Lonely. This was the word R.A. Dickey used last year when asked about the process of re-making himself as a knuckleballer. Lots of learning the hard way - trial and error with endless reps, pitches pitches thrown against a brick wall in pursuit of something elusive. His career as a conventional pitcher was all but over, so he forged a new path.
When asked about the pieces coming together in 2010, as a member of the then-New York Mets affiliated Buffalo Bisons, Dickey explains there wasn’t one precise moment when it all clicked:
It was the culmination of a lot of days where I thought “Okay, I can repeat this. This is good.” And then another day would come along and I would say “Oh, so my stride needs to be a little short!” or “Oh, my glove takeaway needs to be a little up.” It was just a bunch of things, all of them coming together.Five years later and it all feels like it’s happening in reverse. The self-talk and tinkering are attempts to hold something together, papering over the cracks of age and deterioration of skill. Dickey is in the middle of his worst season since the light switched on in 2010, sitting decidedly below replacement after ten starts of bad luck, bad location, and few glimmers of hope.
As R.A. Dickey limps towards the inevitable end of his time in Toronto, it feels like the process of breaking down mirrors that of his build up. Then, as now, he confronted declining velocity and inconsistent mechanics. In 2005, he sought a new direction, approaching his daily work trying to harness the knuckleball with monastic devotion. In 2015, he gropes for consistency from a pitch that offers none, still searching for the right combination of factors to stave off irrelevance once again.
Over the past two-plus years, we’ve seen many versions of Dickey in Toronto. One Batter Too Many Dickey or One Inning Undone By An Error Dickey, a tantalizing end that justifies the means. Sometimes he’s That Thing Is Dancing Dickey. These are the archetypal Dickeys Blue Jays fans grew uncomfortably accustomed to, disappointed but resigned to our reality. For his first two seasons, he made it work, hovering around league average thanks to his voluminous innings.
Toronto has decidedly fallen out of love with R.A. Dickey. While once the internet seemed it might topple with a proliferation of slo-motion knuckleball GIFs and word-of-the-day toilet paper quotes, there are now only panicked cries when the long balls come early instead of late, a determined tide into which even the most ardent apologist can’t “five and dive.”
As Dickey struggles, sinking down toward the bottom of the ERA leaderboard (fun fact: no pitcher has allowed more runs since the start of 2013), one of the players sent out to acquire his knuckle-balling services rises with great fanfare, twisting the knife with each triple-digit offering, each overpowering outing, and a bolt of lightning sent forth at the unlikeliest of times.
There’s no good time to point out the value R.A. Dickey already delivered to the Blue Jays. Two top prospects feel like an incredibly high price to pay for off-brand innings bought in bulk. Doubly so when the prospects turn to players and the bulk innings outnumber the dazzling ones.
The razor thin margin of error that comes from throwing a gimmick pitch into your 40s wears everybody down. When one inning is your undoing, one poorly-placed knuckler that hitters don’t seem to miss, it increasingly feels like this is that inning. That the next pitch is the one that breaks open the game. It is the feeling of watching a knuckleballer for the first time except drawn over 75 starts; a feeling Mets fans grew out of but Blue Jays fans can’t shake.
As the swings-and-misses dry up and the chase swings disappear, a fickle pitch produced by the fickle body of a 40-year old man starts looking like a case of diminishing returns. One can only wonder if it is still fun for Dickey, the journey and the nuances and the “academically appetizing” pursuit. I don’t think it is fun for many Blue Jays fans, not anymore.
The innings are greatly appreciated but the production leaves much to desire. Never mind who else might provide those 500-odd innings: the details matter less than the optics inn this, the third season designed for greatness but destined to fall considerably, glaringly short.
As the offense continues slugging, the “just good enough” bar slides lower and yet it appears unlikely the would-be ace can pull his toes over. Innings pitched might be the most underrated stat in baseball but there is no mistaking a missed opportunity in reliable backend starter clothing.
The R.A. Dickey we see in 2015 isn’t a fair representation of that one who will end up starting 100 games in the Blue Jays uniform. But he’s the one we’ll remember. 2015 Dickey is the one crooked fingers will point to while Noah Syndergaard Thors his way through the National League.
It doesn’t matter that Dickey came to Toronto and did a job - he was expected to do more. It’s hard to blame fans who accuse him of doing much, much less.