R.A. Dickey is having an amazing season pitching for a team that's got no hope of making the playoffs.
It's that time of year when fans of most baseball teams try to decide if there's anything left to hope for. That's what makes baseball different from most other sports. In football or basketball when your team is hopelessly out of contention, there's not much to do except give in to despair. But in baseball there are still individual players to root for and their records to think about.
The fans of the New York Mets have a real big one to occupy their minds and possibly console themselves with: Robert Allen Dickey. As the Mets get ready to play the Cincinnati Reds tonight with Dickey on the mound, they have a 55-61 record and are 16.5 games behind the front-running Washington Nationals in the National League East without a realistic shot at even a wild card slot.
For Mets fans, the year has been doubly disheartening. Last season, as team owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon staved off the threat of a disastrous financial meltdown due to their business dealings Bernie Madoff, fans stayed away in droves. No one, after all, expected anything from a team that had let its best player, NL batting champ Jose Reyes, go to free agency without even an offer.
Then, as Opening Day approached, the Madoff-related lawsuits were settled and something strange happened at Citifield. The Mets, with a roster of players obscure even to their fans, began to win. At the All-Star break, they were a respectable 46-40 and just 4.5 games behind the Nationals. But suddenly, things changed. As if in mockery of their fan's hopes, the Mets have won only 9 of the 30 games since the All-Star break. Last night, after holding the Central-division leading Cincinnati Reds scoreless for 8 innings, lost a 3-0 heartbreaker in the bottom of the ninth.
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And yet, despite these enormous setbacks, the Mets have the league's best pitcher and the worthiest candidate for most valuable player: pitcher R.A. Dickey.
Dickey has a 15-3 record with a 2.72 ERA. He is leading the league in victories, strikeouts, shut-outs with two, and complete games with four. (He's the only NL pitcher who has completed more than two games.) In games where Dickey has not been involved in the decision, the Mets are 40-57. Let's say the same thing another way: Dickey's win-loss percentage is .833, while the W-L of the rest of the Mets' pitching staff is .444, a difference of 389 points. No other pitcher in the National League, or in all of baseball—no other player at any position—has meant as much to his team as Dickey has to the Mets this season.
Of course, baseball analysts are quick to point out that you can't always trust a pitcher's win-loss percentage or gage his value by it—he might be the beneficiary of extraordinary good luck in the form of run support or excellent relief pitching. In Dickey's case, though, neither is true. The Mets are a mediocre hitting team, seventh in the NL in runs scored, and dead last in bullpen ERA. Both stats indicate that Dickey's victories are attributable not to luck but to his own ability. In fact, the Mets' bullpen is so bad that Dickey's only chance of getting a win is to either complete it himself or go so far into a game that the Mets' relievers have little opportunity to blow it for him. That may be why his average of seven innings per start is the highest in the NL.
And yet, Dickey's chances of winning either the Cy Young or the MVP are slim. The reasons have nothing to do with logic and everything to do with old-fashioned baseball prejudices. Pitchers do, sometimes, win the MVP vote, but there's a hard block of purists who insist that a player should be on the field every day to qualify as MVP, no matter how valuable he has been to his team.
As for the Cy Young, Dickey is up against an almost absurd bit of bigotry: at least 90 percent of his pitches are knuckleballs, according to the Mets. No pitcher who throws the floater has ever been voted best pitcher in either league. Of course, there haven't been all that many. "It's a hard pitch to learn to throw," Jim Bouton—who resuscitated his own major league career by learning to throw the pitch after he blew his arm out throwing fastballs—told me. "It's so hard to throw that no one really tries to learn it until he's near the tail end of his career and can't throw the hard stuff anymore."
That description pretty much fits R.A. Dickey, who is 37 years old and has fought off arm trouble to extend a big-league career that began in 2001. The knuckleball, which is thrown with the tips of the fingers instead of the knuckles—no one is quite sure how it got its name—makes fewer revolutions as it approaches home plate, giving the illusion that it's riding on air. Until, that is, gravity kicks in and the ball drops sharply. Or, sometimes doesn't. The very unpredictability is what makes it dangerous for the pitcher and the catcher as well as the hitter. "A lot of old baseball guys," says Bouton, "don't really regard throwing the knuckleball as a skill. They think if it as a kind of gimmick, a trick. If you beat them with it, they somehow feel that it wasn't legitimate."
Dickey's knuckleball, though, is less tricky than the ones thrown by previous knuckleball greats such as Hoyt Wilhelm, "The Baron of the Butterfly," who threw it for 21 seasons, and, more recently, Phil Niekro, who lasted in the majors for an incredible 23 years. Both men are in the Hall of Fame.
Observers who have seen them all say that Dickey's pitch is faster—"a hard knuckleball," is the way the Dodgers' legendary announcer Vin Skully described it when the Mets were in Los Angeles earlier this summer—and easier for the catcher to hold on to. Dickey may have stumbled on an entirely new pitch, one that he doesn't even understand the full ramifications of. When he appeared recently at the Yogi Berra Museum on the campus of Montclair State University in New Jersey, someone asked him if he "invented the pitch or discovered it." With a smile and a shrug, Dickey replied, "If I was going to invent it, I'd have invented it about 10 or 12 years ago."
If Dickey wins tonight and continues his success for the remainder of the season, he may overcome baseball's long-standing bigotry towards his pitch. He may also be in a position to add several years to his career: The knuckleball puts so little strain on a pitcher's arm that Wilhelm and Niekro both pitched until they were 49. His longevity could also get a boost if the Mets, as currently rumored, switch Dickey to the bullpen next year, where he could regularly pitch two-inning relief stints, potentially changing the Mets' bullpen from the worst to best in the league in a single year.
For now, though, Mets fans want Dickey to stay in the rotation so they have something to root for as he completes what could be the best season by a starting pitcher since Sandy Koufax was at his peak.
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