TORONTO — R.A. Dickey is the first American League East starter to break the 200-inning plateau this season and to put that in context, only three other pitchers in the division are almost certain to join him, with two more having an outside shot at the feat.
Put simply, it’s an accomplishment.
More to the matter, however, is that the slow build to 200 came with the knuckleballer routinely bouncing between struggle and adjustment, a process that kept him from being as dominant as he was during his Cy Young Award campaign of 2012, but also forced adaptations to more hostile surroundings.
How the series of tweaks and refinements Dickey made along the way translate into 2014 is of the upmost importance to the Toronto Blue Jays, who have certainly needed each of the 202.1 innings he’s logged so far, but could also use some steadier performance out of the 38-year-old next year.
“Last year was interesting year in that I felt I had a really good rhythm for two-thirds of the season, and that’s hard to do in any year, but for whatever reason I was in that place,” he said in an interview Thursday, before the Blue Jays fell 4-3 to the Los Angeles Angels. “This year, it’s been tough for me to get into a real rhythm for a lot of different reasons. In order to do what you still want to do and be competitive at this level in this division, you’re constantly having to make adjustments, you’re constantly having to evolve, you’re constantly having to grow, you’re constantly having to recognize what you don’t do well and try to improve on those things.
“There is no typical, every game has own its own problem-set, and it’s up to you as the pilot of that game to figure out how you’re going to navigate it.”
Dickey’s navigation has been far rockier than expected — a 4.36 earned-run average and 31 homers allowed speaking to that — yet he’s still second to AL leader James Shields of the Kansas City Royals (207.2) in innings pitched this season.
New York Yankees lefty CC Sabathia should be the next AL East starter to join the 200-inning club, as he currently has 198 on the ledger. Jon Lester of the Boston Red Sox is on his tail at 193.1, while Blue Jays teammate Mark Buehrle, currently with 189.1, has three starts remaining to make it 13 straight years at the milestone.
Hiroki Kuroda of the Yankees (183.2) and Chris Tillman of the Baltimore Orioles (179.1) might also get there.
None of Dickey’s rivals have faced the type of ups and downs he has in a season that’s felt so incongruous in the way failure would so suddenly emerge from success. From pretty much the very beginning, he’s faced a near constant search for answers.
“The evolution for me was thusly: I felt like when I got back from the WBC, that I had to get ramped up fairly quickly for that, so it put me, I felt, at a little bit of a disadvantage, I didn’t get to prepare the way I normally prepare in spring training,” explained Dickey. “Sure enough, the second game of the season I pulled a back muscle, and so I had to learn how to pitch with that pain back there for the first month and half, two months of the season until that pain abated. And then I was able to start to progress to where I was last year.
“So there was a little bit of a transition period from the point I had the injury, to the point where I felt comfortable in my own skin again, and then, at that point, is when I really tried to make some conclusive decisions on what I needed to do here to be successful.”
By here Dickey means the homer-friendly Rogers Centre, where he’s allowed 21 of the 31 homers against him.
One of the decisions he made was to move away from the so-called rising knuckleball he used to such great success in 2012, trying for a version of similar effect lower in the strike zone. The thinking is that bad knuckleballs down there won’t turn into the wall-scrapers in Toronto that were long outs last year at Citi Field.
There have been other tweaks and wrinkles, with a more dramatic twist unveiled Wednesday when he threw Angels superstar Mike Trout a sidearm knuckleball.
The pitch has been a couple of seasons in the making — he worked on it last year in the bullpen with the Mets — but only now felt ready to debut it.
“I never needed it (last year), why show a weapon you don’t feel is necessary?” said Dickey. “This year, it’s a little bit different, I’m looking for different weapons to see if I can freeze a guy, or steal a strike. And take all that out of it, it’s fun to try new things and see success in them, and experience new sensations on the mound.”
Dickey’s regularly thrown it while playing catch with bullpen catcher Alex Andreopoulos, and when he unveiled it during a side session, pitching coach Pete Walker “gave me some real positive feedback.”
“I had somebody stand-in and get an eyeball for it and they had some positive feedback, so I thought, this is the right time,” he added.
Everything in the way Dickey throws the sidearm knuckleball is the same as his regular knuckler, save for the arm angle, with finding just the right release point being the tricky part.
“That can feel funny,” he said. “It takes repetition.”
While the look is going to be different, any potential difference in the break remains uncertain.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” when asked what kind of path the alternate arm angle might generate. “The one that I threw to Trout went down and in very violently. That’s the way it chose to go that particular time. Now I’ve thrown them in the ‘pen and they’ve done the opposite.
“Three years ago I would never have thought of it, I was just trying to throw a good knuckleball period. It’s a good sign for me that I feel comfortable enough with my mechanics and the way I release the ball confidently enough to let the ball go from that arm angle and produce a knuckleball.
“That’s part of growing.”
That growth gives Dickey optimism for an even better 2014, when the Blue Jays will be counting on the dividends.