With the World Series having ended last Thursday, at 9:00 AM this morning players with six or more years of MLB service and without a 2017 contract officially became free agents. One of those is R.A. Dickey, and with his stint with the Blue Jays almost certainly over, it's a timely occasion to reflect back on the totality of his tenure and the tortured legacy he leaves behind for many fans.
Over his four seasons with the Blue Jays, Dickey threw 824.1 innings to a 100 ERA-. He was the definition of a solid innings eating workhorse, averaging over 200 innings while preventing runs at an exactly league average rate. In fact, in just four seasons, Dickey ranks 12th on the franchise list by innings pitched, and 10th for starting pitchers. That alone makes him a significant figure in Blue Jays history.
It wasn't all roses; there were plenty of issues. He tended to start the season slowly. His knuckleball was rarely as good as it was in New York, and we saw too much of a fastball that often got clobbered. He gave up a lot of home runs, 107 ranking 2nd overall in MLB from 2013-16. Too often his starts would be going well before the wheels came off the wagon for a big inning. For most of his time, he had/required a dedicated catcher.
That's to say nothing of the weight of expectations, coming off a Cy Young 2012 season and touted as a frontline ace. Despite those unrealistic expectations, for the $41-million he earned over that time, he delivered more than fair value. Indeed, had he been a free agent acquisition, he'd likely be viewed quite differently (even if the contract had been heftier, say four years at $12-million or more per year all guaranteed).
As a direct comparison, Mark Buehrle provided a similar level of performance in both run preventing runs and durability, while making more money over just three seasons. Yet he was embraced by Blue Jays fans in a way that I think it is fair to say Dickey never was.
But of course, Dickey wasn't a free agent signee. He was acquired in what will go down as the worst transaction by Alex Anthopoulos when he ultimately caved to the Mets demands and included Noah Syndergaard in an attempt to put the finishing touches on an erstwhile contender. Not only did that team fall flat on their face, but Syndergaard became first an uber prospect and then a frontline MLB starter.
From a strictly rational perspective, once that trade became official everything given up was a sunk cost and should have been left in the past. Normally, I have no problem doing that, but when it came to Dickey I never got there. To begin with, where most were excited, my general disposition made me more nervous than anything. From that first start in Toronto with the wildness and home run floating over the fence, to getting shelled by the Red Sox upon John Farrell's return, to overall lousy results before the 2013 Jays were out of it, a visceral feeling of regret became the filter that coloured him taking the mound for the rest of his tenure..
Some of that was the nature of the bargain the Jays made, exchanging a lot of distant expected wins for immediate and medium turn wins that were expected to be pretty important. Generally, we want to measure transactions by process and not results, but the entire premise of acquiring Dickey was fundamentally tied to the result of making the playoffs. When the 2013 team tanked so badly that rationale was destroyed, so quickly and almost entirely. Aside from his underperformance which ended up not mattering, this is not Dickey's fault at all, but he was the poster child undelibly linked to it.
Compounding this, Dickey managed to be eclipsed by Syndergaard's long shadow cast even when he was at his best. From June onwards, Dickey posted a 3.11 ERA in 2015 (2.80 in the second half) - but right after Syndergaard debuted in mid-May and took the league by storm. The Jays finally broke their playoffless streak, but Thor led the Mets to the World Series. For the coup de grace, as Dickey faded this year and ultimately fell out of the rotation, Syndergaard cemented himself as a frontline starter and potential Cy Young winner. What if, what if, what if....
"It's not you, it's me" is that most cliched of break-up lines. But when it comes to R.A. Dickey as a Blue Jay, I think it's quite apt. I could never really get past the circumstances of his arrival and what he wasn't to fully appreciate his mostly serviceable performance on the field and cerebral nature off the field. I suspect the same is true for a lot of fans, at least to some extent. Wherever he winds up in 2017, hopefully things work out a little better in this respect.