It is tempting to treat RA Dickey as a pitcher who will turn into a pumpkin. He’s 36, and didn’t have his first extended success until he was 35. He throws what many see as a novelty pitch. And such feelings can only have grown after last night’s six innings of six-run pitching.
But a closer look at Dickey’s numbers indicates that there’s little cause for concern.
It is important to start with understanding what the 2010 baseline is. That wouldn’t be Dickey’s 2.84 actual ERA, which was tremendous, but his xFIP ERA (which takes luck out of the equation), a still-strong 3.75 ERA. Expecting some regression was reasonable coming into 2011, though a 4.62 ERA through six starts was not. And even his xFIP of 4.33 is a bit of a jump from 2010.
So what is going on here? Well, let’s check his vital signs. Strikeout rate is 5.31 per nine innings, after 5.37 last year. Ground ball rate is down just a tick from 55% to 53%- nothing significant, especially over six starts. Same for his fly ball and line drive rates. In other words, hitters are experiencing roughly the same outcomes on balls in play. And his home run rate is actually down from 2010.
The only difference so far is the walks: from 2.2 per nine innings in 2010 to 3.7 in 2011. Now, there are a couple of ways to look at this. One is to take the pessimistic view, and see that his career walk rate is 3.2 per nine, meaning that he’s likelier to stay at 2011 levels than return to 2010 levels. That will make him more of a true 4.2-4.4 ERA pitcher than a 3.5-3.7 ERA pitcher- in essence, bumping him from a 2/3 to a 4/5.
But career stats are significantly less predictive for a guy who only learned the knuckleball a few years ago. And in 143 2/3 innings of minor league pitching from 2008-2010, his walk rate was less than 1.6 per nine innings. In the major leagues, over 351 innings in 2008-2010, he checked in at just under his career rate, at 3.15.
But if we are parsing the small samples of 2011, let’s also note that he’s put up these walk totals in his six starts: 3, 5, 4, 2, 1, 1. In other words, he’s already gotten the walks, his one problem area, under control.
My guess? The process has been fixed, and the results will follow. The other X factor not discussed here is Dickey’s uncommon intelligence, which I believe will help him to fix problems as he pitches.
In short? Expect an ERA right between his 2010 and 2011 current marks.