The first two months of the 2015 season were not kind to R.A. Dickey, and going into June he sat with a 5.77 ERA over 10 starts. His velocity was down, he was issuing almost as many free passes as strikeouts, and it seemed a foregone conclusion that he was playing out the string and his 2016 team option would be declined.
Then on June 2nd, Dickey turned in solid six-inning start against Washington in a 2-0 loss in the first game of a double-header, and since then it's like he's been a complete different pitcher. Since the calender flipped to June, Dickey has posted a 2.70 ERA in 12 starts, culminating in 15 straight innings without allowing an earned run over his last two starts with the second one on short rest.
Overall, that's left him with a 4.06 ERA on the year, or almost exactly at the AL average for starting pitchers. The Blue Jays would probably take that down the stretch, but it would be huge boost to their playoff chances the longer he continues to pitch like the guy man thought was coming three winters ago. So what's the deal?
On the plus side, there's this:
His velocity had climbed significantly throughout the year. Early this year his velocity had bottomed out near the lows of 2013 when he battled injury issues, and paired with the decline late last year supported the notion that he could be approaching the end of the road. In his last start, despite being on short rest, his average velocity was near the best levels in his career. At the same time, his contact rate on balls in the strike zone has tumbled by 5%, from about 85% to 80%. It doubt those two things are unrelated.
On the negative side, there's this:
While there's a gap of over three runs in ERA, the gap is more like two runs by FIP, and most disconcertingly, just 0.21 runs by xFIP, suggesting the core talent is not much different. Let's drill into that (with Dickey's 2013-14 for comparison):
Dickey's had a significant increase in his strikeout rate, which given the increase in velocity and how low it was, is probably sustainable going forward. It's worth noting that it's still below his 2013-14 levels, which suggests to me a degree of fundamental decline. His walk rate, BABIP and ground ball rates are essentially unchanged (though if HBP are included, it's increased in 2015).
But in the end, this is a story about home runs. Dickey had well-documented long ball problems in his first two seasons in Toronto, and it completely blew out over the first two months of 2015, way above the league average of 10-11%. Over the last two months it's swung in the complete opposite direction, way below average. Personally, I hadn't realized the extent to which Dickey had kept the ball in the park the last couple months, and the size of the impact it had.
Again, the swing from poor velocity to good velocity could explain some of this, and I might be inclined to think the next couple months will be more like the last two months than the first two, but this run is almost certainly going to end. Dickey's skill was not that of a guy who gave up a home run every six fly balls, and it's not that of a guy who gives up one home run every 19 fly balls either.
Where does that leave things? Assuming the higher strikeout rate is real, and a more normal home run rate, the expectation would be for a 4.10-4.20 ERA pitcher.