2013 as he finished with a 4.21 ERA and landed outside the top 75 of starting pitchers. He was barely ownable in mixed leagues.
Most of the damage to Dickey’s numbers was done during a terrible first half. Before the All-Star break, he had a 4.69 ERA. He also lost two miles per hour on both his fastball and, more importantly, his knuckleball, which had become increasingly effective 2012 due to how hard he threw it. His lack of velocity no doubt played a part in his struggles as he allowed more home runs than he had in previous years and his strikeout percentage floundered at a pedestrian 16.8 percent.
According to Dickey in an interview with Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris in June, Dickey started the 2013 season with a nagging back injury that prevented him from throwing his hard knuckleball on the mound without pain. He admitted to pitching through injury because he felt he could scrape together a few quality starts here and there and be more valuable to the Blue Jays if he could throw 200 plus innings, even if it meant pitching at less than 100 percent.
As the season progressed, however, Dickey improved. Whether his improvement came from him just getting healthier in the second half or if he was able to find a delivery that didn’t bother his back as much is unknown, but whatever it was, he got better.
From the All-Star break on, he threw his knuckleball harder. He averaged 77.4 mph on his knuckler compared to 75.6 mph in the first half. His ERA over that split was 3.56 after the All-Star break down from 4.69 ERA before the break and his strikeout percentage rose from 16.8 percent up to 21.5 percent. While he wasn’t quite back to his Cy Young level, Dickey was a productive fantasy starter in the second half of the season.
Thanks to Dickey’s up and down last couple of years and the unprecedented nature of a knuckleballer who can get strikeouts, Dickey is the ultimate enigma going into the 2014 season. Given the decent turnaround he showed in the second half as well as the excuse of an injury for his struggles, I’m will to give Dickey a pass. Assuming he has his knuckleball velocity from the start of the season, he can put together another strong season and become a top-15 starter yet again.
Keep an eye on his average draft position this off-season. I expect Dickey will drop toward the level of pre-2013 Roy Halladay (around 100th overall), so if you like to draft heavy on hitters early and wait on starters, then Dickey is a perfect high-upside pitcher to target in the middle of your draft.