R.A. Dickey often described the home run ball as his ‘bane’ during his first season as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. He allowed a career-high 35 home runs in 2013, struggling to keep the ball within Rogers Centre on his way to posting a 4.21 ERA.
This year has been different. Dickey has allowed just three home runs in eight starts – a marked improvement compared to 2013. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, the knuckleballer has a new problem this year; he ranks second in the American League with 25 walks in 47.2 innings.
“If I can eliminate that, I can have some fun this year,” Dickey said after beating the Philadelphia Phillies last week. “As far as the way it felt out of my hand, I’m very encouraged. The last four times through I felt like I’ve been taking some positive steps and, in fact, I feel like I’m pitching better than even my lines are showing.”
So far Dickey has a 4.72 ERA through eight starts. Those numbers are better than they were last year (5.06 ERA through eight starts) and at least he’s logging innings (47.2 entering play Tuesday).
Still, there’s room for growth for someone who was acquired to be a frontline starter. Dickey walked just 2.8 batters per nine innings in 2013, and he has a career walk rate of 2.9 free passes per nine, which shows it’s possible to control a pitch with a life of its own.
And counter-intuitive though it may sound, Dickey’s high walk total isn’t all bad. His knuckleball is moving enough that catcher Josh Thole has had trouble corralling it at times -- a development that pleases Dickey. After all, that same movement can make the pitch tough to hit.
“I’m making strides,” said Dickey, who starts against the Cleveland Indians Tuesday.
The 39-year-old is also encouraged by his velocity, which has increased compared to last year, when he battled neck and back soreness early and saw his power diminish as a result. Dickey is throwing slightly harder now with both his knuckler (76.3 mph vs. 75.6 mph) and his fastball (82.1 mph vs. 81.9 mph). Improved health has made the difference.
“Early on in the year last year I was not feeling great,” Dickey said. “I feel like I’m off to a much better start this year. I’m traditionally a slow starter, but I’m better.”
But just as the walk total isn’t all bad, Dickey’s home run results doesn’t necessarily foretell future dominance. He has allowed more than one home run per nine innings over the course of his career and Rogers Centre is a homer-friendly ballpark. Considering that, we should expect his home run rate to climb as the season unfolds, potentially inflating his ERA.
That’s why it’s important to make sure there aren’t many runners on when the ball leaves the yard.
“Last year I was giving up two and three-run home runs with frequency,” Dickey said. It’s encouraging to punch people out and to keep guys off base and to feel crisp.”
If Dickey can find a way to issue fewer walks, his numbers will improve the way they did a year ago, when he recovered from a slow start to post an ERA of 3.72 from June on. The 2014 season has started differently for both the Blue Jays and their knuckleballer, but this much hasn't changed: the Blue Jays need Dickey to provide steady innings down the stretch. Lowering his walk rate would get him closer to accomplishing that goal.