ANAHEIM, Calif. – In the leadup to his outing Friday night, R.A. Dickey didn’t think about the possibilities, about how things could play out over the season’s final two weeks. There was a game to pitch, his first start after 10 days of rest, and he delivered five shutout innings for the Toronto Blue Jays. Then, after back-to-back singles to open the sixth inning, manager John Gibbons came to get the ball, Dickey handed it over, and his mind couldn’t help but wander.
“When I came out I kind of ruminated over what that might be because there’s a chance that could be my last start as a Blue Jay. That’s somewhat emotional,” says Dickey. “But I have one singular goal, and I’ve made no secret about what that is: I just want to be on a championship ball club. That’s all I care about.”
How much more he contributes on the field toward that goal is uncertain, although his willingness to push his ego aside under the circumstances sets an important example of selflessness down the stretch.
Barring the unforeseen, the Blue Jays have two unaccounted for outings remaining: Sept. 23 against the New York Yankees and Sept. 28 against the Baltimore Orioles. Francisco Liriano, who’s made consecutive strong starts, seems likely to get both assignments. That would make Friday the last start for Dickey, a pending free agent, with the Blue Jays. He isn’t expected to be part of the post-season rotation, should the team get that far.
“You never know what happens with the other guys,” said Gibbons, “but the way it’s set up now, we’re not exactly sure, but we have it kind of lined up with the other guys.”
So it’s very possible Dickey’s win Friday night was also his last for the Blue Jays, giving him 49 since his December 2012 acquisition from the New York Mets for Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud. While angst over the trade still lingers among some fans – it’s without doubt former GM Alex Anthopoulos’s most polarizing move – worth noting is that over the past four seasons, he amassed enough wins to sit 12th all time in Blue Jays history, tied with Chris Carpenter. His 824 innings also rank 12th, sandwiched between Kelvim Escobar and Ricky Romero, while his 602 strikeouts rank 14th.
That’s a whole lot of present value he’s provided.
“It’s been a real balancing act for me to walk the line between what people might expect of me because of past successes and what I was traded for,” said Dickey. “On the other side is what I feel like I can consistently bring to a ball club if given an opportunity. So there’s been that balancing act for me, how not to hang on to a lot of the negativity around, ‘Well this guy won a Cy Young the year before, and he’s coming over here, he can only win 14 games, he’s got a four-ERA.’ And then there’s the other part, and I said it in my very first press conference, and that’s how can I be a trustworthy component on a championship team. That’s all I cared about.”
The trade for Dickey came on the heels of the franchise altering blockbuster with the Miami Marlins, two moves through which the Blue Jays dove aggressively into the playing-for-now pool. The gamble didn’t pay off in 2013 and ’14, when flawed rosters and insufficient depth sank years of promise, but in 2015 the franchise’s post-season drought dating back to 1993 came to an end.
This year, the Blue Jays are in possession of a wild-card spot and should they indeed secure a berth, it would mark just the second time in team history they’ve gone to the playoffs in consecutive years. Dickey was a part of making that happen, and two post-season trips in four years, should they make it again this season, is something he would have signed up for when he first came over.
“I would say what a success, because it’s so hard to get into the post-season, in this division,” said Dickey. “I knew what I was getting myself into when I came over here, which is why I tend to hold on to the moments that I feel like I was a contributing component to a championship club and not worry about the other stuff.”
The Blue Jays acquired Dickey after he won the Cy Young Award with the Mets in 2012, when he went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA over 233.2 innings with 230 strikeouts. Transitioning from what at the time was one of baseball’s weakest divisions, the National League East, to one of the strongest, the American League East, meant his performance was going to take a hit. And away from a spacious home ballpark in Citi Field, a division with other pitcher-friendly yards, and lineups with at least one, if not two soft spots, you can make the case the Dickey actually acquitted himself fairly well in the AL with a knuckleball.
Over his four seasons with the Blue Jays, he logged a 4.05 ERA and a 1.251 WHIP over 824 innings, while making 130 consecutive starts without missing a single turn. That’s an accomplishment in a division and a league Dickey describes as “relentless.”
“When I was approached by Alex about an extension and the only way I was going to be a Blue Jay was if I were to agree to that extension, I had a little bit of time to call around and talk to people about the AL East and being a Blue Jay,” said Dickey. “I’ll tell you, to a person, everyone said don’t do it, and I polled five or six people. They said you don’t want to go to the American League East, you don’t want to pitch in Toronto, it’s a tough place to pitch, it’s turf, you’re playing in smaller parks, etc. And that just made it more of a challenge for me.
“I always felt like I got to choose to be a Blue Jay and that meant a lot to me.”
Statistically, at 10-14 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.370 WHIP, this has been Dickey’s worst season with the Blue Jays, something he has a hard time understanding given that he’s “never felt better” physically. That’s why even though he turns 42 on Oct. 29, whether or not he pitches again next year “is going to be a family decision … I feel like I have a lot to still contribute to a club.”
His reliability is among his key selling points, although he can still dominate games, the way he did in gems against the Texas Rangers, Houston Astros and Detroit Tigers this season. In 19 of his 29 starts he allowed three runs or less, and he went at least six innings 17 times.
Stability pillars like that are a coveted commodity.
“That’s something I’ve always efforted to do – everything was geared around how can I be dependable,” said Dickey. “Because the knuckleball has this reputation of not being very dependable, so I knew I had to be uber-dependable. I take satisfaction in that there was a vision for this ball club and the people from this team, and we have a chance to realize what this vision is. Alex put together a team, and we’ve revamped it, sure, added to it, but we’ve tightened it up in a way where there was a plan in place, we’ve executed that plan. Although I wish it would have been four out of four years, getting to the playoffs is hard enough. If you’re able to do it in 50 per cent of the time you’re with a club, that’s pretty damned good.”
The Blue Jays aren’t quite there yet. They have two weeks to go and control of their own fate. In the meantime Dickey will be ready if and when his name gets called again.
“Although I know the start (Friday) could have been my last, I don’t expect it to be,” he said. “I don’t know what their plans will be but I feel like I’m professional enough and old enough and experienced enough to be able to handle whatever role, slot, the timing in which they wish to use me.
“I’ll be prepared.”