Well, it’s been a rough couple days for fans of the Toronto Blue Jays. The Trouble Header on Thursday against the Minnesota Twins was terrible. As hard as it might be, let’s forget about the second game’s implosion and look to the first game for today’s discussion. The first game of Thursday’s disappointment featured R.A. Dickey and his “capricious animal”- the knuckleball. [Ed. Note: For more on the Blue Jays and their relationship with the knuckleball, check out "Knuckleball U."]
We’ve all heard how the knuckleball has a mind of its own. Dickey himself will tell you that. But the way he was throwing it Thursday looked like he had no control over it at all. The cold weather probably messed with his ability to grip the ball. Dickey was so wild, the first inning took 30 pitches to get through. He went to at least a full count on 8 batters. He seemed to have figured it out a bit more over the next couple innings. But then trouble came in the 5th. Many feel that John Gibbons left Dickey in far too long. It was clear that he was struggling. There was ample opportunity to pull Dickey from the game when the game was still within reach. Gibbons did not. When the inning was over, the Twins had scored 5 runs and Dickey was pulled anyway.
The same thing happened in Dickey’s previous start against the Houston Astros. Dickey had a 2-1 lead heading in to the 7th inning. He gave up a double to Matt Dominguez and then promptly walked Robbie Grossman. The Blue jays were clearly concerned as pitching coach, Pete Walker made a visit to the mound. Then, the very next batter, Jonathan Villar drops a 3-run bomb. Granted, Dickey struck out the next batter and got a ground ball come-backer to end the inning. But, the damage had been done: the lead was already lost.
Gibbons’ lack of action in these two games has got me thinking about a few things. Why is Dickey given such a long leash? Exactly how much pull does Dickey have? Is there a hidden reason for the Blue Jays to indulge their “star” players?
We’ve seen over the last year and a bit that the Blue Jays seem to be passionately in love with R.A. Dickey. There seems to be a lot of leeway for Dickey to pitch through rough outings. Perhaps, due to his lack of a UCL in his pitching elbow, they aren’t worried about wearing him out. Maybe the Blue Jays see him as a rest for the bullpen every five days regardless of his performance.
Or, is it because of his 2012 Cy Young award? Has he earned that much respect? It is conceivable that once a player wins an award that says they were the best pitcher that year, it buys them a longer leash in the future? But, where does that leash end? Since joining the Blue Jays, Dickey’s numbers (all stats from BaseballReference.com) are good, but not great. In 2013, he went 14-13 with a 4.21 ERA. He made 34 (!) starts with 3 complete games. He gave up 35 HR and 71 BB. Thus far in 2014, Dickey is 1-3 with a 6.26 ERA, a 6.26 ERA and 15 (!) walks in 4 starts.
Baseball is very much a “What have you done for me lately” business. A player’s worth is based on what he is able to do in recent memory. For Blue Jays fans, recent memory does not look so good. Dickey has not exactly lived up to his Cy Young caliber resume. Over his tenure in Toronto, he’s not been the force we all hoped
expected he would be. Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com gives us the following as evidence of Dickey’s recent performance:
“Dickey now has 15 walks in 23 innings this season, which trails only Philadelphia’s A.J. Burnett for most in the Major Leagues. From 2010-12 with the Mets, he averaged just 2.2 walks per nine innings, he saw that number rise to 2.8 with the Blue Jays last season, and this year it’s at a startling 5.9…”
With these numbers, one could argue that the only consistent thing about Dickey is that he makes his starts. He’s been up and down since he won his Cy Young award. Do his numbers warrant such a long leash?
Something else that strikes me is the apparent pull Dickey seems to have regarding the backup catcher role. Josh Thole was awarded the backup job over Erik Kratz. The line is that Thole has experience catching the knuckleball from playing with Dickey with the New York Mets. Thole is a career .253 hitter who hit .175 last season. He made just one error last season. On the flip side, Kratz is a career .219 hitter who hit .213 last season. He also made just one error. So, the argument can be made that the team benefits more with Thole. And, since he can handle the knuckleball, he should be the logical choice. Yet, when you look at this spring, Kratz was clearly the better option. He was hot. Gibbons acknowledged that he played well enough to make the team. So, is it the knuckleball that rules? Or, are the Blue Jays trying to keep their “star” happy?
In preparing for this post, I came across a very interesting piece by Richard Griffin of The Star. Griffin too sees an interesting “pull” that Dickey seems to be able to exercise. In Griffin’s piece, he discusses how Dickey has been able to alter the entire starting rotation based on where the games are and where he is most comfortable pitching.
“McGowan struggled in his first start [this season], so facing the relatively punchless Astros would have helped him. Instead, on Thursday it was Dickey in the more predictable Dome and McGowan thrown to the wolves. One would think the staff ace should draw the tougher assignment…It was a Saturday in [last] July when Dickey pitched at the Rogers Centre against the Twins. Then, after a Monday off-day, just like this, he chose to pitch on his regular turn, the finale in Cleveland rather than on the Friday in Baltimore…Last year, Dickey bumped veteran Mark Buehrle to his seventh day”
It would appear that being seen as the staff “ace” Dickey has afforded a lot of input and control. The question is: Is this something the Blue Jays knew going in to a deal with the Mets and subsequently, Dickey?
In order to get Dickey from the Mets, they had to work out a contract extension. Obviously, they did. But, that brings up the challenge the Blue Jays are faced with when they pursue free agents. Players don’t seem to want to come to Toronto. They have to play on the turf, which is apparently what kept Carlos Beltran from signing. Taxes are much higher than in most other cities. And, there is the whole “winning” thing. As I discussed in my previous piece at Blue Jays From Away, there seems to be an unclear identity from ownership to guide this team. The Blue Jays are seen as a competitive team, but not a winning team. That has a huge impact on potential free agents.
Because of all of the above, the Blue Jays have to do other things to attract players. Firstly, money talks. They are forced in to a position of having to overpay for free agents. Since we know ownership is not keen to do that, they have to do something else. So, they may have to make players feel overly comfortable or special when they are here and hope they’ll turn into ambassadors for the team. That could mean providing them with little perks behind the scenes, or even giving them more input into the events or decisions on the field.
Obviously, it would behoove the Blue Jays to keep their players happy. The purpose of all of this is not to suggest they shouldn’t. The problem comes when keeping players happy costs the team a potential win. The damage of recent performances by Dickey could have been limited. The Blue Jays had to face another game Thursday evening and pulling Dickey in the 5th is obviously less than ideal. But in hindsight, it may have been the way to go. And, from the couch, hindsight is the only sight we have.
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