12:13 pm Jul. 5, 2012
There is something undeniably romantic about the New York Mets using R.A. Dickey even more than they do now.
Dickey, the heroic 37-year-old with the magic pitch, has been the National League's best pitcher this year. So, out of context, getting him on the mound even more sounds like both a good thing for the Dickey narrative, and a net gain for baseball.
But the idea has significant risks, and would give the Mets a negligible benefit, at best.
Let's explore exactly why adding more workload to Dickey's 2012 season is potentially problematic.
He's a 37-year-old pitcher who needed painkillers prior to each start simply to get through the 2011 season.
The only reason it's assumed he could handle the extra work is that he throws a knuckleball, which traditionally takes much less of a toll on the arm. Former knuckleballers, who mostly floated the ball across the plate, were able to eat up far more innings than their conventional counterparts who threw the usual array of fastballs and curveballs. But Dickey throws a harder knuckleball than nearly any previous practitioner of the pitch, so the conventional wisdom might not apply to him. And we don't really know how much that toll is mitigated, because no one's ever thrown a knuckleball as hard as Dickey.
It isn't as if he's been rubber-armed in his starts this season. Like more conventional starting pitchers, his success has come the first two times through the order, allowing an O.P.S.—which combines an opponents' on-base percentage and slugging percentage—of .436 the first time through, .505 the second time through. The third time through, Dickey has allowed an O.P.S. of .789. Either hitters are suddenly figuring out the knuckleball, or he's tiring as his starts begin to stretch.
Dickey has thrown more than 100 pitches in seven of 16 starts, but not many more; he's pitched past 106 just three times, with a single-game high of 117 pitches.
Even if the additional Dickey innings produce identical success to the ones Dickey has given the Mets so far in 2012, they'd be risking all of that for a negligible benefit. Consider that Dickey's E.R.A. in 2012 is a league-best 2.15. But the collective E.R.A. of the other four Mets starters—Johan Santana, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee and Chris Young—is 3.48. So if we assume identical production from those four, the extra Dickey starts from short rest, approximately 5-6 of them over the final half of the season, would give the Mets a net advantage of approximately six runs, total.
That's not much of an advantage for the risk of disrupting and further taxing the team's most valuable arm.
The same is true by utilizing him out of the bullpen. If Dickey simply throws an inning in relief on each of the days he would normally throw a side session in the bullpen, and those innings are as effective as his starts, he'll give the Mets 16 innings of 2.15 E.R.A. pitching. The bullpen, baseball's worst, has posted an E.R.A. of 5.11 so far this year. So the difference would produce a net for the Mets of approximately five runs, total, or roughly the same as starting him every fourth day.
But they can accomplish a similar upgrade by adding another reasonably effective reliever, who could give the Mets better results from the bullpen, and be utilized when needed most, not just on whatever day Dickey's side sessions would occur. After all, the Mets could be locked in a close game just after Dickey starts, and a blowout when he is eligible to pitch in relief, limiting the value of his extra innings further.
In total, this is the kind of idea that doesn't make a whole lot of sense in practice. Only the fact that Dickey has upended all conventional wisdom to date, and the fun factor of seeing him do so with the very concept of pitcher rest itself, argues for it. But team decisions shouldn't hinge on the fun factor.