A troubling trend in Dickey’s starts

Dickey tends to throw well for five or six innings, then run into trouble as batters come around for a third and fourth time. (Ann Heisenfelt/AP)

So, it’s the top of the sixth and Baltimore Orioles No. 9 hitter Steve Lombardozzi just took a pretty good R.A. Dickey knuckleball—one of those 78 mph ones that flies in at the waist before dropping below the knees—to shallow left field. Jose Reyes tracked out from short like he had an eye on it at first but then quickly gave up and looked at Melky Cabrera, who was coming in from deeper left field and also giving up while looking at Reyes. And they would continue looking at each other as the ball fell between them and Lombardozzi slid into second.

Back on the mound, R.A. Dickey was doing that R.A. Dickey thing where he hunches his shoulders and puts his hands on his head when something goes awry, basically the physical embodiment of “oh, dear.” Dickey got the ball back and did his best to look unfazed, while Reyes’s eyes flared beneath the brim of his hat, incensed by a ball he really should have gotten to. And if you’ve watched enough Blue Jays baseball and enough R.A. Dickey starts over the past 13 months you probably got a little rumble in your gut that things were about to go very, very wrong.

Wouldn’t you know it, Dickey immediately went 3-0 to the next batter, Nick Markakis, and battled back briefly before walking him with a knuckleball that PITCHf/x would later confirm caught some of the strike zone. And then Nelson Cruz took the third pitch he saw, an 82.6 mph fastball on the plate, over the wall in left. And then it was 3-0 for the Orioles. And then things were unravelling. And a lot of Blue Jays fans likely felt like they had seen it all before.

The good news is that Toronto’s offence, which has been less than generous to Dickey in terms of run support thus far in 2014, put some very good swings on Baltimore pitches and rewrote the storyline of the game. Edwin Encarnacion figured his timing out, and Melky Cabrera continued to be a revelation, and even Brett Lawrie and his weirdo moustache got a pitch down and in that he could ride over the outfield wall.

So, that was that. In their 20th game of the season, the Blue Jays had their 11th win, a mark they didn’t reach until May 5 last year. This is good. But it does not erase the fact that Dickey gave up three runs in the top of the sixth after pitching effectively and efficiently for every inning prior. If his last three starts are any indication, this is becoming a trend.

Dickey’s first and second starts of the season basically cancel each other out. He got beaten up throughout the opener in Tampa, giving up runs in every inning except for the fourth before exiting in the fifth. But he was terrific in his follow-up against the Yankees, holding New York scoreless over 6.2 innings and looking genuinely perturbed when John Gibbons lifted him after 108 pitches.

So give him a reboot at that point and go from his third start against Houston. He cruised through four innings before allowing two runs in the fifth and three more in the seventh once Houston had been through the order a couple times. The same goes for his fourth start against the Twins, when he held Minnesota scoreless through four frames before getting rocked for five earned runs in the fifth.

There seems to be something to this. As Andrew Stoeten of The Score pointed out on Twitter Tuesday afternoon, going into last night’s game, opposition hitters seeing Dickey for a third time in the game were batting .440/.533/.680 against him. They had 11 hits and five walks in 30 plate appearances. Dickey had struck out just one batter who was on his third time up.

Which brings us to Tuesday night, Dickey’s fifth start, when he sailed through the first five innings before getting hurt in the sixth. On his third time through the order, Dickey put up three outs, three walks, two hits and a hit by pitch. His fourth time through the order lasted just two batters—a Lombardozzi single and a long Markakis ground rule double. The beat goes on. (Check out Shi Davidi’s story from last night’s game, after which Dickey spoke about his fading performance.)

This is a troubling trend as the Blue Jays have been unable to get deep, effective outings from their starters thus far, aside from Mark Buehrle, who is averaging seven innings per start and has been one of the best pitchers in the game. Drew Hutchison and Brandon Morrow are both averaging five innings per start and Dustin McGowan is averaging just four. After Wednesday night, Dickey’s averaging 5.8.

That’s not going to be enough and it’s not unfair to chalk some of Toronto’s bullpen struggles up to overuse from having to clean up short outings from the starters. But when the ace of your pitching staff is having trouble getting batters out his third and fourth time through the order, what can you do? Facing 18 batters will only get you so far.

Now, this trend could right itself in Dickey’s next few starts and prove to be a simple aberration in the dragging, six-month exercise that is regular season baseball. The 39-year-old has been better this year, after all. After fighting through neck and back pain in 2013, his velocity has been closer to where it needs to be this season (he averaged 76.6 mph on his knuckleball Tuesday night) and he’s getting more swinging strikes (10.2 percent in 2014 vs. 9.4 percent in 2013, plus another 15 whiffs against Baltimore).

But it will be worth watching what happens next. Dickey will start Sunday against the Red Sox, in the final game of an April divisional series that could matter a whole lot.

It’s highly uncommon to lift a starting pitcher—especially a unique case like Dickey who’s a staff ace with a track record of throwing 120-pitch outings with regularity—in the fifth or sixth without significant runs having crossed the plate. But if the knuckleballer is on his third time through the Boston order and gives up a leadoff single and a walk, the trend seems to predict those runners will score. Which gives Gibbons a crucial decision to make.

If Gibbons comes out to get Dickey, he’ll have a case. And if Dickey gives his manager the same look he did when he was lifted against New York, he’ll have one too. The tricky part will be determining who’s right.

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