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R.A. Dickey and the Myth of One Great Year

Like many others, I’ve expressed some bewilderment on Twitter about how the Mets are handling their negotiations with R.A. Dickey. Dickey was one of the game’s best players in 2012, and the Mets were reportedly offering him the same kind of contract Joe Blanton just signed for, and have now improved their offer to make it equal to what Jeremy Guthrie just signed for. There’s a discount involved with signing an extension a year out from free agency, but the discount has to be reasonable, and these offers don’t strike me as overly reasonable. They don’t strike Dickey as overly reasonable either.

However, there’s a common retort from some folks whenever it is suggested that the Mets pay Dickey like a top-shelf starter. “It was just one year.” Here, see for yourself.

Apparently, there’s this idea that pre-2012 R.A. Dickey was a worthless nothing, and after his fluke season, he’s headed right back to being a trick pitch sideshow. That idea is just hilariously wrong.

61 pitchers threw at least 350 innings between 2010 and 2011. During those two years, Dickey posted an ERA- of 81, meaning that he prevented runs at a rate 19 percent better than the league average. We’re using ERA- for Dickey because knuckleballers have a long exhibited history of being an exception to FIP, by the way. That put him squarely between Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, and ahead of guys like Hiroki Kuroda, Dan Haren, Chris Carpenter, and Mat Latos. Not bad company.

However, most of those guys had been a little more consistent than Dickey, and had a track record of excellent pitching prior to 2010. His success is a little newer, so if we’re going to look at a comp for Dickey, we need to find a guy who really established himself for the first time in 2010. Thankfully, there’s a highly touted ace who has performed at nearly the exact same level as Dickey in each of the last three years, and his track record in terms of run prevention is a dead on match for Dickey; that guy is named David Price.

It might sound like heresy, but take a look at their last three seasons side by side.

Season Name IP K/BB HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA- FIP- xFIP-
2010 David Price 208 2.38 0.65 0.270 79% 69 86 92
2010 R.A. Dickey 174 2.48 0.67 0.276 77% 73 94 94
2011 David Price 224 3.46 0.88 0.281 73% 90 86 82
2011 R.A. Dickey 208 2.48 0.78 0.278 75% 89 101 103
2012 David Price 211 3.47 0.68 0.285 81% 66 77 75
2012 R.A. Dickey 233 4.26 0.92 0.275 80% 72 87 84

They got there different ways, but it’s hard to tell 2010 Dickey from 2010 Price. Their K/BB, HR/9, BABIP, and LOB% are all basically the same, and not surprisingly, they both were among the league leaders in run prevention; Price ranked #7 in MLB in ERA-, Dickey was #10.

In 2011, both went backwards in terms of results, as they both gave up more hits and home runs which led to lower strand rates, and again, they basically posted the same ERA-, though this time, it represented good results rather than great ones. Price’s problems stranding runners masked his breakout, though, as he drastically cut his walk rate and improved his overall profile. Dickey kept doing his thing, looking like basically the same pitcher as before, just with fewer stranded runners.

Then, last year, both Dickey and Price put it all together. They were again among the league’s best at preventing runs, but both did it with dramatically better peripherals than in 2010. Rather than just having ace-like results, both pitched liked aces, and were honored with Cy Young Awards for completing their first season as a legitimate #1 starter.

Because Price is a former #1 pick who throws 95 MPH, there’s no skepticism about his track record. No one ever refers to David Price as a one year wonder. But yet, when you actually look at his performance over the last three years, it’s hard to make a case that he’s been any different than Dickey. Over the total of his last three seasons, Price has an ERA- of 75, while Dickey has an ERA- of 78. The full list of pitchers with an ERA- between 75 and 80 over the last three years: David Price, Cole Hamels, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Gio Gonzalez, Matt Cain, and R.A. Dickey. That’s his group of peers, not based on one great year, but on three excellent seasons where Dickey has been one of the game’s best starters.

Yes, he was better last year than he had been in prior years. So was David Price. If you’re going to call one of them a one year wonder, you have to call them both a fluke. Personally, I’ll just go the other direction, and call both of them elite starting pitchers, worthy of all the adulation you want to throw their way. And, in Dickey’s case, worth the contract he’s asking for. Just stop lowballing him and pay the man. He’s earned it.