Saturday, September 29, 2012

We Saw What We Came to See

My old—as in long-time, although we did discuss being middle-aged—college buddy Lee and I went out to Citi Field with hopes of seeing R.A. Dickey win his 20th game for the New York Mets.  The knuckleballer succeeded in his attempt, despite Jon Rauch giving up a ninth inning, two-run homer that cut the lead to a single run.
Box Score

Thursday's game was the first that Lee had seen at Citi Field, although he once worked on a Dunkin' Donuts television spot there, even getting the opportunity to shag flies in the outfield.  Mets manager Terry Collins says the 15-second commercial took five hours to shoot, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Photo credit: Baseball America
Dickey's story is such a great one, a model of perseverance.  Drafted in the first round and 18th overall by the Texas Rangers in 1996, the University of Tennessee and Team USA pitcher had been offered an $810,000 signing bonus.  Then, a team physician noticed Dickey's (second from left) throwing arm hanging at a strange angle in a photograph of Olympic team pitchers.
A subscriber to Baseball America at that time, I made the same observation.  My theory was something had made Dickey flinch, perhaps being pinched by the teammate to his right, just as the picture was being taken.  Just guys messing with each other, I hypothesized.
The truth was far more serious.  Upon examination it was found that Dickey was missing the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow of his throwing arm.  It is not known if he was born without one or it disintegrated when he was younger.  The Rangers reduced their offer to $75,000.
Dickey signed with the team, conscious that he was damaged goods, and made his debut in 2001, posting an 0-1, 6.75 record in 12 innings of relief.  The Rangers sent him down to Oklahoma City in 2002 where he improved to 8-7, with a 4.09 ERA over 154 innings of work.
Over the next four years Dickey would split his time between the Rangers and Triple-A but never with great success.  Refusing to quit, he spent 2005 refining his forkball into a full-fledged knuckle, which he debuted in Arlington on April 6, 2006.  The six home runs hit by the Tigers over 3.1 innings tied the modern era record of Tim Wakefield, also a knuckleballer.
Dickey spent the rest of the year back in Oklahoma City, where he had first pitched seven years earlier.  In 2007 a minor league contract with the Milwaukee Brewers sent Dickey to his home town of Nashville, where he had his best year to date; 13-6, 3.72.  Those numbers got him named Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year.
More minor league contracts would follow, more years divided between a big league team and its Triple-A affiliate.  The Mets were the last team to give Dickey a minor league deal, in 2010.  A fan might have judged him yet another also-ran signed during the years when the Wilpons couldn't or wouldn't invest in their team.
Dickey would prove that appraisal wrong. Pitching for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons on April 29, he gave up a lead-off single and then proceed to pitch the equivalent of a perfect game; 27 up, 27 down.
He debuted (above) with the Mets 20 days later and finished his 27-game season with the tenth best ERA in baseball, 2.84.  That was a career best, as were games started (26), wins (11), complete games (2), innings pitched (174.1), strikeouts (104), WHIP (1.19), and BAA (.252).
Dickey had a losing record last year (8-13), a stat that more correctly reflects the weak team (77-85) he played for.  His ERA was 3.28, good for 12th in the National League, and he once again had career bests in game starts (32), innings pitched (208.2) and strikeouts (134).
Which brings us to this year.  In seven games from late-May to late-June, Dickey threw 44.1 scoreless innings, far surpassing the existing team record of 31.2 set by Jerry Koosman in 1973.  On June 13 and 18, the fifth and sixth of these games, Dickey threw one-hitters in consecutive starts, the first pitcher to do so since 1988.  Not including the June 24 game, a loss to the Yankees, he struck out 63 while walking only three and yielding a single earned run, averaging eight innings per start.
Several times during the on-field post-game interview (above), the stadium began to chant, "Cy Young, Cy Young, Cy Young," expressing the opinion that Dickey should receive the award named for the Hall of Fame pitcher.  The Baseball Writers Association will cast their votes for the best pitcher in each league by this Friday.
It would be great if it went to the guy who could have walked away from baseball in 1996 and again ten years later, but stuck with it.  His numbers—20-6 in 32 starts, five complete games, 227.2 innings pitched, 222 strike-outs, 1.05 WHIP, and 225 BAA—are generally comparable to Gio Gonzalez's stats, but his dominance over those six games in May and June are why I think he deserves it.

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