R.A. Dickey — One of the Game’s Best

Fans of the game know New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey as one of only two knuckleballers in the game, an average starter, and a pleasant enigma. Some know that his off-field resume seems better fit for a wacky English professor at a liberal arts college than a professional athlete. Few know just how good he has been.

From Dickey’s remarkable transition to becoming a knuckleball pitcher all the way to his entertaining Twitter account (and just about everything in between), R.A. Dickey has become one of the game’s more recognizable and loveable characters.

Character could not be a better descriptive word for Dickey. Not only in its connotations of humor and affability (such as one would use to describe Dickey’s status as a Star Wars fanboy or the crazy facial expressions he makes while pitching), but also in its sibling definition of one who possesses a certain moral standing and personality respected by those around him. This season on 9/11, the Mets chose R.A. to present an American flag to a remarkable soldier who returned from war in Afghanistan and was honored that night at Citi Field.

This character-in both of its meanings-was, without a doubt, something instilled in Dickey at a young age but certainly developed as he faced adversity on his path to Flushing.

Signed by the Texas Rangers out of college, Dickey’s professional career started out on the wrong foot. Or, elbow, to be more precise. Upon examination of his pitching arm, doctors found that Dickey does not have an ulnar collateral ligament, the same band that so many major league pitchers must repair with Tommy John surgery in order to continue pitching effectively. Dickey’s arm does not have it. He should not be able to chop wood, play a friendly game of tennis, or even, as his doctors told him, turn a door handle without pain much less throw a baseball 85 miles per hour. Gone were the expectations of a first-round talent (not to mention $735,000 of his originally promised $810,000 signing bonus).

Dickey’s transition to becoming a knuckleballer came after years of trying to do something that simply was not working. He challenged the status quo, and by the end of the 2005 season, became one of the few knuckleball pitchers in baseball. In 2010, he made his way to the New York Mets after bouncing around the league and immediately became a fan favorite.

Known, in part, for his fascinating, honest, and introspective post-game interviews, all in a deep, Tennessee drawl, Robert Allen Dickey has since become a voice to a franchise marked by inconsistency, injury, underperformance, and failure.

However, beyond the tweets, the poetry, his plans to climb Kilimanjaro to raise money and awareness for the Red Light District Outreach Mumbai, past the Star Wars affection and the voice that sounds like it belongs emceeing a country music radio station, R.A. Dickey has quietly become one of the most effective starting pitchers in major league baseball. But few have seemed to notice.

Part of his personality-nay, his charisma-has overshadowed just how impressive he has been since joining the Mets. However, if you take a close enough look, the numbers speak for themselves. For a franchise that has seen pitching talent get traded, hurt, or simply diminish, Dickey has made every start since his call-up in May of 2010, has pitched deep into ball games, and-most importantly-done it effectively.

From his mid-season debut in 2010 through the end of 2011, Dickey knuckled pitches over the plate for 383 innings to the tune of a 3.08 ERA. There are only nine starting pitchers in the majors who pitched more innings to a lower Earned Run Average over the same time period. Let me repeat that: Dickey is TENTH in the major leagues in ERA among starters who have thrown at least 380 innings over the past two years. The nine who beat him? Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Matt Cain, Jered Weaver, Tim Hudson, and Clayton Kershaw. He trumps the likes of C.C. Sabathia, Dan Haren, Mat Latos, Tim Lincecum, Yovani Gallardo, Shawn Marcum, Jon Lester, John Beckett, David Price, Ricky Romero, C.J. Wilson, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Chris Carpenter, to name a few:

Starting Pitcher/ 2010-2011 IP /2010-2011 ERA

1.) Roy Halladay: 484.1 IP, 2.40 ERA

2.) Clayton Kershaw: 437.2 IP, 2.57 ERA

3.) Jered Weaver: 460 IP, 2.70 ERA

4.) Cliff Lee: 445 IP, 2.77 ERA

5.) Felix Hernandez: 483.1 IP, 2.85 ERA

6.) Justin Verlander: 475.1 IP, 2.86 ERA

7.) Cole Hamels: 424.2 IP, 2.92 ERA

8.) Matt Cain: 445 IP, 3.01 ERA

9.) Tim Hudson: 443.2 IP, 3.02 ERA

10.) R.A. Dickey: 383 IP, 3.08 ERA

So why, given his success, has Dickey remained on the back burners in a media market that makes national news out of every accomplishment or failure of its athletes?

Why has Dickey never received consideration for a Cy Young? A mega contract? On the cover of a major publication?

King Felix and Halladay won the Cy Young in 2010. Verlander and Kershaw will this year. Cain, Hamels, and Weaver are young players looking at huge paydays in the near future. Lee just got his. All nine others in that top ten were All Stars.

Dickey? He most likely spent the All Star Break in 2011 much like he did in 2010–with family.

Dickey did not receive a single Cy Young vote in 2010 and, due to his 8-13 record in 2011, it seems like a streak that will unfortunately continue. He signed a contract last winter for $6.5 million over the course of the 2011 and 2012 seasons, less than one seventh the amount cross-town ace C.C. Sabathia will make over the same period, despite many significantly illuminating metrics that suggest Dickey and he are comparably effective.

Again, we ask: What is it that has Dickey so far out of the spotlight, and seemingly so much further from the attention, wealth, fame and recognition of his counterparts?

Dickey is now 37 years old. He mixes in an 86-MPH (at best) fastball with an array of knuckleballs ranging from 80 MPH all the way down to interstate speed limits. Or lower. He’s a knuckleballer. He does not possess the 95 heat and the 12-to-6 curve. He is not 24 and fresh off a top-5 pick in the draft. If he were, he would have the contract, the deals, and the recognition.

The beauty about the mythology that has become R.A. Dickey is that it just does not seem to bother him. He has always been the rare breed of player who acknowledges his mistakes when he does not have his best stuff but praises his teammates first after he baffles hitters on a night when the knuckle flutters just that bit extra.

Scouts consider him a #4 starter at best, probably more like a #5. No one knocked down doors inquiring about his services at the trade deadline and no one will next year.

Dickey is not considered a “dominant pitcher” by any means. Although if you ask the NL-leading Phillies after Dickey no-hit them into the 7th on his September 24th, 2011 start, they might tell you otherwise. Maybe his 4.9 WAR (Wins Above Replacement, a sabermetric measure that values a player’s “worth” over a replacement-level player) that was good enough for 6th in the National League in 2011 sheds more light. Watch him pitch. Watch his impressive fielding. Watch him play the game right and back it up with maturity and charm rarely seen in professional sports. Ask the guys who play behind him what they think or one of the many, MANY hitters he has baffled with a pitch that baseball fandom does not seem to take seriously.

For some reason, be it his unorthodox style to his circuitous route to success, Dickey is not considered one of the game’s top pitchers.

Much of it has to do with the reverse effect many great players have in their capricious relationship with the media. Dickey’s off-field accomplishments have overshadowed his prowess on the field…but in a good way.

Many professional athletes encounter off-field scrutiny by the press due to actions that are less than appealing to the public eye. However, more often than not, they make everyone forget about those controversies the moment they take the field and do what they do best.

R.A. Dickey has the opposite effect. His personality and endeavors off the field make fans, the media, scouts, and anyone who follows the game forget just how good he has been.

There is reason aplenty why the media focuses more on Dickey off the field than his talent on the mound. They would rather fans know of the 19,341 feet he plans to climb for charity than the 10 and a half inches of dirt he climbs every fifth day over the summer because it makes a great story. They have plenty reasons to examine his route to success with the knuckleball because it is the type of comeback/ “never give up” story Hollywood could not even dream up. Reason abounds when you discover that he is one of the rare baseball talents who is humble, funny, a family man, just odd enough, but who also possesses a healthy dose of introspection and all-around respect in a professional sports world that often lacks it. There is reason that his voice, his charisma, and his intelligence match his ability to throw the ball 60 feet and six inches to home plate so well. The reason his off-field actions and personality overshadow his talent is because of the two, only one stands out relative to his peers.

There is a reason the Mets chose him to give an American flag to that remarkable U.S. soldier on September 11th, 2011.

But look beyond all of R.A. Dickey’s fun, quirky, philanthropic, touching, or humorous off-field activities, and past everything that has made him one of the game’s most lovable personalities and you find a good starting pitcher. A darn good one. It’s about time people started to notice.

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