Tuesday, December 4, 2012

For Want Of A Pitcher: R.A. Dickey.

I’d like to set the stage for this post with a brief review of the history of Dayton Moore at the Winter Meetings over the years, his successes (Joakim Soria, Gil Meche), his failures (pretty much everything else), and take my usual sweet time getting to the point.

But you know what? We don’t have time for that. The meetings are underway, the Royals could make a franchise-altering transaction – good or bad – at any moment, and I need to get this out there right now.

Four days ago, Jon Heyman reported that in addition to Jon Lester and James Shields, the Royals were looking at one other top starting pitcher in a trade – R.A. Dickey. Specifically, he wrote that “Kansas City has no interest in trading young catcher Salvador Perez and isn’t looking to trade top outfield prospect Wil Myers. The Royals would prefer to send the Mets a package of younger prospects in any Dickey deal.”

Dickey is only under contract for one more season, albeit at the bargain price of $5 million. He has reportedly been asking the Mets for an extension, and would settle for a two-year deal, but the two sides have been unable to agree on his asking price.

I want to make this clear to everyone: if the Royals are able to trade prospects (within reason) for Dickey, without surrendering Myers, and if they were able to work out a two-year extension for Dickey as part of the trade, it would be an absolutely effing coup. It would rank as one of the finest moves of Moore’s career, and one of the finest transactions any team will make this winter.

It would be such an astonishingly good move that I can’t believe there’s actually a chance – however slim – that it could happen.

Let’s review the reasons why:

1) R.A. Dickey is a #1 starter.

Dickey doesn’t fit the classic mold of a #1 starter, because he doesn’t fit the classic mold of any starter – he’s a knuckleball pitcher. But for God’s sake, he won the Cy Young Award this year. Maybe he wasn’t the best pitcher in the National League – Clayton Kershaw was probably a hair better – but (along with Johnny Cueto) he was clearly in the top three. That’s an ace.

I appreciate a good scouting discussion of what constitutes a true “ace” pitcher as much as anyone, but it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees. Dickey’s fastball averaged 83 mph on the rare occasions he threw it. He’s 38 years old, and when he turned 35 years old he had 22 career wins and a 5.43 ERA in 443 innings as a conventional pitcher. And all of that is irrelevant, because he throws a knuckleball now, and (as I’ll get to later) even by the unique standards of that pitch, Dickey throws it in a way that’s unprecedented.

And the results are fantastic. He made 33 starts and threw 234 innings this year, struck out 230 batters (all three figures led the NL), allowed just 192 hits and 54 walks. He was a little homer-prone, with 24 homers allowed, an issue that goes with the territory of throwing a knuckleball. But Dickey finished with a 2.73 ERA in a league-leading number of innings. He combines quantity with tremendous quality. At his peak this summer, he was doing things no pitcher has done since, I dunno, Pedro Martinez at his very best. From May 22nd to June 18th, a span of six starts, Dickey threw 48.2 innings (over 8 innings a start), allowed 21 hits and 5 walks, allowed two runs (one unearned), and struck out 63 batters.

While Dickey has never been this good before, this wasn’t completely out of the blue; this wasn’t Esteban Loaiza’s 2003 season or something. In 2010, Dickey threw 174 innings for the Mets with a 2.84 ERA, and in 2011 he threw 209 innings with a  3.28 ERA. The biggest difference in 2012 was that his strikeout rate skyrocketed – he averaged 5.4 K/9 in 2010, 5.8 K/9 in 2011, and 8.9 K/9 in 2012. As a result, his hit rate dropped significantly – but his walk and home run rates were basically unchanged.

His BABIP the last three years goes .280, .285, and .280. Given that we know knuckleball pitcher historically are better than average in this regard, there’s nothing about his statistical record that screams fluke. Or even whispers it.

2) R.A. Dickey is a knuckleball pitcher.

This may seem obvious, but it has very important implications. The primary criticism I’ve heard about Dickey going forward is “he’s 38 years old!”, as if that means something.

My response to that is, “YES! EXACTLY! HE’S 38 YEARS OLD! THAT’S PERFECT!”

Honestly, sometimes I wonder if there’s some sort of force field that fogs people’s minds and causes them to downplay knuckleball pitchers. (Sort of like the force field that does the same thing with Salvador Perez, at least outside of Kansas City.) I’m not just referring to fans and analysts, but to people in the industry itself. The Mets, who just committed to David Wright for the next seven years, are apparently inclined to trade Dickey because they’re building for the future.

I’d like to tell them that they are apparently ignorant about the 100-year history of knuckleball pitchers in the major leagues, but if I did that they might change their minds, so I’ll just tell you instead.

Most knuckleball pitchers PEAK in their late 30s. The most successful knuckleball pitcher of the last 25 years was Tim Wakefield. Wakefield had his best season when he was 28, his first season with the Red Sox, when he had a 2.95 ERA in 195 innings – he accumulated 4.7 bWAR. His second-best season? In 2005…when he was 38 years old.

From ages 33 to 37, Wakefield was worth 10.5 bWAR. From ages 38 to 42, Wakefield was worth 12.4 bWAR. He was better at ages 41-42 than he was at ages 32-33.

Tom Candiotti is the other prominent knuckleball pitcher of the last quarter-century, but he wasn’t a strict knuckler, as he also threw a curveball a decent amount of the time. Candiotti had a pretty broad peak from ages 28 to 35, going over 4 bWAR six times in eight years, but was still effective until age 40, when he threw 201 innings with a 4.84 ERA in the height of the Juiced Era.

If we go back to the 1970s and 1980s, we see a lot more knuckleballers, and we see a lot more guys pitch well into their 40s. From age 38 to age 41, Phil Niekro led the NL in losses four years in a row.

That doesn’t sound good – until you realize he led the league in starts all four years, innings and complete games three times, and one year led the league in wins and losses. In 1978, age 39, Niekro went 19-18 with a 2.88 ERA in 334 innings. In 1979, he went 21-20 with a 3.39 ERA in 342 innings. It was a different era, of course, but even then his insane durability (averaging 43 starts and 335 innings a year from 1977 to 1979) stood out. In 1978, he was worth 8.6 bWAR, and in 1979 he was worth 9.6 bWAR.

Niekro would remain effective into his mid-40s. In 1985, he went 16-12 with a 4.09 ERA in 220 innings for the Yankees. He was 46 that year.

His younger brother Joe was never as good a pitcher as Phil, but Joe also was effective into his 40s. Joe had the best season of his career in 1982 (2.47 ERA in 270 innings, 6.5 bWAR), when he was 37, and from 1983 to 1985 averaged 37 starts, 246 innings, and a 3.44 ERA. In 1986, at age 41, he started to lose it.

Charlie Hough was a reliever for the first decade of his career, and didn’t start regularly until 1982, when he was 34. From 1982 through 1988, when he turned 40, Hough threw at least 228 innings with an ERA under 4 every year – pitching in Texas, no less. He was worth at least 2.6 bWAR every year. He began a slow decline in 1989, at age 41, but as late as 1993 he was the Marlins’ first-ever starting pitcher, and at age 45 threw 204 innings with a 4.27 ERA.

With the exception of Candiotti, who wasn’t a pure knuckleball pitcher, every one of these guys was a well-above-average starting pitcher at least through his age 40 season. (And Dickey, keep in mind, just had his best season at 37 – Candiotti was already in decline at that point.) Dickey wants a two-year extension that would cover him from ages 38 to 40? That’s perfect.

3) The price tag on Dickey is affordable.

Admittedly, the evidence for this point is not quite as rock-solid as the first two, because we don’t know exactly what it will take to get Dickey, both in terms of prospects in trade, and in terms of dollars in an extension.

But the mere fact that Dickey could be in play without having trade Wil Myers, and without having to trade any established player already on the Royals’ roster, means that his price tag is less than that of Lester or Shields. There’s good reason for that – he’s only under contract for one year, not two. But on the other hand, if he comes close to replicating his 2012 performance, Dickey would provide nearly as much value in one season as the other two might provide in two seasons.

Shields, 2011-2012: 6.9 bWAR
Dickey, 2012 only: 5.6 bWAR
Lester, 2011-2012: 4.5 bWAR

Dickey probably won’t pitch quite as well next year as he did this year, but the point is that he’s a better pitcher right now than the other two. Factor in that he only makes $5 million, and it’s a very legitimate question as to whether Lester at 2/$24 million or Shields at 2/$21 million should be worth any more on the trade market than Dickey at 1/$5 million.

But they do, for one simple reason: Dickey throws a knuckleball. As much progress as the industry has made over the last 10 years, it still has a blind spot when it comes to pitchers who throw unconventionally, and none more so than knuckleballers.

Furthermore, Dickey appears inclined to sign an extension, which makes sense for a pitcher who is 38 years old and has never had a huge payday in his career. (Even his signing bonus as a first-round pick was slashed after a pre-signing physical revealed he was born without an ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.)

I’ve done my best to research what kind of money Dickey is looking for in an extension. On the high end, I’ve read that he would be willing to sign for “slightly less” than Jake Peavy’s contract (2 years, $29 million). On the low end, I’ve read suggestions he would settle for $10 million a year for the additional two years.

Let’s split the difference and say Dickey would sign for 2 years, $25 million. This is on top of the one-year, $5 million he’s already under contract for, making this a 3-year, $30 million contract that would be paid $5 million/$11 million/$14 million.

Look familiar? That’s the exact structure of Jeremy Guthrie’s contract, except with a $5 million higher payout in 2015. I’ve already made the case that Guthrie’s contract, while a little overpriced towards the end, is a reasonable deal for the Royals. If Guthrie’s deal is a C+ contract, what grade would you give to signing the defending NL Cy Young winner for about 20% more?

Dickey’s contract in 2013 is so affordable that it wouldn’t even preclude the Royals from signing another pitcher in free agency. If it’s true (as Danny Knobler reports) that the Royals are actually willing to make a competitive offer for Anibal Sanchez, then how about instead trading for Dickey and signing Shaun Marcum as well? Suddenly, you have a rotation of Dickey, Marcum, Guthrie, Santana, and Bruce Chen or Luis Mendoza. That would be an absolutely phenomenal revamping of the Royals’ rotation in a single off-season. Though tragically, it would mean that they’d have to let Luke Hochevar go.

(I don’t want to spend too much time on Luke, but just to reiterate what I’ve been saying all year: bringing him back is a mistake. Bringing him back at $4.4 million, or whatever he’ll get in arbitration, is a huge mistake. The Royals not only brought him back, but judging from their most recent comments, still have yet to acknowledge the essence of his flaw: that he can’t pitch with men on base. “I’ve never really had a player,” [Ned Yost] said, “who I couldn’t figure out why he hasn’t been successful. Again, you can, generally, identify one thing for why a player isn’t successful. With Hoch, I can’t.”

Luke Hochevar, bases empty: .252/.313/.425
Luke Hochevar, men on base: .304/.372/.480
Luke Hochevar, runners in scoring position: .315/.388/.504

Any questions?)

Acquiring R.A. Dickey while simultaneously signing him to an extension would be an absolutely franchise-changing move for the Royals. It would dramatically impact their chances of contending in 2013, and still leave them with an above-average starting pitcher signed to a favorable contract in 2014 and 2015.

Is there risk with Dickey? Of course; he’s a pitcher. He might get hurt, although knuckleball pitchers are almost immune to the sorts of injuries that befell pitchers. (And Dickey doesn’t have an ulnar collateral ligament, so he can’t tear it! No Tommy John for him!) Also, Dickey’s knuckleball is quite possibly unique in the annals of major league baseball. Rob Neyer wrote an absolutely fantastic piece on Dickey in June, making a very strong case that Dickey throws his knuckleball harder than any previous knuckleball pitcher ever. It’s possible that, since his knuckleball relies on velocity more than Wakefield’s or Niekro’s, that Dickey might lose his effectiveness more quickly with age.

On the other hand, the fact that Dickey’s knuckleball is different than theirs would explain why it’s also better than theirs. Inning for inning, Dickey was as effective in 2012 as any knuckleballer in history. (Niekro had better seasons, but that’s because he was throwing more than 300 innings a year.) Also, Dickey threw the knuckleball harder in 2012 than he had in 2011 or 2010, which might also explain why he was better this year than ever before. (His knuckler averaged 77.2 mph this year, compared to 76.0 and 75.8 the last two years.) If that’s the case, than it’s possible that he unlocked the key to a pitching talisman this season, and that 2012 might represent just the first year of a long, extended run as one of the best pitchers in the game.

Also, trading for Dickey would mean that either Salvador Perez has to learn to catch the knuckleball, or the Royals will need a devoted catcher for him. Given that Perez tore his knee last spring training reaching for an errant pitch, I vote for the latter – which would also give Perez the benefit of only having to catch about 130 games, keeping Yost from the temptation of running his star catcher into the ground.

But really, these are nitpicks. Dickey is one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, and the fact that he’s not perceived to be that way creates an enormous market inefficiency that the Royals should do their damndest to exploit.

The Mets are reportedly looking for catching and outfield help, preferably close at hand. The problem is that, if Myers isn’t on the table, there’s not a great fit here. The Royals ain’t trading Salvador Perez, and they don’t have any top catching prospects in the organization. In the outfield, after Myers their best prospect is Jorge Bonifacio, who will probably start the year in high-A and is at least 18 months away from the majors.

If that’s not a dealbreaker, I’d be willing to offer Bonifacio, Yordano Ventura, and the requisite minor league relief prospect in exchange for Dickey. That would give the Mets two of the top eight prospects from a deep farm system for one year of Dickey. From the Royals’ standpoint, losing both players hurts, but Ventura might end up in the bullpen one day, and Bonifacio probably wouldn’t join the team until 2016 anyway.

If the Mets can’t wait that long for an outfielder, then I’d be willing to float the idea of trading Lorenzo Cain. Cain is under contract for five more years, and is a league-average centerfielder right now – what he lacks in upside, he gains in certainty. If Cain’s in the deal, you probably wouldn’t have to give up a Ventura-level second prospect. Let’s say Cain, Kyle Smith, and a minor league reliever. A major-league ready centerfielder and a potential #3 starter is a nice return for Dickey, but one the Royals could absorb. The dropoff from Cain to Jarrod Dyson in center is manageable, although the Royals would have to get a platoon partner for him in free agency.

But this is a deal that absolutely needs to get done. The amazing thing is that, unlike just about every bold move that I propose for the Royals, there’s actually a chance that it might. The Royals are talking to the Mets, and appear to be one of the front-runners to get Dickey – if the Mets decide to trade him.

This is doubly astonishing because trading for a knuckleball pitcher represents pretty much the antithesis of the Royals’ approach for the last 25 years. The knuckleball is the victory of results over form, of statistics over scouting. The knuckleball is almost impossible to scout – scouts themselves will tell you that the only way they can tell the quality of a knuckleball is by how awkward the swings are from the batters. The knuckleball thumbs its nose at everything a baseball organization is taught to value in a pitcher – velocity, command, predictable movement. The only thing a knuckleball does is get results.

Through three GMs and countless managers, the one thread that has tied together the failure of the Royals to win over the last 25 years has been their unwillingness to accept that style doesn’t equate to substance. Big athletic guys that swing at pitches in the dirt will lose to smaller, slower hitters who know the strike zone. The Dayton Moore front office has been no more willing to embrace unconventional baseball paradigms than its predecessors. Acquiring R.A. Dickey would go against pretty much everything they stand for. Which is why it’s especially intriguing that they’re considering it anyway.

Back when the Royals were winning, back in the 1980s, they had a pitcher who, like Dickey, threw his fastball in the low 80s. He didn’t throw a knuckleball, but he threw from a submarine position, and he threw with insane precision, and he got people out, and so the Royals kept letting Dan Quisenberry pitch, and he was one of the greatest relief pitchers of all time. The organization lost its way around the time they stopped seeing guys like Quisenberry for what they were and started caring about what they looked like.

Dickey looks like a batting practice pitcher on the mound – and Cy Young in the box score. His pitches look like meatballs for 58 feet – and then perform magic for the last two. So I’m excited that the Royals, in their desperation for starting pitching, are willing to overlook what Dickey doesn’t do in favor of what he does.

But not nearly as excited as I’ll be if they actually acquire him.