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.)