RAce Dickey?

With a name like How Do I Baseball?, I would be remiss to not introduce some philosophical musings to mull over. Is the DH ruining the game? Will PEDs forever tarnish the legacy of Roger Clemens, and his Hall of Fame bid? Will Roger Bernadina ever run a route to a flyball that doesn’t require GPS, and a three point turn?

What is an ace? Who is an ace?

Do we consider an ace to be a 20 game winner? Simply a team’s #1 starter in the rotation? Dominating fastball? Cy Young winner? There are a plethora of possible combinations to include in anyone’s determination of a pitcher’s Ace-worthiness. This season, one man has brought much discussion about what constitutes an ace, and whether he is an ace; knuckler extraordinaire, RA Dickey.

Not only a formidable hurler, he is a man of all occasions. Mountain climber, writer, and a man with no ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow are all superlatives that aptly describe Dickey. Could All Star Game starter, and Cy Young Award winner soon be added? His 2012 season is littered with numerous pitching feats that impress; almost no hitters, shutouts, wins galore, you name it. The dominance he has displayed in the first few months of the season is all the more impressive, knowing consistent command and control of the knuckleball is elusive, even for the best knucklers the game has seen.

There are a growing number of folks who consider Dickey, and his breakthrough 2012 season, to be worthy of ace status. There are many who think the labeling is premature. We touched upon it in our weekly podcast over at Citizens of Natstown, and on Twitter, but as with many philosophical dilemmas, the answer evades.

Yes or no? Perhaps? Here’s my take, taking some objective stats, sprinkling in a little subjectivity, and a comparison of Dickey’s performance against one pitcher who most consider an ace, and another hurler who is well on his way to Ace-dom, to determine Dickey’s place in the pecking order of pitchers.

Here’s our terrible trio: Justin Verlander, RA, and Stephen Strasburg. All have had sparkling seasons for the most part, with JV having a slightly off year thus far. However, he brings some very Ace-like properties to the table: Cy Young award winner, no-hitters, the works, really. Stras has had a rocky start to his career due to Tommy John surgery, but has shown this year why he was deserving of being the 2009 #1 draft pick, but also possibly of Ace status.

So, those numbers, for 2012.

W L IP H/9 BB/9 SO/9 HR ERA WAR Team W-L Run Support
Strasburg 9 1 84 7 2.4 11.8 6 2.46 2.5 12 – 2 4.4
Verlander 7 4 108.67 6.7 2.2 8.8 6 2.57 3.7 9 – 6 3.6
Dickey 11 1 99 6.1 1.9 9.4 8 2 3.5 12 – 2 5.4

Great 2012’s by all thus far, with Dickey leading the pack. Off to a good start, but now let’s have a look at current and past success, with a twist.

For this, I am using some personal opinion into what separates an Ace from just a good pitcher. Sure, 20 games are nice – but the record books are littered with 20 game winners that never made it to elite status (hi, Denny Neagle!), so it’s not really a great milestone to determine Ace-itude. Guys with big fastballs also don’t cut the mustard criteria-wise. Because Dickey throws a knuckleball, I feel that ‘stuff’ isn’t a great indicator of success, as Nationals fans can attest.  To me, an Ace is your horse, he’s going to be out there for all of his starts, and not only is he going to win his share of games, he’s also going to be the guy to right ship when losing streaks start to occur. He’s the guy the team is going to go into the game confident, knowing he is going bring home the W. So let’s see what our trio do after their team lost the night before.

Here’s 2012, post loss:

Player Win Loss IP H/9 BB/9 K/9 HR ERA aLI WPA
Strasburg 6 37 6.81 2.19 14.11 1 1.95 1.1 0.13
1 7 5 0 9 0 1.29 1.36 0.18
Verlander 5 34 5.29 2.91 11.38 1 1.59 1.01 0.2
3 20 10.35 0.9 8.1 3 4.95 0.91 -0.13
Dickey 6 42.33 7.02 1.49 10 2 1.49 0.98 0.21
2 10.33 9.58 3.48 9.58 4 9.58 0.91 -0.34

In 2012, they’re all getting it done… for the most part.

All have great W-L records, but we see that JV and Dickey post negative WPAs (Win Probability Added) in losses, and higher ERAs than team run support, while Stras brings positive value, even in losses. Dickey suffers greatly in losses, and creates a huge hole for the offense to dig the team out of; Mets hitters are plating half as many runs as RA gives up in the losses he posts after a previous night’s loss. Another damning stat against Dickey are the HR totals. He has given up twice as many HR’s in losses in a third of the innings pitched in wins, meaning that more than likely, he is the sole reason for those losses. There is no defense against home runs. For Strasburg in losses, we must preface his numbers with the fact we have a small sample size, with a n = 1, so we can’t really say much with just that single data point.

Dickey’s respectable 2011 season (8-13, 3.28 ERA, 3.1 WAR), Strasburg’s career numbers, and Verlander’s 2011 Cy Young season, and their performance after team losses are presented to compare and contrast what they’re doing in 2012. The rationale behind this was simply to get a snapshot of previous successful seasons in their entirety, which prompted using all of Strasburg’s numbers to compile a typical 30 or so starts per season to compare.

Year Player Win Loss IP H/9 BB/9 K/9 HR ERA aLI WPA Team W-L Run Support
Career Strasburg 16 90.33 6.28 2.39 13.35 5 1.99 0.98 0.13 19-13 4.23
5 30.66 7.34 1.17 7.05 1 3.52 1.05 0.07
2011 Cy Young Verlander 16 124.34 5.65 1.45 8.25 9 1.66 0.92 0.22 25-9 4.7
5 36.67 7.85 2.45 9.08 3 2.95 0.97 0.06
2011 Dickey 5 33 7.36 1.36 7.36 3 2.45 1.24 0.13 15-17 3.8
7 47.33 8.94 2.47 6.08 4 4.18 1.09 -0.13

So off the bat, we see that both Stras and JV are more than keeping their teams in games, post loss. Adding to this, their ERAs in wins or losses are lower than what their team gives them overall for runs in their starts, and their WPA values are in the positive in wins and losses, showing that regardless of outcome, they are keeping their teams in striking distance for a win. Overall, they satisfy my criteria for Ace, as their teams both have winning records when they make a start after a loss, on top of their usual solid outings.

Dickey, not so much. Losing records, both for himself and his team, coinciding with a rise in ERA, WPA, H/9, BB/9, and a drop in strikeouts in losses. While flashing signs of being a lockdown starter in 2011, the numbers don’t scream Ace.

So what does that give us, as far as answering our question? While his 2012 season has been electrifying in so many ways, knuckleballer or not, RA Dickey is not an Ace…yet. While turning the corner this year according to the criteria I set, his difficulties in keeping the Mets close in games periodically keep him at ‘very good top of the rotation starter’ status. These difficulties more than likely are due to the problems with controlling the knuckleball on some days, which makes him infinitely easier to hit; even with him throwing a hard knuckleball in the low 80s, it simply isn’t an effective pitch when it’s not knuckling, and/or missing the strike zone.

While I give a thumbs down to Dickey as an Ace, I don’t think it should detract from the season he is having. It is a special one, and a deserved one for a guy who has endured many obstacles to become the pitcher we see in 2012.


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