R.A. Dickey looks back on his time with Blue Jays ‘fondly’

The MLB handed out its Silver Slugger awards, with Josh Donaldson picking one up. R.A. Dickey signed a one-year deal in Atlanta.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The writing was on the wall last September when the Toronto Blue Jays gave R.A. Dickey just one start after Labour Day (he threw five shutout innings in Anaheim). With the acquisition of Francisco Liriano giving the Jays five quality starting pitchers under contract for 2017, there was no longer going to be any room for the knuckleballer.

Dickey became one of the first players to sign in the off-season, inking a one-year deal worth $8 million (with an option for a second year) with the Atlanta Braves on Nov. 10, just a week into the free agency period.

With the Blue Jays opening up their Grapefruit League schedule at the Braves’ spring home in DisneyWorld, Dickey obligingly met the Toronto media contingent to talk about days past and future. The 42 year-old is a year and a half younger than Bartolo Colon, whose locker is two stalls down from him, and is expected to follow Big Bart in the Atlanta rotation.

“It’s as close to home as I can get,” said Dickey, who makes his off-season home in Nashville, Tennessee. “I grew up a Braves fan, I had TBS as a kid. So all the ‘80s and early ‘90s Braves teams, I could tell you every player that played. They were interested very early in the off-season and it just made sense”

The move made sense not just because the rebuilding Braves seem to be trying to move up their competitive window, but also because the new Atlanta ballpark is about a three-hour drive from Dickey’s house. He suggested his family might be driving down for games after school.

Dickey spent four years with the Blue Jays, coming over as what was supposed to be the final piece of a championship puzzle in 2013 after the franchise-altering trade with the Marlins that brought in Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson.

The knuckleball specialist was coming off a Cy Young season with the New York Mets and expectations were sky-high. It all came crashing down when the Blue Jays came out of the gate 10-20 on the way to a last-place finish.

Dickey was on the hill for an opening day loss to Cleveland, then started the final game of the season-opening homestand – a 13-0 loss to the Red Sox in which Dickey heard his first boos as a Blue Jay.

“I’ve been booed before so that’s part of what you have to be able to hold as a professional athlete,” Dickey reminisced. “Now what that does to you is the real key, do you let it really discourage you to the point where you don’t want to wake up, or do you treat it as motivation to try and earn their approval back? For me it was always being as good as I could be. I knew if I was that they would come alongside me, if I could do that. I think for the most part I was able to do that. There were a lot of times where I felt like I could be a lot better too, but again, it was a great experience”

Dickey may have been the most polarizing player the Blue Jays have had in a long time. Over his four years in Toronto, he went 49-52 with a solid ERA of 4.05 and a more-than-respectable WHIP of 1.25. He threw 824.1 innings, averaging 206 per season, had an ERA-plus of an exactly-average 100 and allowed 1.2 home runs per nine innings.

That’s far from Cy Young-calibre, but certainly not nearly as bad as the perception of a great deal of Blue Jays fans, who seemed to believe that Dickey was good for at least one five-run inning in every start and gave up multiple home runs in each outing.

“I can certainly be empathetic with the fan that would be frustrated by my style of pitching,” said Dickey. “I get frustrated by my style of pitching a lot, so I can imagine how they might feel. But at the same time, one of the beauties of the knuckleball – and I said this in my first press conference – sometimes it can look really, really ugly but at the end of all things you look back and see this body of work that’s acceptable and beyond mediocre, so I think I was much better than being just average in the A.L. East by what I provided.”

That might be the kicker – the division. During Dickey’s chat with the media assemblage, the A.L. East was referred to as a “summer storm”, a “heavyweight boxing match” and a “meat grinder”. Any way you slice it, a lot tougher than the N.L. East which Dickey dominated for his three years with the Mets.

“You’re pretty beat up,” said Dickey about his four years in the grinder. “That’s what you have to accept when you’re in that [division], that’s part of it, that’s part of the gamesmanship. The preparation, the mental side of it, you know that going into it. It wasn’t anything I didn’t expect, it was a lot of hard competition”

Dickey also touched on what’s another sore point for Blue Jays fans. The tall blonde who throws 100 miles an hour for the New York Mets, who has had a spectacular start to his major-league career, an all-star in his first full season and already one of the best pitchers in the bigs. Noah Syndergaard (along with catcher Travis d’Arnaud) was the price the Blue Jays had to pay to bring Dickey to town.

“What the Toronto organization gave up for me was quite a bit,” said Dickey. “And that came with a lot of expectations. I’ll let you guys argue about whether or not it was worth it but as a player you take a lot of pride in wanting to be worth it and wanting to be worth the investment. So there was a lot of management to that mentally because I care, I really care.”

While Dickey was traded to Toronto, it was a trade over which he had control, because the deal wouldn’t have been done had the knuckler not agreed to a contract extension with the Blue Jays ahead of time. So, was the trade worth it from Dickey’s side?

“We played in two ALCS’s,” said Dickey. “It was unbelievable. In two of my four years, fifty percent of my years, we went to the post-season. That’s remarkable. To say I don’t have a singular regret? That’s probably silly because we could have done a lot more in ’13 and ‘14 maybe, but at the same time, the way it unfolded for me, I wish I could have performed a little better at the end, but I look back on those days fondly.”

Dickey also looks back fondly on his experience living north of the border.

“I thought was a great place to live,” Dickey said of Toronto. “My family lived there for four years, it’s a beautiful country. Everyone loves country music up there, so there are a lot of similarities between the south and Toronto in my mind.

“I encouraged my family [to explore Canada],” continued Dickey. “We went to Algonquin, Banff, we experienced the country as a whole intentionally. We lived outside the city in Mississauga and really loved that community, met of a lot incredible people there that will be lifelong friends. So again, my time in Toronto was a real treat for me.”

As difficult as it might be to believe, Dickey pitched well for the Blue Jays far more often than he didn’t. He started 130 games over four seasons, and 75 of them (56 per cent) were Quality Starts.

Dickey allowed two earned runs or fewer in 67 of his starts as a Blue Jay, while allowing five earned runs or more 31 times.

For four years, on three contending teams, R.A. Dickey was a solid, middle-of-the-rotation, inning-eating bullpen saver. Not an ace, not a Cy Young winner, but certainly a very important piece on some very good Toronto teams. It’s unfortunate that it appears he won’t be remembered that way by a great deal of Blue Jays fans.

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