Return to 20-win glory not out of reach for veteran of Blue Jays' rotation
By Marty Noble
NEW YORK -- Nothing in the game is so fickle as the year-to-year performance of setup relievers. Their pendulums routinely swing from effective to dreadfully poor and seldom rest in between. A close second in the capriciousness standings is the effectiveness of knuckleball pitchers. In their careers, it isn't only year-to-year performance that vary so much; it can be start to start, inning to inning and, more than conventional pitchers, pitch to pitch.
The Wilhelms, Niekros, Houghs and Wakefields throw the pitch nobody fully trusts -- not their managers, their coaches or their catchers. They make a living with an unreliable tool that can be murderous to an opposing batting order and also suicidal to their self-interests and those of their teams.
All of which is to explain why R.A. Dickey has won 28 games and lost 26 during his two-season tenure with the Blue Jays, the two seasons since he won the National League Cy Young Award with the Mets, the seasons since his knuckleball did tricks that prompted marvel among his butterfly brethren.
Dickey won 20 games in 2012 -- special for a knuckleballer, but hardly unprecedented. That he lost merely six of his 33 starts was remarkable and has been identified as "probably a typographical error" by other members of the knuckler fraternity Kappa Delta Wiggle.
Knuckleballers seldom operate for a full season in the strata of a .769 winning percentage. Phil Niekro suggested Dickey's 2012 warrants an asterisk. (See Roger Maris.) "Not illegal or anything like that," Niekro said once. "Just impossible."
In his one stellar season, Dickey had command of the uncommandable and control of the decapitated chicken. It ain't supposed to happen that way for guys in the butterfly business. He walked merely 54 batters. Dickey struck out 230 in 233 2/3 innings, both league highs. He won 13 of his first 14 decisions.
Matching that run this year probably would enable the Blue Jays to develop some first-half pennant race collateral, not unimportant for a franchise that hasn't participated in the postseason since 1993.
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So now a knuckleball pitcher with a 20-victory season on his recent resumé and a new catcher is about to begin his age-40 season working for the only big league team north of the border, a team with aspirations to finish the season decidedly north of the other members in the American League East standings. Dickey is to start against the Yankees on Wednesday night in the Bronx.
A case can be made that no other player on the Blue Jays' roster will have greater sway over how the team acquits itself in 2015 than Dickey. He might finish with a winning percentage higher than .500, as he has in four of his five most recent seasons. No one could be legitimately surprised if Dickey's 2015 record matched the 14-13 records he produced in each of his two seasons with Toronto. If he dips below .500 -- to, say, 9-12 -- no one could be rightfully shocked.
But in the back of Dickey's mind and the hinter regions of the minds of the folks who run the Blue Jays and manage, play and root for them, that 20-6 record from 2012 stands and glows like neon at dusk. It can be done. We all saw him do it.
Knuckleballers do unusual things, as do their pitches. Wilbur Wood won 90 games for the White Sox in a four-season sequence in the '70s, but he lost 20, 19 and 17 games in three of the four and 20 of his 36 decisions in the ensuing summer, 1975. In a four-year sequence that began when he was 40, Niekro produced records of 21-20, 15-18, 7-7 and 17-4 (the latter good for an .810 percentage).
Niekro once identified the knuckleball as "a snowflake pitch" because "no two are alike." The same can be said of those four seasons.
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Dickey believes he knows how to pursue another magical season. Fewer walks and home runs surrendered would be critical to a good start. And a good start would be critical, period, for him. Dickey produced respective records of 1-3 and 2-5 with ERAs well north of 5.00 in his first five and seven starts in 2013 and '14.
The walks have already dropped. In his three seasons with the Mets, Dickey walked 150 batters in 616 2/3 innings. He's walked 145 in 440 1/3 since he was traded to the Blue Jays. Improvement: He walked one in 12 innings during Spring Training; he pitched more in Minor League games.
"It definitely hasn't been 'back to the drawing board,'" Dickey said on Tuesday morning from his midtown hotel. "But I am constantly looking for ways I can be most consistent."
More runs from an offense reinforced by the acquisitions of catcher Russell Martin and third baseman Josh Donaldson, and more starts at home in the controlled atmosphere of Rogers Centre's dome, will help as well. Toronto has adjusted its rotation to make Dickey more of a homebody.
Martin, Dickey said, isn't yet comparable as a knuckleball receiver to Josh Thole, who started in 118 of Dickey's 151 most recent starts with the Mets and Blue Jays. But Martin has learned quickly how to deal with Dickey's unpredictable pitches, so Toronto felt comfortable in demoting Thole and getting Martin's offense into the order more regularly .
Aware of the many variables, Dickey nonetheless sees his two Blue Jays years as his baseline.
"I expect to be there or close to it," Dickey says. But he leaves room for more magic, and after a challenging winter, maybe one more handsome snowflake.
"I do feel I can win 20," Dickey says.
And, of course, Dickey recalls what he heard as he pursued his 20th victory in 2012. It was quote from Billy Loes, a pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the '50s, that a reporter shared with him. Loes, who never won more than 14 games in a season, cautioned a teammate not to win 20.
"If you win 20 games," Loes said, "they expect you to do it every year."
Said Dickey: "It happens."
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.