Do the Haters Have a Point?: R.A. Dickey

jR.A. Dickey
Photo Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

When the season ends and the ol’ news tap stops a-flowin’, most team-specific websites switch immediately into delivering some of the most predictable types of content imaginable. Season overviews! Player-by-player postmortems! Offseason game plans!

There are a whole lot of quiet months to fill, so I can be as guilty of that as the next guy, but for the love of god, let’s at least put a twist on it!

And so over the next couple of weeks I’m going to do just that, taking a look at the Blue Jays figures who take the most shit from the fan base and asking the question: do the haters have a point?

Third on the list: R.A. Dickey

Previously: Jose Bautista, Brett Cecil

R.A. Dickey’s Blue Jays career ended rather quietly this September. That isn’t “fitting,” precisely, given all the noise made about him over his four seasons here, but it’s definitely welcome and well-deserved. You can rest now, R.A.

Dickey, of course, was supposed to be the cherry on top of the glorious cake Alex Anthopoulos had baked heading into the 2013 season. Only the cake came out of the oven lopsided, the cherry turned out to be mostly corn syrup, and one of the lottery tickets you traded for it hit the goddamned jackpot.

His incredible 2012 suggested huge possibilities for a Blue Jays club that almost never has the opportunity to add Cy Young-calibre pitching talent at peak value. At worst it seemed that the Jays would be getting the above average workhorse that Dickey had been in 2010 and 2011, before he added a little extra zip on his knuckleball that seemed to unlock so much of his potential. But he was never even quite that.

His “capricious animal” would never dazzle in the climate-controlled conditions of the Rogers Centre the way the Jays envisioned after watching Dickey’s incredible complete game, 13 strikeout, one hit effort in Tampa during his run to the Cy Young, yet he provided the Blue Jays with a whole lot of innings over the years, and consequently a whole lot of value. But it wasn’t merely innings. Because of the assumptions FIP makes about a pitcher’s inability to control the quality of contact, a knuckleball pitcher like Dickey is never going to look fantastic by that metric or by FIP-based WAR, but if you look at his ERA or his RA9-WAR (wins above replacement based on runs allowed), you’ll see more than just a solid pitcher. Dickey had some truly excellent stretches for the Jays, in particular during the second half of 2015, when he pitched to a 2.80 ERA over 15 starts.

More than that, Dickey turned out to be a warrior — he’d pitched through a hernia in his Cy Young year with the Mets, held off knee surgery until after the 2015 season, and kept logging innings despite a variety of ailments. He was also a fascinating, admirable, thoughtful human being. He shared his story of sexual abuse and worked with young victims, he wrote an anti-bullying children’s book, he travelled to India to help fight child sex trafficking there. His openness with the media at times felt attention-seeking — which had been his reputation in New York — but in reality it was seems just as likely that reporters simply understood that he was always going to give them a good quote and a well-reasoned answer, or maybe that they could relate to him in a way they couldn’t with most athletes.

He was a good soldier for the team, and a decent pitcher in the overall, who simply never lived up to the hype.

That might be the end of the story, but, of course, it’s not.

It’s almost impossible to talk about Dickey without re-litigating the trade that brought him here. Especially because the New York Mets have helped Noah Syndergaard become one of the truly great young starting pitching talents in baseball. Watching his continued success, and the blossoming of the long, great career he seems to have ahead of him, has been a gut-punch for Jays fans. Even those of us who understand that moving up the club’s timeline was an essential part of the bargain the club was making when they made the deal can’t help but feel remorse for what might have been.

The team could have been just as bad in 2013 and 2014 without Dickey. And if they’d had Syndergaard in 2015 and 2016? Sheeeiiiiiit.

None of that is Dickey’s fault, but it certainly didn’t help fan perception. Nor did the way he stumbled out of the gate for the Jays.

The beginning of 2013 saw a J.P. Arencibia passed ball disaster on Opening Day, and six outings allowing six or more runs in Dickey’s first 16 starts for the club. Immediately it seemed clear that the 2012 magic hadn’t followed him from New York, and ultimately that proved to be basically true. Which isn’t to say that, in that first year, Dickey didn’t have some good moments. He exited nine of his 34 starts that first year having allowed either zero or one run. He exited seven more having given up only two. But in nine others he left the game having given up five runs or more.

Though 2013 was his worst season with the club (until this one), and things got better over the following two years, the perception of his outings as having as good a chance of tending to one extreme as the other proved awfully difficult to shake. And with the failed hype factor, and the Syndergaard factor, he was always going to be fighting an uphill battle against perception.

To an extent that’s understandable. Nobody can act like they knew all along Syndergaard was going to be what he has become, but the trade itself was still a gut-punch for a certain segment of fans who had swallowed so hard on Alex Anthopoulos’s prospect-first worldview over the first few years of his regime that they forgot it was always going to be a means to an end. In justifying it as the news was breaking, I felt the need to speak to those fans, as I acknowledged the “insanely puking high cost,” that it could “come back to haunt Anthopoulos,” and that an AL GM who suggested Alex was “out of his mind” “might even be right.” R.A. Dickey was polarizing from the start.

But did his mere presence have to continue to polarize for the entire length of his damn Blue Jays career??

The verdict:

Nobody could fault Jays fans for their profound disappointment in how the trade worked out, or even for the righteous anger they felt as the deal was happening. Some combination of those feelings is, I think, universal across the fan base. But there is a deeper rift among Jays fans when it comes to Dickey. On one hand there are the grown-ups who can try to see the deal for what it was, Dickey for the pitcher he is, and can root for him, or at least try to have some kind of appreciation without making themselves sick with frothing anger at his finicky trick pitch, the fact that he forces the club to carry Josh Thole (who will get his own piece in this series), or the fact that he’s been made an emblem of those two failed seasons in 2013 and 2014 and the loss of one of the most exciting young pitchers in the game. And on the other hand there are the haters — those that stew, that call up Mike Wilner to vent, that act like Dickey is virtually unplayable and his presence is madness, that cling tight to every bad moment and ignore all the good.

Dickey had a poor 2015, especially in the second half, and you’re certainly not a hater for having noticed that. But he also exited 13 of his 29 starts having given up two runs or fewer, plus six more having given up three. And while that’s no way to assess a pitcher, it makes abundantly clear that even in his worst season he was far from a disaster waiting to happen.

I’m not telling anybody that they had to be comfortable with Dickey on the mound — I certainly wasn’t, and I wasn’t above groaning each time I realized I had made plans to go to a game that ended up lining up with his day to start, either. A lot of that had to do with the knuckleball itself, and how startling it is to watch a 40-year-old throwing 75 mph to big league hitters and banking on a whole different application of physics than in the more easily harnessed pitches we’re used to. But, if I’m being honest, a lot of it had to do with the fact that Dickey was merely a back-end starter — much more “good enough” than “great,” or sometimes even “good.”

He’s a guy who would have been far better appreciated if he’d come in quietly and made less money and still given the Jays exactly what he did over these last four seasons. But obviously that’s not his story.

A certain segment of fans ended up wanting very badly to dislike R.A. Dickey. To make him (and, eventually, Jose Reyes) wear all the anger and loathing they felt about the promises unkept from those disaster seasons in 2013 and 2014. To look past what he was, to what they wanted him to be, and to shit on him for not being it.

Fuck no, they don’t have a point.