Posted May 09, 2013

Rare matchup of Cy Young winners finds Dickey, Price in less than peak form

David Price, R.A. Dickey, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays
David Price, Rays

David Price has posted a 6.25 ERA so far this season. (Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

For just the third time in major league history, the two Cy Young winners from the previous season will square off in a game when R.A. Dickey and the Blue Jays face David Price and the Rays at Tropicana Field on Thursday night. Despite all the makings of a marquee matchup between division rivals, both pitchers and their teams have been among the bigger disappointments thus far this season.

The Blue Jays limp into the game at 13-22, mired in last place in the AL East and holding the second-worst record in the league. Dickey, who was acquired from the Mets in a December blockbuster after winning the NL Cy Young award — the first full-time knuckleballer to do so — has seen his ERA nearly double, and all of his key peripherals have moved in the wrong direction. If it weren’t for a bit of extra help from his defense via a depressed batting average on balls in play, he might be in even worse shape:

Year HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 BABIP FIP ERA
2011 0.9 2.1 8.9 .280 3.31 2.73
2012 1.7 3.6 7.1 .252 5.22 5.36

Dickey’s success in recent years has been founded on his ability to throw an “angry knuckleball,” one with much more velocity than the average knuckler. Last year, his pitch averaged 77.7 mph, according to the data at BrooksBaseball.net, and it’s been above 76 mph since he joined the Mets in 2010. By comparison, the fastest annual average for Tim Wakefield, the only other knuckleballer with a similar amount of data during the PITCHf/x era, is 67.0 mph in 2007.

Late last June, ESPN Stats and Info showed that when Dickey threw his knuckler above 78 mph, it was downright unhittable, with a .111 batting average and 277 OPA against, compared to .283 and 881 for his knuckleballs between 60-77 mph. Via Brooks, last year batters swung and missed at Dickey’s knuckleball 27.7 percent of the time when they took the bat off their shoulder. This year, Dickey’s knuckleball is averaging just 75.7 mph, a significant drop, and batters are swinging and missing just 11.4 percent of the time. Dickey isn’t inducing them to chase as often, either; according to FanGraphs, opposing hitters swung at 33.3 percent of his pitches outside the strike zone in 2012, compared to just 24.9 percent of the time this year.

The declining velocity and effectiveness of Dickey’s knuckleball are believed to be attributable to tightness in the neck and upper back of the 38-year-old hurler. The problem forced him out of the game after six innings on April 18, which thus far has been his only scoreless outing of the year. In three turns since then, he’s been hit for 14 runs and five homers in 19 innings. An MRI taken last week showed that he had minor inflammation in both his back and neck but no structural damage. While his relatively clean bill of health is reassuring, the dramatic difference in performance resulting from the loss of just a couple miles per hour has to be unsettling for a team that presumed Dickey could retain similar effectiveness through his age-40 season, and granted him a two-year, $25 million extension at the time of the trade.

As for the Rays, they come into the game at 15-18 record, sitting in fourth place in the AL East, 5 1/2 games out of first place but three games ahead of the Blue Jays. On a more positive note, their run differential is actually in the black (+4), and 54 runs ahead of Toronto’s. Price’s ERA has more than doubled from last year’s league-leading mark, as has his home run rate, and his BABIP has shot sky high:

Year HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 BABIP FIP ERA
2011 0.7 2.5 8.7 .286 3.00 2.56
2012 1.6 2.4 8.1 .351 4.44 6.25

One thing that the per-nine stats conceal is that Price’s strikeout rate has actually fallen dramatically relative to the increased numbers of batters faced via the endless hit parade, from 24.5 percent last year to 20.8 percent this year; Dickey’s rate has fallen even further (24.8 to 18.5 percent), but the drop is much more apparent in the more readily available per-nine stat.

Via BrooksBaseball, the average velocity of Price’s sinker (which he throws around four times more often than his four-seamer) is down significantly, from 96.2 mph to 93.9. The biggest change, however, appears to be in his curveball, where his velocity is basically unchanged but where he’s getting much less break:

Pitch  Freq  Velo (mph)  HMov (in.)  VMov (in.)  Whiff
2011 11% 79.7 -2.8 -5.0 20.0%
2012 15% 79.9 -1.2 -2.5 13.8%

The difference is only a couple of inches in both the X and Y planes, but baseball is a game of inches, and batters are whiffing on far fewer of his curves. They’re also putting more of them over the wall — three thus far, where he didn’t allow a single homer on a curve last year.

Given their struggles, there’s no telling what to expect from either Dickey or Price; both have mixed good outings with bad thus far, each delivering four quality starts out of seven, and getting rocked for at least seven earned runs twice.

Looking over the brief history of Cy Young winners squaring off, the annals contain one classic pitcher’s duel and one mismatch. On Aug. 28, 1989, Frank Viola — who had been traded from the Twins to the Mets in a 5-for-1 swap on July 31 of that year — spun a three-hit shutout against Orel Hershiser and the defending world champion Dodgers, winning 1-0; Hershiser threw eight innings, allowing the game’s lone run in the third. On July 15, 1999, the Braves’ Tom Glavine held the defending world champion Yankees to two runs in six innings, while his teammates piled six runs on Roger Clemens in a 6-2 win.

If the number of Cy Young matchups seems small, remember that it wasn’t until 1967 that the award was given out in each league, that interleague play didn’t begin until 1997, and that just a small handful of winners have changed teams in the next year — either via free agency or trade — to make such matchups possible in the face of those other obstacles.

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