JAWS and the 2023 Hall of Fame Ballot: R.A. Dickey

Anthony Gruppuso-US PREWIRE

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2023 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule, and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2023 BBWAA Candidate: R.A. Dickey
Pitcher Career WAR Peak WAR Adj. S-JAWS W-L SO ERA ERA+
R.A. Dickey 23.7 22.4 23.0 120-118 1,447 4.04 103
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

For so many who have practiced it, the knuckleball has been a pitch of last resort, an offering turned to only when a pitcher is hanging onto his career literally by his fingertips, as Jim Bouton described his situation in the introduction to Ball Four. Some have thrived with the pitch, with Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm riding it all the way to Cooperstown, but until R.A. Dickey mastered his so-called “angry knuckleball,” no such pitcher ever won the Cy Young Award.

Overcoming a traumatic childhood, Dickey starred in high school and at the University of Tennessee, then spent all or part of 15 different seasons in the majors during the 2001-17 span, pitching for six different teams. It wasn’t an easy ride. Though he was a first-round draft pick by the Rangers in 1996, before his professional career could start the team drastically slashed its bonus offer upon discovering that he had no ulnar collateral ligament — not a torn one requiring Tommy John surgery, but a missing one entirely, a rare anomaly. Dickey pitched through it and reached the majors in 2001, but spent his 20s and early 30s bouncing between the minors and majors and from team to team. Along the way, he turned to the knuckleball, but didn’t master it until he was 35 years old and on his fourth stop, becoming a rotation staple for the Mets and then a sensation. In 2012, he made his only All-Star team, won the NL Cy Young award, published a memoir, starred in a documentary… and was traded out of town as part of a blockbuster that, to be fair, helped the Mets build a pennant winner. He pitched until he was 42, and as things stand, he may wind up being known as the Last Great Knuckleballer.

Robert Allen Dickey was born on October 29, 1974 in Nashville, Tennessee. His father, Harry Lee Dickey, was a good enough pitcher as an amateur — making it as far as junior college — to be offered $2,000 and an invitation to a Florida tryout by the Reds in 1974, though he bypassed that as he needed to support his wife Leslie and son (R.A.), which he did by working days in construction and nights as a security guard at a juvenile detention center.

While the family lived in relative poverty, Harry Lee Dickey nurtured his son’s love of baseball, throwing him towering pop-ups and taking him to Nashville Sounds games. Unfortunately, his marriage to Leslie ended in divorce when R.A. was eight; that same year, R.A. was sexually abused by a 13-year-old female babysitter, as he revealed in his 2013 memoir, Wherever I Wind Up; sadly, he was again sexually abused in the fourth grade, this time by a teenage boy.

Dickey’s mother’s alcoholism led him to move out of her house and back with his father, but their strained relationship led to a “cold and loveless” household that he often fled, sleeping over at friends’ houses or even spending nights in vacant warehouses. Amid those often grim circumstances, he was a strong enough athlete to secure a scholarship to Montgomery Bell Academy, a prestigious all-boys prep school. He starred in three sports, as a quarterback, shooting guard, and pitcher/shortstop; during his senior year, he threw three no-hitters including a seven-inning perfect game, and went 15-3 with 218 strikeout in 118 innings while leading his team to a state championship. He was named Tennessee’s Mr. Baseball, and additionally won the Tennessee Sportswriters’ Player of the Year award, was named a USA Today/Baseball Weekly National High School All-Star and a Baseball America Second-Team All-American.

The Tigers drafted Dickey in the 10th round in 1993, but he instead accepted a scholarship to the University of Tennessee, where he set a school record with 38 wins, helped the Volunteers to three Southeastern Conference baseball titles, was a three-time All-American and two-time All-SEC selection, and earned additional honors such as Baseball America’s 1994 Freshman of the Year, Academic All-SEC, and Academic All-American. After his junior year, the Rangers chose him with the 18th pick in 1996, and he pitched for Team USA during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, winning two games and earning a bronze medal.

The Rangers initially offered the 6-foot-3, 205-pound righty a bonus of $810,000, but when Rangers orthopedic consultant Dr. John Conway saw the way he held his right arm in his picture on the cover of Baseball America, he suspected an injury. Further examination by Dr. James Andrews, the sport’s top orthopedic surgeon, revealed Dickey’s lack of a UCL, after which the team withdrew its offer. On the eve of Dickey’s return to Tennessee for his senior year, the Rangers grudgingly offered Dickey $75,000 and the promise of medical help if needed. “It was like winning the lottery and then losing the ticket,” said Dickey, who accepted the offer.

Dickey began his career with Port Charlotte of the Florida State League in 1997 but was hit for a 6.94 ERA and eight homers in 35 innings, and missed time due to surgery to remove bone spurs in his elbow. Upon repeating the level in 1998, he found somewhat more success, albeit as a closer, then split ’99 between Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Oklahoma City. He would become all too familiar with the latter stop, spending part or all of seven seasons there — every one from 1999-2006 save for ’04.

In April 2001, Dickey was called up to the Rangers. He debuted with a perfect inning of relief against the A’s in an 11-2 blowout on April 20, 2001, and made three more appearances over the next two weeks, the last of which included serving up back-to-back homers to the White Sox’s Paul Konerko and Carlos Lee. He spent the rest of that season and all of 2002 at OKC, but made the Rangers in ’03, and spent nearly the entire season with them. His 5.09 ERA in 116.2 innings split between 13 starts and 26 relief appearances was nothing to write home about, but it was good for a 99 ERA+, and his 4.31 FIP illustrated that he pitched even better than that.

Alas, the returns in Texas diminished. Dickey’s ERA ballooned to 5.61 in 104.1 innings in 2004, and he missed seven weeks with a recurrent back injury that dropped his velocity from the low 90s to the high 80s. He made just nine appearances with a 6.67 ERA in 2005, and was bombed for six homers in 3.1 innings in his lone appearance in ’06 — during the season’s fourth game, at that.

By that point, Dickey was throwing the knuckleball regularly. The pitch evolved out of a forkball that pitching coach Orel Hershiser called “The Thing.” Dickey described the nascent offering to ESPN Magazine’s Tim Kurkjian in 2012:

It was held like a hybrid knuckleball. I held it with my fingers and dug into the seams. And I would just throw the thing as hard as I could, and it would impart, you know, almost like this forkball-type spin. Like a real slow forkball. I remember, ironically, I pitched on a Sunday night game against the Boston Red Sox [on May 2, 2004]. And Tim Wakefield happened to be the pitcher on “Sunday Night Baseball.” And I would look over from time to time in the dugout when I was struggling with a hitter, and Orel would flash me a quick sign. He was giving me “The Thing” sign. And we were having some real success with it. And that, for me, was the genesis of the whole knuckleball, you know, experiment.

By 2005, a season that he largely spent in Oklahoma City while getting rocked for a 5.99 ERA, Dickey estimated that he was throwing the pitch 85% of his time. Retired knuckleballer Charlie Hough, who won 216 games in a 25-year major league career (1970-94), helped Dickey find a more conventional grip. “It took me one day to learn how to throw a knuckleball and a lifetime to learn how to throw it for strikes,” Hough told Dickey.

After that dismal 2006 outing and another season at Oklahoma City, Dickey became a free agent and signed with the Brewers. He spent all of 2007 pitching for the Nashville Sounds, their Triple-A affiliate, and had some success, going 13-6 with a 3.72 ERA in 169.1 innings en route to PCL Pitcher of the Year honors. A meeting with Phil Niekro during the 2007-08 offseason led Dickey to throw his knuckleball harder. Via Kurkjian:

[H]e watched my tape and said, “You’re leaving a lot of your strength over the rubber.” I would almost throw the pitch with my right foot still embedded in front of the rubber, instead of firing my hips and being an athlete and exploding toward the target. I was so worried about the mechanics. He kind of woke me up and said, “Look, man, you’re an athlete. Be an athlete. Explode toward your target.” And that kind of clicked for me. And from then on, you know, I was able to really be an athlete with it, and my velocity with it really improved. It went from, like low 70s to all of a sudden, you know, comfortably in the mid- to upper-70s with it. I wasn’t who I was going to ultimately become after that session; but he gave me a piece.

Dickey returned to the majors with the Mariners in 2008 and the Twins in ’09, making a combined total of 67 appearances but with subpar ERAs. His knuckleball, which had averaged 66.4 mph in 2005-06 according to data from Baseball Info Solutions, increased to an average of 73 mph in ’08, and 74.9 in ’09, and he began to get more chases and whiffs. That improvement no doubt factored into the Mets signing Dickey to a minor league deal in December 2009 and inviting him to spring training. He was the last cut before the team broke camp, and began the season in Buffalo, where he pitched to a 2.23 ERA in 60.2 innings. With Oliver Pérez struggling in the Mets’ rotation, Dickey got the call; debuting on May 19, he threw six innings of two-run ball against the Nationals, working around four walks. The Mets lost that one in the late innings, but won six days later after Dickey threw six shutout innings against the Phillies.

Dickey won his first six decisions, and remained in the rotation for the rest of the season. The average velocity of his now-signature offering rose to 75.9 mph, and his overall swinging strike rate improved from 6.6% to 8.5%. The highlight of his campaign was a one-hit shutout against the Phillies on August 13. He finished the year 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA (138 ERA+) in 174.1 innings, good for 3.6 WAR. That performance netted Dickey some financial security in the form of a two-year, $7.8 million extension that included a $5 million club option for 2013, and he showed that his performance was no fluke. Though his ERA rose to 3.28 (112 ERA+) in 2011, he tossed 208.1 innings over the course of 32 starts in ’13. Meager run support (3.8 per game) limited him to an 8-13 record, but his 3.6 WAR matched his value from 2010.

After the season, Dickey traveled to Tanzania and hiked to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro (elev. 19,341 feet) to raise awareness for Bombay Teen Challenge, a charity that helps victims of sex trafficking in India. Never missing an opportunity to turn something good into a stupid and petty controversy, the Mets formally warned Dickey that they could void his contract if he were injured in the attempt. He successfully reached the summit and returned unscathed.

For as impressive as Dickey’s 2010-11 emergence had been, none of that could have prepared anyone for his breakout. On the heels of the publication of Wherever I Wind Up, a memoir written with Wayne Coffe, Dickey’s 2012 season started inauspiciously enough, with a 4.45 ERA in April, owed in part to an eight-run, three-homer drubbing by the Braves on April 18, but even during that opening month, he was striking out batters with greater frequency than before. He closed May with back-to-back games with double-digit strikeout totals, a career first, then spun a seven-hit shutout on June 2 against the Cardinals, part of a 32.2-inning scoreless streak that ended in the ninth inning of his June 13 start against the Rays, a complete-game one-hitter in which he set a new high with 12 strikeouts. He improved upon that his next time out, with a one-hit, 13-strikeout shutout of the Orioles, making him the first pitcher to string back-to-back one-hitters together since the Blue Jays’ Dave Stieb did so in September 1988, when he came within one strike of a no-hitter in consecutive outings. For a six-start span totaling 48.2 innings running from May 22 through June 18, Dickey allowed just two runs (one earned) while striking out 63 and walking just five.

That run helped Dickey make the NL All-Star team; he finished the first half 12-1, with a 2.40 ERA, but it was Matt Cain (another 2023 ballot first-timer) who got the start; Dickey threw a scoreless sixth inning in the NL’s 8-0 win, surrendering a single to Mike Trout but striking out Mark Trumbo and inducing Miguel Cabrera to ground into a double play. Though he soon came back to earth via a 5.13 ERA in July, Dickey won his 20th game in his penultimate start, becoming the first knuckleballer since Joe Niekro in 1980 to reach the plateau. He finished 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA and 5.7 WAR (both second in the league) while leading with 233.2 innings and 230 strikeouts; his rate had jumped from 5.8 per nine to 8.9 (and from 15.3% to 24.8%). He claimed 27 out of 30 first-place votes in the Cy Young balloting, becoming the first knuckleballer ever to win the award.

As if Dickey’s public profile needed another boost, in September 2012, a documentary called Knuckleball that centered on Dickey’s journey premiered. Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, the film shone a light on the brotherhood of the pitch’s living practitioners including Bouton, Hough, Niekro, and Wakefield along with Tom Candiotti and Wilbur Wood.

Even with Dickey’s fantastic performance, the Mets went just 74-88 in 2012, their fourth straight year with a win total in the 70s. By this point, they were reeling from the fallout of the Bernie Madoff scandal, which stretched the team’s finances and led to drastic payroll slashing. Between their 2011 and ’12 Opening Days, the Mets shed about $48 million in salaries (about 34%) according to Cot’s Contracts; the cuts included the mid-2011 trades of Carlos Beltrán and Francisco Rodríguez (two more ballot first-timers), as well as the free agent departure of José Reyes. With Dickey having shown that he was worth far more than his $5 million option for 2013, and with the Mets unwilling to meet the $20-24 million he reportedly sought via a two-year extension, the team shopped him.

In December, an unnamed Mets team official voiced displeasure at Dickey speaking publicly about contract negotiations at a Mets holiday function at Citi Field, and fretted over the pitcher’s increasing celebrity, as if the Wilpons didn’t make the airing of grievances via the media a year-round activity. Less than a week later, Dickey was traded to the Blue Jays as part of a seven-player blockbuster whose return was headlined by top prospects Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud. The swap was completed only after Dickey and the Blue Jays agreed to a two-year, $25 million extension with a $12 million option for 2016.

North of the border, Dickey couldn’t come close to matching what he’d done with the Mets, in part because the velocity of his knuckler quickly began to wane, dropping from an average of 77.1 mph in 2012 to 75.6 in ’13. Though he proved to be extremely durable, making a total of 101 starts and throwing 654.2 innings over the 2013-15 seasons, he managed just a 3.95 ERA (101 ERA+) for the stretch, with a high of 4.21 in ’13 and a low of 3.71 the following year.

Dickey did win a Gold Glove in 2013, and posted his highest WAR of the period in ’15 (2.6) while helping the Blue Jays win the AL East and make their first postseason appearance since 1993. In his postseason debut, he allowed one run in 4.2 innings against the Rangers in Game 4 of the Division Series, though he got the hook after just 78 pitches, a move with which he was understandably less than thrilled. David Price picked up the win via his three wobbly innings of piggyback relief work. The win sent the series back to Toronto, where José Bautista’s bat flip home run proved decisive, but the Blue Jays were eliminated by the Royals in the ALCS. Dickey couldn’t make it out of the second inning in his Game 4 start, getting tagged for two homers and five runs before departing. The Royals would go on to beat the Mets — for whom both Syndergaard and d’Arnaud played key roles — in the World Series.

Dickey’s value as an innings-eater was still high enough that the Blue Jays picked up the 41-year-old hurler’s option, but the returns diminished as his ERA ballooned to 4.46, his strikeout rate dropped from 18.9% to 14.3%, and his WAR dipped to just 0.4. He finished the season in the bullpen, and when the Blue Jays claimed a Wild Card berth and advanced all the way to the ALCS, he was left off the roster. Near the end of his run, emotions ran high regarding his tenure in Toronto, with SportsNet’s Shi Davidi describing the trade to acquire him “former GM Alex Anthopoulos’ most polarizing move.” More from the pitcher himself:

“It’s been a real balancing act for me to walk the line between what people might expect of me because of past successes and what I was traded for,” said Dickey. “On the other side is what I feel like I can consistently bring to a ball club if given an opportunity. So there’s been that balancing act for me, how not to hang on to a lot of the negativity around, ‘Well this guy won a Cy Young the year before, and he’s coming over here, he can only win 14 games, he’s got a four-ERA.’ And then there’s the other part, and I said it in my very first press conference, and that’s how can I be a trustworthy component on a championship team. That’s all I cared about.”

Though he had considered retirement, the difficult ending in Toronto “stoked the fire in me to keep playing,” Dickey later said. A week after hitting free agency, he signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the rebuilding Braves. He put together a season more in line with his 2013-15 ones than his ’16: 4.26 ERA in 190 innings, with 2.2 WAR. Believing that he was leaning towards retirement, the Braves declined their $8 million option for 2018. Dickey nonetheless expressed interest in returning or pitching for the Reds or Cardinals, two other teams relatively close to his Nashville home, but nothing ever came of it.

Where Dickey had picked up the knuckleball baton from Wakefield just as Wakefield had done from the likes of Hough, Candiotti, and the Niekro brothers, the pitch has now virtually disappeared. It was already nearly extinct; in 2012, Dickey was the only true pitcher who threw a single knuckleball in the majors according to either PITCHf/x or Pitch Info. Steven Wright, who debuted for the Red Sox in 2013, spent parts of seven seasons in the majors, but a knee injury and a suspension for domestic violence limited him to 60 innings in 2018-19, the first years of the post-Dickey era. The pitch has since become the province of position players pressed into mop-up duty, with Ryan Feierabend (2019) and Mickey Jannis (2021) the only true pitchers to try it at the major league level — and they combined for just nine innings in three appearances.

Without the right combination of boldness, desperation, and open-mindedness on the part of some pitcher and some team, we may have seen the last of the knuckleball at the major league level, at least outside the typical junkball assortment offered by position players in blowouts. All of which should help us fully appreciate what Dickey was able to accomplish in remaking himself by taming the butterfly pitch. He’s not Hall of Fame material, but he’ll hold onto the title of the Last Great Knuckleballer for the foreseeable future.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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1 year ago

Thanks for the write-up. R.A. Dickey was FUN to watch pitch.