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Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Should the Jays Have Interest In Bringing Back R.A. Dickey?

FACT: It has been 24 years since the Toronto Blue Jays made the playoffs while not employing R.A. Dickey.

FACT: The Atlanta Braves have, perhaps surprisingly, declined the $8 million contract option they held on Dickey for the 2018 season, instead choosing to buy him out for $500,000.

MYTH?: R.A. Dickey is a bad pitcher and the Blue Jays should want absolutely nothing to do with bringing him — and the specialty catcher he requires — back to the club.

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The Blue Jays really lost something when they made what, at the time, seemed like the very obvious decision to cut ties with R.A. Dickey following the 2016 season. There was really no sense in either side continuing what had been a rocky marriage — one that had never quite recovered from the disappointment of 2013, the loss of Noah Snydergaard, and the fact that Dickey was never able to capture his 2012 Cy Young magic in a Blue Jays uniform. The Jays’ rotation was set, with Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano, Aaon Sanchez, and Marcus Stroman already in place, and it seemed that Dickey yearned to return to the National League, where the lack of a DH allows pitchers to be more involved in the entirety of the game. Could the veteran knuckleballer help the Blue Jays return to contender status? Sportsbooks like Intertops don’t view the Blue Jays as contenders right now. 

Understandably, few Blue Jays fans batted an eye at this.

But speaking of rocky things, the Jays’ rotation, which had been such a rock for the club as they charged to back-to-back ALCS appearances in 2015 and 2016, crumbled somewhat in Dickey’s absence. Liriano looked fantastic from the moment the Blue Jays acquired him — a move that all but sealed Dickey’s fate with the club — but stumbled badly in 2017. Aaron Sanchez made just eight starts due to a blister problem. J.A. Happ saw time on the shelf as well. One consistent, if unremarkable, starting pitcher wouldn’t have saved the club’s season, but with the club turning to the likes of Joe Biagini, Brett Anderson, Mike Bolsinger, Cesar Valdez, Chris Rowley, Mat Latos, Nick Tepesch, Casey Lawrence, and Tom Koehler for 45 combined starts, the absence of a healthy, innings-eating, good enough fifth starter was undeniably felt.

Meanwhile, R.A. Dickey was in Atlanta doing R.A. Dickey things. He soaked up 190 innings over 31 starts, posted a 4.26 ERA, 4.72 FIP, 1.6 fWAR, and 2.1 rWAR — all marks better than in his final season with the Blue Jays. His strikeout rate was down a touch, but better than in 2015; his walk rate was lower by a hair; and his home run rate was lower, too.

Granted, comparing Dickey to his not-so-great final year with the Jays isn’t exactly setting the bar very high. But with at least one organization, Atlanta, deciding that he’s not worth $8 million, is there maybe not more to like here than, say, Koehler, who the Jays would have to pay about $6 million through arbitration, should he be tendered a contract?

OK, OK, comparing Dickey to a guy who’s likely not going to be tendered is also kinda setting the bar a little low. But I dunno! This could certainly make some sense. Dickey, from what I’ve heard and what I recall, liked it here, as did his family. The Jays currently need a proper fifth starter, and finding a decent option who at this stage would surely only require a one-year deal makes a lot of sense. And while it might be tricky to convince some players that this roster is as much of a contender as the Jays want us to believe it is, perhaps that wouldn’t be as difficult for a guy who believes in so many of his former teammates who are still here — assuming Dickey does.

I very much like the idea of knocking Biagini, Rowley, Ryan Borucki, and Tom Pannone back a spot each on the depth chart. And while Dickey is bound to frustrate, few fifth starters aren’t. Plus, on a one-year deal he could pretty easily be moved out if he falters or if someone from the system steps up and pushes hard for his job.

But there’s one stat that I keep coming back to that gives me a whole lot of pause on all of this. Pitching in the National League, Dickey got to face a lot of pitchers in 2017. Specifically, he faced pitchers 63 times of 815 total batters faced, which works out to 7.7%. That’s a fairly small segment of his total body of work, of course, but it certainly shined up his numbers some. In those 63 plate appearances, pitchers slashed .208/.214/.283 against him. Exclude pitchers and the other 752 batters he faced slashed .270/.343/.464, which… uh… yikes.

From the minute things started going sideways for Dickey in Toronto, he was derisively tagged in some corners as a “National League pitcher.” That stuff is almost always pretty stupid — yes, NL pitchers might have some better looking glamour stats because of the lack of the DH (and, depending on the era, because AL lineups might be especially stronger), but there are plenty of park- and league-adjusted numbers that account for this, and it’s not too easy to wrap our heads around the differences between leagues and how it’s reflected in a player’s performance — but it sure looks like Dickey milked all the free outs he got for all they were worth. I’d be a little scared about him going forward, especially in the American League. And maybe this is what Atlanta is thinking, too — not that they’re suddenly going to get moved to the American League, but that continued success when pitching that poorly against actual hitters is perhaps untenable.

Dickey didn’t face a single pitcher in 2016, and opponents slashed .258/.327/.461 against him. In 2015 non-pitchers slashed .244/.303/.408 against him.

The numbers, in other words, aren’t exactly trending in the right direction. Which, I suppose, is what you’d expect from a pitcher who turns 43 in a week.

So… yeah. Maybe the shitty, reflexive haters will win this argument. There is a lot to like about a piece like Dickey as a placeholder for a Jays roster in the state that it’s in, though maybe not Dickey himself.

The other side of this is, of course, that this could be the end for Dickey. Retirement is a very real possibility for him now that he heads again toward free agency, and though there might be teams out there looking to catch some lightning in a bottle and hoping that those numbers against non-pitchers are just an aberration, a whole lot of them probably won’t see it that way. If he does decide to call it a career, it was nice to see him go out on a personal high after a strong year in Atlanta — underlying numbers be damned! — especially given the often difficult time that he had with the Blue Jays, where he could never quite live down his inability to meet the enormous expectations placed on him when he was brought in.

While it’s easy to remember the trade that sent Syndergaard away, the Opening Day disaster with J.P. Arencibia behind the plate in 2013, and that whole year, and the whole roster experiment, going up in smoke, fans would do well to also remember how, in 2015 and 2016, steady and competent and crucial to the club’s success that he was. And who knows? Maybe he’ll even get one last chance to show us again. (I just, y’know, wouldn’t hold my breath for that if I were you.)

  • Barry

    I love R.A. Dickey, as a person and a pitcher. If he doesn’t retire, though, I’d hope for something better for him than the BS loathing that too many Jays fans subjected him to.

  • Teddy Ballgame

    Bring him back. Why not? What more do you want out of a 5th starter than a guy who can eat innings and help save the bullpen? Plus, he’s an interesting and by accounts a nice guy. If you have Estrada, Happ, Dickey on relatively cheap veteran contracts and Sanchez and Stroman still under team control, that’s payroll that can go to fixing the outfield and provide infield depth…

    • El Cabeza

      First you saw this:

      “Exclude pitchers and the other 752 batters he faced slashed .270/.343/.464.”

      And then you said “Bring him back. Why not?”

      You okay Teddy?

      • Teddy Ballgame

        5th starter. They’re all gonna suck to varying degrees. Dickey would at least eat some innings, which was a bit of an issue last year. If he’s cheap, I’d be totally fine with it. Worse comes to worse, you find another warm body. I mean, he’s better than Mat Latos, no?

  • Nice Guy Eddie

    Sure, I say bring him back! Since Incompetent Alex traded their generational pitching prospect along with their best positional prospect at a time where they didn’t draft any positional prospects of note, I say bring him back for many more years! And this wasn’t even the Incompetent One’s worst trade – trading their previous years’ #9 overall pick and more for a salary dump that they can’t give away for free probably beats out the Mets Heist for the worst trade in franchise history. Dickey though, and Tulo too, should both have ‘THANK YOU ALEX’ where their name should go on their jerseys.

  • Jeff2sayshi

    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. That trade is unfairly maligned. Yes, maybe the Jays didn’t get the better player in the deal. No, Dickey was never a Cy Young pitcher here. But there were stretches where he was very very good, he could be relied on to take the ball, and honestly, any start he could have been unhittable.

    • Teddy Ballgame

      Also, much as it would be great to have Syndegaard and whatever is left of d’Arnaud now, it’s worth noting that neither one of them would have been much of a contributor to the playoff runs in 2014-2016. You can argue maybe we could have gotten a better piece with that kind of trade capital, but Dickey certainly more lined up with a “win now while we have two studs under cheap contracts” kind of philosophy.

        • GrumblePup

          Well, for 2015 they were pretty even (Syndergaard 2.1, Dickey 2.3 WAR).
          2016 was a much bigger difference (5.3 vs 0.5)

          However, They shouldn’t be directly compared like that because by 2016, Dickey wasn’t the JAys Ace, he was the 5th starter.
          The Mets needed 12 starting pitchers that season. The Jays needed 7.

          Colon, Syndergaard, deGrom and Matz were all main stays in the rotation with 33, 30, 24 and 22 starts respectively.
          The fifth starter spot was basically taken by 2 pitchers. Harvey made 17 starts, Verrett made 12 starts. Harvey posted a 0.0 WAR. Verette had -0.1 WAR

          Happ, Sanchez, Stroman, Estrada made 32, 30, 32, 29 starts respectively.
          Dickey made 29 starts (equal to the number of starts by Verrett and Harvey combined.)

          Harvey and Verrett: -0.1 WAR
          Dickey: 0.5 WAR

          The point being made is, Dickey is an incredibly reliable 5th starter and was a valuable contributor to the team in that respect. A reliable arm in your rotation is a huge asset. He’s not going to be the guy that carries your team to the playoffs on his shoulders. He’s the guy that makes sure your team has the stamina to get there, and still have gas left in the tank once you do.

          Comparing Dickey to Syndergaard in the guise of them playing the same role on the team doesn’t make sense. It’s almost like comparing the defensive ability of your all star centre fielder to the defensive ability of your 1st baseman. They have different skill sets, they contribute to the team in different ways.

          • Jeff2sayshi

            And just to add to that, the trade was made for the 2013 seasons, so 2016 was 4 years down the road. The disappointment of 2013 will always colour Dickey a certain way to some Blue Jays fans.

        • Teddy Ballgame

          Jeff has the answer, Ernie. The Dickey trade was predicated on the Jays contending starting in 2013 (even though it didn’t work out that way). Syndegaard was years away and not a sure thing (especially if the Jays weren’t that great at player development as some have suggested), so he didn’t fit into the window while we had Bautista and Edwin under contract. I’ll admit that I didn’t love the trade at the time, but it made sense based on the pieces the Jays already had in place and how far away Thor was from the bigs.

      • El Cabeza

        1. The playoff run of 2014!? What am I missing? I’m just going to stick to the ones I’m aware of – ALCS losses in 2015 and 2016.

        2. Syndergaard wouldn’t have contributed as much as Dickey did in the playoff runs?

        2015
        Dickey: 6.1IP, 1.74WHIP, .943 OPS against
        Thor: 19IP, 1.21WHIP, .574OPS against

        2016
        Dickey: DNP
        Thor: 7IP, 0.71WHIP, .291OPS against

        What metrics are you using?

        • Teddy Ballgame

          Not sure if you’re being sarcastic, but at the trade deadline in 2014 the Jays were in a playoff spot.

          Were Jose and Edwin super productive on team friendly contracts in 2013? If you answer yes, you can understand that Alex & Co saw a short term contention window while both of them were under contract and looked to get a “win now” piece. You can argue that he targeted the wrong piece, but if you’re not including 2013 and 2014 in the calculation the front office made in dealing a prospect for immediate help, you’re engaging in 20/20 hindsight.

  • breasteve

    $8M for a 4/5 starter is crazy, but if it means 200+ IP then I’m fine with it. My only issue with Dickey was the personal catcher eating up a bench spot. Jays already have too many glove-first guys and I really don’t want them getting another unless them make major changes to greatly improve OF and backup IF offence.