TORONTO — R.A. Dickey holds a well-earned reputation as one of the most thoughtful, cerebral players in the game, so he of all people knows very well that the pitcher win is a flawed statistic. But about 20 minutes after earning his 100th victory, squinting under the glare of the camera lights in the middle of the Blue Jays clubhouse, he offered a different interpretation of what the oft-chastised figure can represent.
"It’s funny—you can get a loss if you don’t go five innings. But you can’t get a win. So, one thing it tells me is I’ve been somewhat dependable," Dickey said. "That’s where I get the most satisfaction, is being dependable and trustworthy with the baseball. The win sometimes can demonstrate that. If you’ve won 100 games, I guess you can say you’ve been pretty dependable over the years."
He certainly has. This season is his fifth consecutive of more than 30 starts and 200 innings pitched, a feat that has been matched by only two other pitchers over that span—James Shields and Yovani Gallardo. Most people will tell you that while the triple-digit wins are a nice, round accomplishment, it’s the consistency that matters most.
"It says a lot for the guy. To go five years of 200-plus innings, taking the ball every fifth day—that’s a whole ‘nother thing," said Josh Thole, who has caught 133 of Dickey’s 238 career starts. "The wins are a really big thing. But having that consistency, from a team standpoint, is a really huge thing."
Dickey is the ultimate late bloomer, never truly coming into his own until he became a knuckleball pitcher in 2006, and even then needing four seasons to refine the pitch. He didn’t become a legitimately reliable starting pitcher until 2010 with the Mets, when he made a career-high 26 starts and posted a career-best 2.84 ERA. Of his 100 wins, 22 came before the age of 35, while the 78 others have come after.
"It’s really, really special," Dickey said. "I want to be consistent for my team. I want them to think that when I go out there we have a really good chance at wining the ballgame. And if nothing else—I’m going to keep us in it."
Thole has been along for most of Dickey’s recent ride, serving as his personal catcher throughout Dickey’s three seasons with the Mets and for his first two in Toronto before Russell Martin took over the duty at the beginning of this season.
Thole was there for Dickey’s incredible 2012 campaign, when he struck out 230 batters in 233.2 innings, posting a 2.73 ERA on his way to winning the National League Cy Young award.
"That was a special year. That was night in and night out, every fifth day you knew what you were getting," Thole said. "He was going to the mound and it was going to be one of those nights for the opposing team."
But when asked to remember his favourite game catching Dickey, Thole reaches back even further to a start that doesn’t count towards Dickey’s major league record. It was 2010 and the pair were playing for the Buffalo Bisons—then the Mets’ triple-A affiliate—when Dickey took the mound against the Durham Bulls for his fifth start of the season.
"They got a leadoff base hit, and then R.A. went ahead and recorded 27 straight outs," Thole said. "That one was just amazing."
Thole has caught Dickey only a handful of times this season, as the Blue Jays opted to give that task primarily to Martin, who provides a more productive bat at the plate. But throughout his time with the Blue Jays, Dickey has been clear that Thole is the best knuckleball receiver he’s ever thrown to, and shortly after winning his 100th game Friday night, Dickey went over to Thole’s locker to give him a big hug.
"That’s the beauty. I can just look to my own locker room in the present moment to be incredibly gracious and have a lot of gratitude for the people who have been a part of it. Josh has caught a lot of my wins. That was a big deal to get to give him a pat on the back," Dickey said. "There’s been countless people who have had an impact in my life. I am not a self-made man. I am a product of a lot of people who have loved me well. And tonight was a night to get to celebrate that a little bit."
This season has been a tumultuous one for Dickey. His first 10 starts couldn’t have gone much worse, as he struggled to command his knuckleball, walking three or more batters in half those outings while going without a strikeout three times and posting a 5.53 ERA. The most concerning aspect of the two-month span was that Dickey’s knuckleball velocity was down, as he averaged just 75 mph on the pitch which is normally at it’s most effective when thrown in the high 70s.
Meanwhile, away from the field, Dickey was coping with grief over the passing of his father, Harry Lee, in mid-June. Dickey left the team for a few days to be with his family but never missed a start.
That sombre June would end up being the month when Dickey turned his performance around, as he and Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker pored over video to find minor tweaks in his mechanics that helped the 40-year-old rediscover the velocity and command he needed to be truly effective with the knuckler.
From the beginning of June on, a span of 22 starts, he’s walked three or more just four times and hasn’t posted a single outing without a strikeout. His ERA over that time has been 3.22 and the Blue Jays have won in 14 of his 22 outings. Perhaps most importantly, his knuckleball velocity has steadily climbed, peaking at an average of 78 mph this month.
"It’s been a strange year for him. His ERA should definitely be better than what’s on the board," Thole said. "I haven’t caught him a whole lot, but even from just sitting and watching the game, you see how he’s kind of transformed and what it’s all come into. He’s throwing 81, 82 mph knuckleballs again. It’s like, yeah, that’s the R.A. of old."
Dickey has never lived up to the perhaps unfair expectations of him since coming to Toronto as part of an off-season trade in 2012. Part of that has to do with the near-impossible-to-repeat Cy Young performance he provided the year prior to the trade, mixed with the Blue Jays’ eventually unfulfilled World Series expectations following that off-season’s roster overhaul.
Yet, Dickey has never missed a start for the Blue Jays and has posted a 3.99 ERA in his 100 outings in a Toronto uniform, providing exceptional value for his $12-million per season freight. In a lot of ways, 2015 has been a fitting year for the knuckleballer—Dickey would call it "poetic"—as he’s been pitching terrifically for most of the season and the Blue Jays are on the verge of finally fulfilling all the promise they held after Dickey was traded here.
For Dickey, whether he receives the respect his performance deserves or not, he has just one thing on his mind—reaching the post-season.
"That’s what’s first and foremost to me—keeping the gas pedal down," the 100-game winner said. "To be a part of this and to keep us winning and keep that momentum, it’s a great feeling here. We’re playing well. That’s what I care more about. And tonight was a good night for that."