Dickey's 20th win should erase doubt

BY Ken Rosenthal • September 27, 2012

Sitting at Citi Field, watching R.A. Dickey, listening to the crowd, it was difficult to even think about numbers. Hearing Mets manager Terry Collins tell the story of how he persuaded Dickey to start the eighth inning, urging him to feed off the energy of the crowd, you thought, right then and there, that no one else should win the National League Cy Young Award.

Of course, that’s not how it works, not in an age when the velocity and movement of every pitch is measured and dissected, not to mention the outcomes of every inning and start. To the advanced metrics crowd, emotion often is the enemy, to be resisted with vigor, lest it blur the numbers. Yet emotion, as we saw Thursday at Citi Field, remains the engine of this sport.

You want numbers? Dickey, who turns 38 on Oct. 29, can give you numbers. He earned his 20th victory Thursday by matching his career-high with 13 strikeouts in a 6-5 victory over the Pirates. He leads the NL in innings (227 2/3), strikeouts (222), complete games (five) and shutouts (three) — and is barely second to the Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez in wins, 21-20, and barely second to the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in ERA, 2.68 to 2.69.

That’s a Cy Young profile if there ever was one, but the truth is, Dickey is quite similar to Gonzalez, Kershaw and the Reds’ Johnny Cueto. A number of stats — opponents’ OPS, fielding-independent pitching, strikeout rate — favor Gonzalez. Kershaw is next in those categories, while Cueto — pitching in hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark — rates the highest in ERA-plus, which adjusts a pitcher’s ERA to his league and park.

In fact, going off ERA-plus, none of this year’s candidates is as dominant as any of the past five Cy Young winners, creating momentum in some quarters for Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, whose statistics are nothing short of historic. Kimbrel, though, has thrown nearly 170 fewer innings than Dickey. The two barely are even part of the same species; the challenge that a starter must face, pitching every fifth day, is simply much greater.

Thursday was special because Dickey was seeking to become the Mets’ first 20-game winner since Frank Viola in 1990, and the first knuckleballer to win 20 since Joe Niekro in 1980. Ah, 20 wins — a milestone that still matters to most everyone who plays the game and watches it, if not so much to those who view the sport only through more advanced data.

Dickey, in his postgame news conference, inadvertently made the case against the importance of 20 wins, citing the importance of his teammates’ contributions, noting he produced the same effort and consistency last season and finished 8-13.

Fair points, but to win 20 games, a pitcher usually needs to make nearly all of his starts and pitch deep into games. As Collins said afterward, speaking for the uneducated masses, “If there’s greatness in pitching, it’s winning 20.”

The Mets rearranged Dickey’s pitching schedule so he could try for No. 20 at home. A crowd of 31,506 turned out to witness his attempt, bringing life to the home finale of a team that is 26-44 since the All-Star break, a team that once held promise but ultimately produced its fourth straight losing season. Afterward, Dickey would note, “This day was as much about the fans as it was me.”

The connection is unusual; fans identify with Dickey, Collins said, because of his unselfishness and honesty. Dickey, in his autobiography, wrote of growing up poor in a dysfunctional household, being sexually abused as a child, cheating on his wife, contemplating suicide. After years of failure, he finally mastered the knuckleball — as much as the pitch can be mastered — and achieved a career breakthrough in his mid-30s. Last offseason, he ascended to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise awareness for at-risk girls and women in Mumbai.

Yes, we’re talking about a great narrative, the type of sentimental journey that often inflames the numbers crowd, who disdain anything that might mask a statistical truth. You know what, though? The numbers crowd often has a point. Sabermetrics forces us to question conventional wisdom, with the goal of telling an even better story.

So, when Collins talked about the difficulty of winning 20 games for a sub-.500 team — Dickey is the first to do it since Roger Clemens went 21-7 for the Blue Jays in 1997 — you could look up Dickey’s run support, and see that it is actually far better than that of Cueto’s and Kershaw’s, though far worse than Gonzalez’s.

Still, at Citi Field on Thursday, something deeper was going on.

Dickey fell behind the Pirates, 2-0 and 3-1, said that he was “exasperated” with himself midway through the game. Then, he said, “I’d come out for an at-bat. I would hear this kind of growing surge (among the fans). I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced something like that before. Maybe I never will again. Although I wasn’t distracted from the moment, how could you not be motivated to go out there and give the fans and your teammates and yourself all that you have?”

Afterward, he would say he was tired as he has ever been after a game. He was ready to come out after the sixth, but pitched the seventh, finishing the inning with 111 pitches. He then led off in the bottom half, and in the words of Collins, “beats out a stinkin’ infield single when I tell him not to swing the stinkin’ bat.” Dickey joked, “I was trying to swing at the first pitch so I could go sit down and rest.” Fortunately he was forced at second. But one more time, he had to go back out and pitch.

“He was done. He was pooped,” Collins said. “I said, ‘Look, this ballpark is filled with energy today. Use it to your advantage. Go out to that mound, we’ll go hitter by hitter. If somebody gets on, you’re coming out.’ I said, ‘These people deserve to see you walk off the mound.’”

Dickey asked only one thing of his manager: “Don’t leave me hanging.” Collins honored that request, removing the pitcher after a two-out walk to Travis Snider; the next hitter, Rod Barajas, earlier had tagged Dickey for a double and home run. The crowd booed Collins for acting with a 6-3 lead, the Mets’ bullpen predictably made things interesting, but the decision to yank Dickey was the correct one. The 128 pitches represented the second-highest total of his career.

In the end, it was all just a footnote. Dickey ended up with victory No. 20, and with more scheduled start, stands a chance of earning No. 21. Know this: He is proud of his accomplishment. But also know this: In no way does it define his success.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever attached a number to it,” Dickey said. “It’s just much more for me, if I can really harness the moment and suck the marrow out of every second, then I’ve done what I want to do, and I can be satisfied.”

Sitting at Citi Field, watching him pitch, listening to the crowd, the Cy Young seemed so important. Dickey acknowledged that every pitcher wants to win the award, every kid wants to grow up to be the best. But if you think about it, what could top Thursday, when a player, team and fan base celebrated as one?

The number created the moment. The moment was so much greater than the number.