Mets ace R.A. Dickey explains his unmiraculous success

R.A. Dickey. (Photo by paul.hadsall via flickr)
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The fact that R.A. Dickey has been the Mets’ best pitcher in 2010—and pretty much the only bright spot in another disappointing season—seems to be a shock to everyone but him.

His success borders on nonsensical: he’s almost 36 years old, and he was never particularly good before this year. (Lifetime earned-run average, pre-2010: 5.43.)

But to Dickey, this season is the perfectly logical culmination of “a natural progression” that began when he learned to throw a knuckleball five years ago.

“I’ve always, even in ’05, thought of myself as eventually being in this spot,” Dickey said. “So this hasn’t taken me by surprise.”

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The way he plays is not spectacular, or even particularly athletic-looking. Aside from the occasional not-particularly-fast fastball, he has one pitch—the knuckler—that rarely travels faster than about 75 miles an hour.

Yet at times he’s been close to unhittable. His 2.64 E.R.A. this season leads all Mets starters, ahead of even Johan Santana. He’s averaging more than six strikeouts per nine innings, and just 2.2 walks. He threw a one-hit shutout, and is averaging nearly 6.7 innings per start, making him both effective and prolific.

A tall man with unruly hair and an exceedingly relaxed bearing, Dickey only began throwing a knuckleball out of desperation to find a way to stay in the game. That he can pitch at all is somewhat miraculous. When he was drafted by the Texas Rangers out of college—he was an English major at the University of Tennessee—the team found that Dickey did not have an ulnar collateral ligament, and cut his bonus offer from $810,000 to $75,000.

Success came gradually after Dickey learned the pitch from Charlie Hough, a former knuckleball-throwing major leaguer. His numbers improved each season in the minor leagues. But finding regular opportunities in the majors proved to be difficult, and in the brief chances he had, he struggled.

So now his journeys have landed him in New York, and he has become the staff ace, or close to it. And although this season looks like another bust for the Mets, he may well be the key to the their ability to be competitive in the near future as well. (In another rarity for a player Dickey’s age, he has yet to accumulate the six years of service time needed to declare free agency. So the Mets, as long as they offer him arbitration, control him for next season.)

Dickey said he prefers not to think too much about what happens beyond this year.

“I’ve tried to be in the moment as much as possible,” Dickey said as we chatted by his locker prior to Thursday night’s game. “I think at the end of the season, I’ll be able to reflect.”

Still, after spending a decade and a half bouncing around the minor leagues, he’s in a particularly good position to appreciate what he’s got going at the moment.

“I do feel like as I have gotten older, and grasped a better understanding of what is important, it has made this experience very rich,” Dickey said. “On reflection, I don’t think I would have had the equipment, or possessed what it took, to enjoy the experience this deeply. It gives you real empathy for what it takes to get here, and I don’t take that lightly.”

Another function of his age, maybe, is that he’s remarkably self-aware, and frank, about the reasons for his success. One of them is simply that he’s figured out a way to play the game that’s not too hard on his body.

“I recover very quickly, because as a knuckleballer, I don’t operate at 100 percent capacity,” Dickey said. “So it allows me to work on my craft a little bit more, because it doesn’t take as much of a toll on my arm.”

As a result, after a day of rest, Dickey throws an 80-pitch bullpen session. Not only is that many more pitches than most starters manage to throw in between outings, the nature of Dickey’s repertoire—an overwhelming majority of knuckleballs, with the occasional fastball—means those eighty pitches go toward honing a single pitch.

“That goes a long way to keep building that muscle memory,” Dickey said of the sessions. “It’s proven to be very beneficial—makes it much more of an organic experience. It hasn’t been me fighting my mechanics on the mound, as it’s been in years past.”

Another reason for his success this year is that, in addition to his durable style of play, he’s gotten himself into good shape. After throwing just 97 2/3 innings in 2009, Dickey put himself through a very different winter regimen to improve his stamina.

“Last year, I came to camp as a 35-year-old in the best physical shape of my career,” Dickey said. “I’ve implemented a cross-training regimen that centers around the exercises and the training that you would do for triathlons. I bought a bike when I got home from the end of the season last year, and began riding. That got me into phenomenal shape, and I continued from there.”

The resulting combination has Dickey on pace for something he’s never had in his career, major or minor leagues: 200 innings pitched. Between his 126 1/3 with the Mets, and 60 2/3 in Triple-A Buffalo, Dickey has already logged 187 this season.

“I’ll have well over 200 innings at the end of the year, and that’s something that I hope becomes commonplace,” Dickey said.

The historical precedent for this is telling, if not necessarily predictive. Phil Niekro had 12 seasons in which he pitched more than 200-plus innings after age 35, his brother Joe had four, Charlie Hough had seven, and Tim Wakefield has had two and counting. Two facts about this group: all of them threw the knuckleball, and none of them had close to the control displayed this year by Dickey.

The future of the Mets may be a 35-year-old man with a beard and one pitch, who will no doubt be telling himself the whole time that there's nothing remarkable about that whatsoever.