Posted September 18, 2012

R.A. Dickey’s pursuit of 20 wins and why the milestone still matters

New York Mets, R.A. Dickey
R.A. Dickey

R.A. Dickey’s season has been as terrific as it has been unexpected. (Reuters)

The Mets don’t have a whole lot left to play for this season. With a 66-81 record, a fourth straight sub-.500 season is virtually assured, and the only real suspense remaining is whether they can avoid their first last-place finish in the NL East since 2003. Even so, when they send R.A. Dickey to the hill every fifth game, the mundanity of another lost season slips away. The 37-year-old is in the midst of arguably the best season ever for a knuckleball specialist, and he’s got a reasonable shot at becoming the first such pitcher to win a Cy Young award.

Dickey took the loss against the Phillies on Tuesday night, but he didn’t hurt his cause with his seven-inning effort. He lowered his league-leading ERA to 2.67, took over the league lead in innings with 212, and moved within one strikeout of the league-leading total of 206. The pitcher ahead of him, Clayton Kershaw, is quite possibly done for the season due to a hip injury, so if Dickey can pass him and can muster at least one more win to catch Gio Gonzalez’s league-leading total of 19, he could match Kershaw’s 2011 feat of winning the pitching Triple Crown, leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts, something that’s been done 32 times since 1901; Dwight Gooden is the only other Met to manage the feat.

In an age where advanced metrics have made significant inroads, strikeouts and ERA still occupy prominent places in the discussion of pitcher performance, but pitcher wins have taken a significant hit, at least outside the mainstream. Many a broadcaster, BBWAA voter, player or manager will cite win totals as evidence of pitcher quality, but statheads give them little love; I rarely mention them in this space myself. Even Cy Young voters have begun to look past them in recent years:

• In 2010, Felix Hernandez won the AL Cy Young with a 13-12 record accompanied by a 2.27 ERA, which led the league, and 232 strikeouts, which ranked second. Seventeen AL pitchers notched more wins, and seven others had as many, including James Shields, whose 5.18 ERA was more than double Hernandez’s mark.

• In 2009, Zack Greinke won the AL award with a 16-8 record to go with a 2.16 ERA (the league’s best) and 242 strikeouts (second-best). Six AL pitchers notched more wins than Greinke, and two others had as many, one of them being Joe Saunders, whose 4.60 ERA was more than twice Greinke’s mark.

• Also in 2009, Tim Lincecum won the NL Cy Young award with a 15-7 record while leading the league with 261 strikeouts and ranking second with a 2.48 ERA. Three NL pitchers won more games, and seven won as many, including Derek Lowe, whose 4.67 ERA was more than two runs higher than Lincecum’s mark.

Pitcher wins have fallen out of favor, in part because the “W” says nearly as much as a hurler’s offensive, defensive and bullpen support — not to mention how he was handled by his manager — as it does about his own performance, and in part because better measures of pitcher value exist via WAR or WARP. Dickey, for example, has received 4.80 runs per game of offensive support, a mark that ranks eighth among NL ERA qualifiers, and one well above the 4.05 runs per game that the Mets lineup has produced overall. His .274 batting average on balls in play is 21 points better than the Mets’ team mark and 26 points better than the NL average, though it’s not terribly uncommon for a knuckleballer to outperform such measures; research has shown that knuckleballers are more often able to avoid hard contact than their fellow hurlers, leading to lower BABIPs. Mets relievers have allowed just one of the six baserunners he has bequeathed to come around and score; that 16.7 percent rate is well below both New York’s team rate (31.9 percent) and the NL rate (30.4 percent), though obviously the sample size is small — testament to manager Terry Collins’ trust in his ace to extricate himself from jams.

Despite his better-than-average support from his teammates, Dickey does rank among the league’s most valuable pitchers in terms of advanced metrics. He’s tied with Kershaw for second in the league in Baseball-Reference.com’s version of WAR at 4.9, behind Johnny Cueto (5.2). He’s eighth in FanGraph’s version of WAR at 4.0, and sixth in Baseball Prospectus WARP at 3.0, behind Stephen Strasburg (4.2), Kershaw (3.4), Cliff Lee (3.2), Gonzalez (3.2), and Jordan Zimmermann (3.1). No matter which of those metrics one uses, all of them emphasize the areas over which pitchers have more control — strikeouts, walks and home runs — and correct for the things over which they have less control. Such metrics place Dickey among the league’s top handful of pitchers, but contrary to what a potential Triple Crown would suggest, not the single best. Which isn’t to say his season hasn’t been impressive; on the contrary, given his knuckleballing ways and his back story, it’s quite possibly the most compelling around.

While pitcher wins don’t resonate the way they used to, even a crusty stathead such as myself must admit that there’s something impressive about the 20-win plateau, because in the age of the five-man rotation and specialized bullpens, it has actually become harder to attain. Just three pitchers reached that plateau in each of the past two seasons, with 11 doing so from 2006-2011, less than two per year. In the six seasons before that (2000-2006), 29 pitchers reached the milestone, nearly five per year. Breaking it down by decade and tossing out strike-affected seasons in which there were none (1981, 1994, 1995), note the decline in frequency of 20-win seasons:

Period 20 W Seasons/Year
1901-1910 14.2
1911-1920 13.2
1921-1930 8.0
1931-1940 6.6
1941-1950 5.5
1951-1960 5.8
1961-1970 8.1
1971-1980 9.2
1982-1990 4.0
1991-2000 4.0
2001-2011 3.3

Thanks to a particularly pitcher-friendly period in the 1960s and an exceptionally durable cohort of hurlers working at the same time in the first half of the 1970s, the fall of the 20-win season was temporarily abated, but even so, the feat is much less common than it was in decades past. Of the non-strike shortened seasons, the only ones not to feature at least one 20-game winner since 1901 were 2006 and 2009. In that light, 20 wins does mean something these days — if not a foolproof measure of pitcher quality, then at least a marker denoting seasons where the stars tended to align for a particular player to produce a career year, worthy of an ovation if not a piece of hardware.

Given the possibility of three more starts, Dickey does have a reasonable shot at 20, which would make him the first Met to accomplish the feat since Frank Viola in 1990, and the ninth in the team’s 51-season history. Just three have done so in the past 35 years (Dwight Gooden in 1985, David Cone in 1988 and Viola being the others). Furthermore, no knuckleballer has won 20 since Joe Niekro in 1980, though he didn’t rely upon the pitch to the extent of his brother Phil, who last won 20 in 1979. If Dickey reaches 20, it shouldn’t represent the he be-all and end-all of the Cy Young discussion, and if he stalls at 18 or 19 wins, his season won’t mean tremendously less. But as the icing on the cake, a connection to half a century of Mets history and more than a century of baseball history, it’s still a pretty cool feat.

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rtd0630
rtd0630

The late 60s and 70s were unique in that Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland accounted for much of those. Baltimore had 4 on the staff in obe year. Earl Weaver believed in his starters.