In Appreciation of R.A. Dickey, Former Best Player in Baseball

In baseball terms, eight years ago doesn’t seem that long ago. Last season, the American League Cy Young winner was Justin Verlander. In 2012, the AL Cy Young winner was David Price, but it definitely should have been Justin Verlander. A number of the guys who were good eight years ago are still good today, and some of the most modern baseball advancements were already being implemented around the game. Some sentences, though, do a lot of work in telling you just how much time has passed. For example: “Hello, would you like to watch a live major league baseball game?” Remember when people said things like that? Ah, to be young again. Here’s another: Eight years ago, R.A. Dickey was the best player in baseball.

Don’t be alarmed if you don’t recall such a time, as it lasted only a brief while. But it surely did exist, for a month-long stretch that reached its height on June 18, 2012. Dickey was coming off four straight outings of no earned runs allowed in at least 7.1 innings, including two complete games. In his most recent start, he’d allowed just one hit while striking out 12 batters in nine innings against the Rays, giving him the best start of his career.

It took him five days to outdo it.

“He has been the story in baseball this year,” Keith Hernandez said of Dickey as the Mets’ home broadcast team hyped him up entering his June 18 start against the Orioles. They were hardly alone in their admiration. The day before, a lengthy profile of him authored by Tyler Kepner was published in The New York Times. A couple of days before that, he was covered by Shane Ryan at Grantland, and a couple of days before that, he was officially christened a Cy Young candidate by David Schoenfield at ESPN. A day after his start against the Orioles, Jay Jaffe — then of Sports Illustrated — would join the chorus of writers enthralled by Dickey, as would former FanGraphs editor Dave Cameron on this site.

The subject of everyone’s obsession with Dickey was the same: His famous knuckleball. By now, many of you are likely familiar with his history with the pitch. At one time an Olympian and owner of a 95-mph fastball, he was selected in the first round of the 1996 draft by the Texas Rangers. It was subsequently discovered that he was born without a ulnar collateral ligament — the one typically repaired by Tommy John surgery. He spent nearly a decade struggling to earn a major league roster spot until the Rangers tried having him throw a knuckler in 2005, then spent four more years and three organizations attempting to master it before finally securing his first full-time major league rotation slot with the Mets as a 35-year-old in 2010.

For the next two seasons, he was a servicable starting pitcher, amassing a total of 5.5 WAR. For the first seven weeks of the 2012 season, he was pretty good. Then, on May 22, he became something else entirely and, as a result, became very famous.

R.A. Dickey, May 22-June 13, 2012
Metric Value MLB Rank Next-Best
WAR 2.3 1st 1.4
ERA 0.23 1st 0.77
FIP 0.88 1st 1.74
xFIP 1.76 1st 1.95
K-BB% 34.1% 1st 31.2%
WHIP 0.58 1st 0.64

If any pitcher pulls off a five-game run like this, it’s a huge deal. If a knuckleballer does it, it more or less breaks everyone’s brains. This was the high Dickey was riding on the morning of June 18, 2012. Then, he threw the best game of his career.

The first inning starts with two weak groundballs to short, then a strikeout of Chris Davis with knuckler at the top of the zone. That’s where Dickey would feast in two strike counts all night, as he achieved the same result with Matt Wieters in the second:

After two more grounders retire the side, Dickey starts the third with back-to-back strikeouts of Wilson Betemit and Steve Pearce. He then loses opposing pitcher Jake Arrieta on a walk before making short work of Brian Roberts for his fifth punch out:

Three ground-outs take care of the fourth, followed by a pair of strikeouts to open the fifth inning. I saved this one in my notes as, “Reynolds Ks, looks wild.”

After the Reynolds strikeout, Dickey surrenders his second baserunner of the evening, this time a single to right-center by Betemit. It’s the first hit he’s allowed in his last 12 innings, and the only one he’d allow all night. A fly out by Pearce begins a new run of eight straight retired by Dickey, including two more strikeouts:

Betemit works a walk with one out in the eighth, becoming the final Oriole to reach base. Dickey’s next at-bat ends with a filthy knuckler diving out of the zone against Pearce, followed by a run of three backwards Ks in the final four hitters of the game, giving him a career-high 13 strikeouts:

It takes barely more time to complete this performance than it will have taken you to read this recap of it. Dickey’s pace is characteristically relentless, his average time between pitches rating as his fourth-lowest of a season in which only Mark Buehrle worked quicker. What did hitters need time to think about anyway? Dickey threw the knuckleball with 85% of his pitches in 2012. They knew what was coming. They just couldn’t hit it.

“You can hardly fathom what you’re watching,” Mets play-by-play announcer Gary Cohen says, three pitches before Dickey records his final out of the game. With this start, Dickey becomes the first pitcher since Dave Stieb in 1988 to throw one-hit complete games in back-to-back starts, and the first National League pitcher to do so since 1944. If we use a measure better equipped to take his incredible strikeout-to-walk numbers into account, Dickey becomes just the second pitcher of the expansion era to record a game score of at least 95 in back-to-back starts. His streak of 44.2 innings without allowing an earned run is the best in Mets history, and one of the greatest of all-time.

Dickey’s line in six starts between May 22 and June 18: 48.2 innings, one earned run, 21 hits, 63 strikeouts, five walks, zero homers.

In the seventh inning of Dickey’s start against the Orioles, the Mets’ broadcast team discussed his Cy Young chances, along with how his season could be remembered.

“It’s all about how you finish,” Hernandez said. “Everybody’s gonna forget about the first two and a half months.”

Cohen corrected him: “Nobody’s gonna forget his first two and a half months.”

Dickey finished the season well enough to make their disagreement irrelevant. After allowing five runs in four of his next six starts, he held his opponents to a 2.39 ERA over his final 13 games, claiming the NL Cy Young Award at season’s end.

What Hernandez’s point illustrates, though, is the way Dickey’s success was perceived at the time. You don’t expect anyone to be able to dominate with a knuckleball, so when Dickey did, your natural inclination was to wait for the other shoe to drop. People waited the entire 2012 season for him to come back to earth, and even after he won his Cy Young, fans were still skeptical about whether he was actually that good. And because the Blue Jays paid an exorbitant price to trade for him after the season, his time in Toronto was immediately cast in an unfavorable light despite the fact that he remained plenty productive for most of his four seasons there.

Because of all that, I wonder if we appreciated Dickey’s brief peak as much as we should have. Fans, and especially writers, tend to watch baseball with one eye toward the future. If a batter has a hot start to a season, we think about whether they could finish it hitting .400. When someone debuts young and immediately succeeds, we begin thinking about their Hall of Fame case. But Dickey wasn’t someone to be watched with one eye toward the future. He burst onto the scene not only too late to build a case for Cooperstown, but also too late to even reasonably wonder about him getting better. He hasn’t inspired a massive wave of young knuckleballing prospects in the amateur ranks. His legacy was always going to be that 2012 season.

And I think it’s a cool legacy to have. For an entire month, a 37-year-old knuckleballer was the most dominant baseball player in the majors, and it wasn’t particularly close. If I had to guess, that will probably never happen again.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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3 years ago

These kind of “flash in the pan” (where “flash” in this case means “absolutely stunning dominance for a short period of time”) stories are some of the best in sports: CC’s run with the Brewers comes to mind, as does Linsanity, maybe Tiger’s 1997 Masters performance… And I think it serves us all well to remember them in detail occasionally. Thanks for the fun read!

3 years ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

Chapman’s postseason with the Cubs! (At least in my opinion, as a Yankees fan)

3 years ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

Cory Lidle’s crazy run in August 2002 is almost entirely forgotten (he also threw a one-hitter in July), but was similarly insane.

Dickey and stories about his “hard knuckler” were all the rage in 2012. Many a fantasy season was made on his run from scrap heap guy to best pitcher in the world ever for a few months guy.

3 years ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

Great point! I remember Johan Santana’s phenomenal second half of 2004 when he really transitioned to being a starter full time.

From June 9th on, he threw 159 innings, with just 80 hits and 31 walks to go with 204 strikeouts and a .148/.203/.240 slash line allowed. His average game score was 78, including a 100 on July 6th.