R.A. Dickey is one of three finalists for the NL Cy Young Award, which will be announced on Wednesday. According to rumors from last week, there’s also a chance that accepting the award will be the last thing he does in a Mets uniform. With just one year left on his contract, the Mets are exploring what it will take to re-sign him to a new deal, and simultaneously gauging his market value in order to determine whether or not they’re better off keeping him or trading him.
To me, the answer is pretty clear – they should keep R.A. Dickey for themselves.
The thought process behind trading him makes sense on the surface; he’s going to be 38-years-old next year, the Mets don’t look like contenders in 2013, and he’ll be a free agent at the end of next season. However, roster construction isn’t just a one year decision, and the Mets need to look at Dickey’s value beyond 2013 as well. And, because of the pitch that he specializes in, we need to throw away everything we think we know about a normal pitcher’s career after age 38.
Knuckleballers are a different breed, and history shows that their career trajectories don’t look anything like traditional pitchers. In fact, even heading into his age 38 season, there’s no reason to think that Dickey is anywhere near the end of his career.
I’ve identified 14 pitchers who were knuckleball specialists and threw at least 200 innings in the Major Leagues beyond their age 37 season, ranging from Phil Niekro’s 2,641 innings down to Freddie Fitzsimmons’ 265 innings. The average totals innings count for the group after age 37 is 1,001, or about five full seasons. And it’s not just Niekro artificially inflating the average by himself; the median result is 905 innings, and 10 of the 12 threw at least 550 innings. Knucklers who make it to age 38 simply don’t break down and stop pitching at 39 or 40. History shows that these pitchers can keep pitching well into their forties, and usually do.
And, the story gets even more optimistic for Dickey’s future when we look at how well those pitchers sustained their previous results after turning 38. Below is a list of the 12 knucklers who had careers after age 37, and how their age 38 and beyond performance compared with the results they got at age 37. We’re using ERA-, which is just their ERA compared to the league average in the particular season that they pitched, with 100 representing average and each point below that representing a percentage point better than league average.
Name Age 37 ERA- Age 38+ ERA-
Joe Niekro 74 107
Ted Lyons 77 71
Jesse Haines 77 92
Charlie Hough 79 98
Phil Niekro 88 94
Johnny Niggeling 88 81
Hoyt Wilhelm 89 62
Tom Candiotti 91 111
Freddie Fitzsimmons 96 86
Tim Wakefield 103 102
Dutch Leonard 106 77
Hal Brown 112 111
Average 90 91
As a group, their average ERA- after turning 38 was essentially identical to their age 37 ERA-, and seven of the 12 pitchers on the list actually prevented runs at a better rate after turning 38 than they did at 37. There’s no obvious performance degradation here, and we’re not just looking at their age 38 season, but their entire careers after 37, when they combined to post an ERA 10 percent better than the league average. We need to regress Dickey’s expectations for future performance based on the fact that he’s only had one amazing season, but history suggests that he’s not really anywhere close to the point where we need to start downgrading his performance because he’s just too old to keep pitching as well as he has previously.
Based on the average career length of previous knucklers who made it to this point, Dickey is probably capable of another four or five full seasons, barring some kind of fluke injury like the line drive to the kneecap that took out Freddie Fitzsimmons anyway. If he was a traditional fastball/breaking ball pitcher, he’d essentially be at a point on his career arc somewhere around 30-years-old, and no one would be wondering whether or not the Mets should sign up for a long term extension for their ace.
The Mets might not think they’re likely to be contenders in 2013, but given their market size and the fact that the Jason Bay albatross is off the books after this year, prematurely writing off 2014 and 2015 at this point is foolish. Especially with a strong group of pitchers behind Dickey, the Mets simply need to add a few more decent everyday players and they’ll be on the cusp of making a run at contention once again. While they might not be able to add all those players this winter, Sandy Alderson should be able to plan on incrementally improving the roster and looking at 2014 as a realistic opportunity to take a significant step forward.
And history suggests that Dickey should still be a highly effective pitcher in 2014, and probably even beyond that. The Mets should view Dickey as part of their long term solution, not a short term asset with an expiration date drawing ever closer. Knucklers age in whatever the opposite of dog years is, and 38 just isn’t all that old for this kind of pitcher. Unless the Mets plan on punting the rest of the decade, they should be able to see a scenario where Dickey helps pitch them into the playoffs. It might not happen next year, but Dickey could easily be part of the next good Mets team. And that should be enough reason to keep him around.