There was a dash of frustration in R.A. Dickey’s voice after his most recent start as he discussed the five walks he issued to the Tampa Bay Rays, unhappily comparing his stat lines to those of a traditional knuckleballer, focused on how to regain his trademark efficiency with baseball’s trickiest pitch.
Much like the fortunes of his team as a whole, things haven’t been quite right for the Toronto Blue Jays ace so far this season, the ebbing tightness on the right side of his back deserving much of the blame for that.
To his credit he’s continued to take the ball and for the most part given his team a chance to win in his eight starts so far, but the resulting loss of strength from an injury that’s bothered him for most of the year is likely the chief culprit in a roughly two m.p.h. across-the-board drop in average velocity.
As a result of that decline — Dickey’s knuckleball is averaging 75 m.p.h. instead of 77.1, while the fastball is at 81.5 from 83.4, according to fangraphs.com — he’s given up more line drives, induced fewer ground balls, and surrendered more hits and home runs on average per nine innings than he did during his Cy Young season of 2012.
At the same time, adjusting his release point to compensate for the back tightness has led to a dramatic increase in walks and reduction in strikes, with his chase rate and swing and miss down, too.
Combine it all -- not to mention an average run support of 2.1 per game -- and it's easy to see why Dickey heads into Tuesday's outing against the San Francisco Giants with a 2-5 record and a 5.06 ERA. In many ways he's pitched far better than those numbers suggest, and may be primed to take off with his back steadily getting better.
"Not all of them, I think probably some of them," he says when asked if the difference in his numbers is primarily connected to the injury. "When you have those extra two, three, four miles an hour you get later movement, which correspondently means more ground balls, guys swinging and miss more.
"A hitter has less time to react to a pitch coming at him faster, and when you're throwing a knuckleball, you're adding the exponent of movement and that's why you get a lot of swings and misses in the strike zone."
Dickey certainly got plenty of that during his brilliant 2012, when batters swung at 34 per cent of his pitches outside the strike zone, and missed 12.2 per cent of the time, according to fangraphs.com.
Those rates are down to 26.3 and 9.9 to this point, and have in turn helped his walk rate spike from 2.1 per nine to 4.1, and cut his strikes thrown percentage from 69 per cent (2,315 of 3,359) to 61 per cent (485 of 790). A troubling 10.8 per cent of at-bats against him are ending in walks, compared to 5.8 last year.
The home runs per nine innings is up to 1.5 from 0.92 and the average against him is also up to .238 from .222, although, oddly, the batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, is down to .259 from .275.
What does it all mean?
"It's also different hitters, I'm behind in counts more so I'm having to throw more strikes in a hitter's count, there are a whole lot of reasons outside just my back. Those things are happening," says Dickey.
"Part of what you have to accept with the pitch is that it's not always going to be obedient, that's just the way it is. I've had a good run for three years with it, and I'm very optimistic that trend will continue. If you look at my numbers in 2011 through the first eight starts, they're almost identical, if not this year being a little bit better. You've got to ride it out and see at the end. But to draw a bunch of conclusions early on, and say this is what it's going to be, that would probably be unfair."
There's no debating that.
Back in '11, Dickey went 1-5 with a 5.08 ERA in his first nine games, eight starts, allowing 64 hits and 18 walks in 51.1 innings. Over his next 24 starts, he recovered brilliantly, posting a 7-8 record with a 2.69 ERA, allowing 138 hits and 36 walks in 157.1 innings.
The Blue Jays desperately need the 38-year-old, by far the club's steadiest starter with five quality starts, to get on a similar run with the rotation badly thinned out by injuries to Josh Johnson and J.A. Happ, and Ricky Romero in need of more time in his mechanical makeover.
While expecting Dickey to replicate his 2012 brilliance is unfair -- especially given the adjustment period inherent to moving to a new team -- there's certainly some improvement to be had.
"For every reaction there's a reaction, good or bad, either one, or both," he says. "Early on, you're trying to find your rhythm, it's a different environment to pitch in, you're trying to figure out defensively what's going on, offensively -- to win a Cy Young you have to have so many things go right, you have to have guys score runs when you pitch, you have to be able to go deep in games, you have to get that call when the bases are loaded and it's a marginal strike instead of ball four, there are so many things.
"I look at the mean, what's the mean for me. And the mean for me is a quality start, that's where it all begins, it's where it's always begun. I've been preaching that from the day I signed."
The 4-3 road trip completed with Sunday's 12-4 romp over the Boston Red Sox featured a handful of Blue Jays seeming to find their level, with Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind each delivering some big hits.
Emilio Bonifacio showed signs of life at the plate as did Brett Lawrie, while Mark Buehrle pitched a gem Saturday in his best start thus far.
The Blue Jays still find themselves in a big hole at 15-24, but are hoping the worst is behind them.
"We've had a lot of adversity and when you have that, guys are asked to do things they're not normally asked to do, whether it's bat leadoff like Melky Cabrera or Jose Bautista hitting second," says Dickey. "It can be challenging, but nobody said this game was easy, you have to be able to weather things like that and nobody is feeling sorry for us. So we've got to figure out a way to do it."
They've already had several false starts on that front. Tuesday is another chance for both Dickey and the Blue Jays to come out of the blocks clean, and show what they can do.