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June 19, 2012

Fantasy Beat

The Magnificence of R.A. Dickey

by Jason Collette

He went for $2 in the Tout Wars Mixed.  He went for $5 in Tout Wars NL draft while going for $4 in LABR NL (purchased by Derek Carty in both instances). Yet, there is no hotter fantasy baseball asset in leagues right now than R.A. Dickey, who currently stands 11-1 with a 2.00 ERA, 103 strikeouts, and just 21 walks in 99 innings of work. Those are the kind of numbers people pay $24 to roster Cole Hamels for, yet Dickey owners are getting it for a 75 percent discount amidst arguably the best story going in baseball today. Dickey’s last six starts encompass 48 2/3 innings of work in which he has allowed just 21 hits, one earned run, five walks, and 63 strikeouts. Those are not even Hamels-like numbers; those are more like Koufax numbers.

Let the leaderboard on the image below soak in for a minute:


(ESPN/‚ÄčSportsCenter‚Äč)

The question is, how is this happening?

Dickey threw his second consecutive one-hitter last night, holding the Orioles to just a Wilson Betemit single five days after holding the Rays to a questionable infield single by B.J. Upton. Last night’s outing was wrapping up as Kevin Goldstein and I were recording a segment for this week’s Towers of Power Fantasy Hour podcast. We had some comments on the podcast that you’ll have to tune in to listen to, but Kevin tweeted some additional comments out last night that sum up my thoughts as well:

If we go back and look at the last two seasons for Dickey with the Mets, there were two attractive parts of his profile: his ERA and his WHIP. He had ERAs of 2.84 and 3.28 and WHIPs of 1.19 and 1.23. His strikeout rates were below 6.0 both seasons, but his walk rates were 2.2 and 2.3, which are very surprising rates for a guy that relies on such an unpredictable pitch.

In hindsight, his player profile this year is very enlightening:

With Tim Wakefield sailing into the sunset, it's good to have a knuckleballer still around, especially one who seems to be in the prime of his craft. Dickey's impossible to scout and maybe to project, but unlike many who depend on the pitch (he throws it around 80 percent of the time), he rarely has those off days when he just gets hammered. He didn't give up more than four earned runs in any of his last 24 starts, and he had a 2.87 ERA after the All-Star break. His $9.25 million owed for the next two years make him one of the biggest bargains in the clubhouse.

That means, dating back to his win against the Yankees on May 20 of last season, Dickey has allowed more than four earned runs just once in his last 38 starts. Compare that to the likes of Tim Wakefield, who seemingly gave up four or five earned runs every other start in his later years. In those 38 starts, Dickey has gone 18-9 with a 2.42 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP while striking out 202 batters and walking just 57 in 256 1/3 innings of work. The ERA and WHIP help was there, but the strikeouts jumping from the mid-5.0s to one per inning? Not even his agent could have promised that kind of performance in 2012.

According to Statcorner.com, Dickey has been above league average in a few areas in his time with the Mets. The league throws strikes approximately 63 percent of the time while Dickey has found the zone just under 69 percent of the time. His called strike rate has been just above league average, and his swinging strike rate was just below league average until this season, when it jumped to 12.9 percent after sitting at 7.4 percent in 2010-2011. The table below shows how Dickey has performed in other areas (data via statcorner.com):

STAT

2010-2011

LEAGUE AVERAGE

2012

First Pitch Strikes

49%

45%

53%

Zone Swings & Misses

14%

12%

23%

Out of Zone Swings

32%

31%

37%

Out of Zone Misses

23%

28%

29%

Dickey is throwing more first pitch strikes than he has in the past but is also getting many more swings-and-misses both in and out of the zone than in the past, as we might expect from someone with a knuckleball. What you likely did not expect is that Dickey’s knuckleball has been the second most lethal pitch, in terms of whiff rates, thrown by any major league starting pitcher. Thanks to Dan Brooks and Harry Pavlidis for putting that data together for me at the last minute.

Dan Haren’s cut fastball is the toughest pitch to make contact with in baseball (minimum 500 pitches thrown); batters have whiffed 31 percent of the time when he throws it. Dickey’s knuckleball is next on the list at 29 percent with batters coming up empty on 163 of the 570 swings against the pitch. Justin Verlander is the only other pitcher who has been able to get at least 100 swings-and-misses on a pitch this season, and he trails Dickey by 59 whiffs at 104. Here are the top ten whiff rates by pitchers that have thrown at least 500 of those pitches this season.

Brooks Baseball shows that Dickey has thrown his knuckleball 78 percent of the time since 2007 while throwing his two-seam fastball 21 percent of the time, mixing in a miniscule handful of curves and changeups. This season, he has spiked his knuckleball usage to 86 percent while throwing the fastball 13 percent of the time and throwing what has been classified as a changeup 10 times total.

One real improvement so far has come against left-handed hitters. From 2010 to 2011, left-handed batters hit .246/.306/.391 against Dickey in 661 plate appearances while striking out 19 percent of the time. This season, the slash line is not terribly different (.234/.291/.372), but batters are striking out 33 percent of the time. Before Dickey’s start against Tampa Bay, Mark Simon of ESPN noted that the knuckle-baller had begun working more on the outer third of the plate to lefties and letting the knuckleball do what it does; the results have been fantastic since. Lefties were hitting just .151 against Dickey over the five starts prior to the back-to-back one-hitters, and Betemit was the only left-handed batter to get a hit over the last two games.

You can go look at Dickey’s player card if you want to see how much fun PITCHf/x data can be for knuckleball pitchers. A cursory look at the year-to-year stuff seems to show that he is throwing fewer dead ducks, if you will, but it is tough to wrap my head around the fact that someone has learned how to control the most uncontrollable pitch in baseball this well. The real truth lies somewhere in between an indoor batting cage in Atlanta and the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, but the fact is that Dickey has delivered more value to this point of the season than any fantasy player could have imagined.

The guy is already without a UCL in his elbow, so his injury risk may be muted, especially compared to the real risk: that Dickey suddenly loses the magic he seems to have over the knuckleball, loses the strikeouts, and returns to being a three-category contributor rather than the four-category stud he is right now.

I will use one more KG tweet to sum up my entire feelings on Dickey:


Jason Collette is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  One-hitter,  Mets,  Ra Dickey,  Knuckleball

24 comments have been left for this article.

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