The Real Problem With R.A Dickey

Hopefully Dickey's charm is effective on umpires. - USA TODAY Sports

R.A Dickey if off to a pretty rough start to his Blue Jays career, but what is the true cause of his struggles?

As much as people enjoy R.A Dickey as a guy, and as much as it's fun to watch the knuckleballer pitch, it cannot be denied that he is not off to a good start. Through nine starts Dickey is sitting on a 4.83 ERA, a far cry from his 2.73 mark last year. It's not even as if he has solid peripherals and has been the victim of poor luck. His BABIP is at .270, which is pretty much normal for him over the last three years and his FIP is 4.81 suggesting that Dickey deserves to be giving up the amount of runs that he has. The only bit of bad luck you notice when scanning over R.A's stats is his HR/FB rate which sits at 14.8%, which is probably a little bit inflated. The point is that no matter which may you slice it Dickey has fallen short of expectations so far.

When a star player struggles, the fans and the media tend to conjure up a myriad of explanations as to why. These explanations range from perfectly rational, to wildly speculative, to utterly false. When you are dealing with an enigmatic 38 year old pitcher that throws a knuckleball the likes of which the world has never seen, one can image that there are quite a few explanations floating out there.

Some say that Dickey problems are a result of nagging injuries. It's hard to dispute that but it's also hard to comment on because I can't say that I have any idea how Dickey feels and to what degree neck and back soreness is hampering his pitching. It's a feasible explanation but it's not a complete one.

Others seem to think that it's the adjustment to the AL East that is a problem for Dickey. There is probably some truth in this explanation also. The AL East has some of the smallest ballparks and best hitters in baseball. R.A Dickey's ugly 1.5 HR/9 mark could be a function of pitching in the most difficult circumstances in the major leagues. Once again, this isn't the whole story, and probably isn't the most important part either.

Lastly, some people seem to think that R.A Dickey's 2012 was a one-time fluke and that he has no chance of being that pitcher again. To this claim there are two rebuttals. Firstly, Dickey was an excellent pitcher in 2010 and 2011 and the Blue Jays got production somewhere between his 2012 levels and his 2010-11 self then the fans ought to be happy. Secondly, the main difference between Dickey in 2012 compared to the previous two years is that he discovered how to miss bats and get K's. The following chart shows Dickey's K%, Swinging Strike% and Contact % since 2010:

Year

Strikeout %

Swinging Strike %

Contact%

2010

14.6%

8.4%

82%

2011

15.3%

7.8%

83.4%

2012

24.8%

12.2%

75.4%

2013

20.9%

10.2%

76.7%

The 2013 Dickey looks most like the 2012 version when it comes to missing bats and, although he hasn't been quite as good as he was last year, it seems the adjustments he made that helped him strikeout batters have lasted. It is therefore unfair to describe Dickey's 2012 as a fluke and declare him unable to repeat those results.

The narrative that has not been very prevalent in discussion of R.A Dickey's struggles is his inability to throw strikes this year. It is my view that this is the most important reason we are not seeing R.A Dickey of 2012 this season. Whenever Dickey has problems with control the mysterious knuckleball itself is said to be to blame. Commentators will say things like, "the knuckleball is dancing unpredictably tonight" or "the knuckleball is moving just a little too much" instead of attributing any blame to Dickey himself. The reality is that Dickey has had well above-average control since 2010 compared to conventional pitchers. This is part of what makes him extraordinary, and more importantly, what makes him effective. This year has been a complete outlier in that regard whether you are looking at BB% or BB/9:

Year

BB/9

BB%

2010

2.17

5.9%

2011

2.33

6.2%

2012

2.08

5.8%

2013

4.00

10.4%

What accounts for this massive change? To get the answer one has to break down what it takes to throw strikes and avoiding walking batters. It's fairly simple. To throw strikes you either have to get hitters to swing for your pitches, especially those outside the strike zone, or you have to put the ball in the zone. This chart shows how Dickey has fared in those categories this year compared to previous years.

Year

Swing%

O-Zone Swing%

Zone%

1st Pitch Strike %

2010

48.8%

29.4%

52.9%

59.3%

2011

48.2%

29%

53.1%

63.1%

2012

50.6%

34%

51.2%

62.2%

2013

43.5%

26.6%

46.8%

51.3%

Dickey has not been able to get batters to offer at his pitches nearly as often as in the past and that is especially problematic on his pitches outside the zone. Instead of compensating by putting more balls in the zone he has done the opposite which has exacerbated the issue, and the huge drop in first pitch strikes is one of the symptoms of this problem.

Dickey's lack of control is concerning early as Jays fans have seen first hand what can happen with pitchers suddenly losing their control as in the case of Ricky Romero. Obviously Dickey is in far better shape than that and it is not time to panic by any means. In fact, Dickey has managed to put up a quality start in six of his nine outings this year. Perhaps as he gets healthier and becomes acclimated to the American League Dickey's command will return. Perhaps he will be a Cy Young contender by the end of the year. However, to give a sense of the scope of this issue I will leave you with the following statistic:

Number of times R.A Dickey has walked 5 or more batters in a game in 2013 (9 starts): 2

Number of times R.A Dickey has walked 5 or more batters in a game 2010-2012 (91 starts): 2

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