- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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It has been a long, wild ride, but it has culminated in this: As of Tuesday morning, R.A. Dickey is the No. 1 pitcher on our Player Rater.
Dickey is in the midst of a truly historic hot spell. He has won each of his past six starts, every one of them a quality start. His ERA during that span is 0.18, his WHIP 0.53. He has 63 strikeouts and only five walks in 48 2/3 innings. And he is the No. 1 player overall -- hitters included -- during that 30-day stretch.
Elias gives us some impressive historical notes about Dickey:
• He is the first pitcher in modern baseball history (since 1900) to pitch back-to-back complete-game one-hitters with at least 10 strikeouts in each.
• He has five straight starts with zero earned runs and at least eight strikeouts, the longest streak in history.
• He is only the fifth pitcher in history to post at least 11 wins, an ERA of 2.50 or better, and at least a 9.00 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in his first 14 starts of a season, joining Sandy Koufax (1966), Pedro Martinez (1999), Randy Johnson (2000) and Francisco Liriano (2006).
• He also is one of only four pitchers in modern baseball history to have a streak of seven consecutive starts of at least eight strikeouts and no more than two walks; Koufax (1965), Curt Schilling (1997) and Johnson (2001) are the others.
And here is perhaps the most perplexing fact: R.A. Dickey is a knuckleballer.
What Dickey has done is unprecedented. We've seen many dominating pitching stretches in history -- teammate Johan Santana's 13-0, 1.21 ERA and 11.13 K's-per-nine ratio during the second half of 2004 immediately comes to mind -- but historically, no knuckleballer has come quite close to this. When analyzing Dickey this season, one thing has become clear: There isn't a "book" on this guy, and if you think you have one, throw it out. It's a fake.
Dickey currently sports a 9.36 K's-per-nine ratio. That's 11th-best among qualified starters. He has a 4.90 K-to-walk ratio. That's sixth-best. And he has thrown a knuckleball, a pitch renowned for its difficulty to command and control, 86 percent of the time so far this season.
Let's talk knuckleballer history for a moment. While there is no official, 100 percent-complete list of historical knuckleballers -- partly due to the debate as to what percentage of knuckleball use a pitcher needs to qualify as one -- this list, partly cobbled from some of former ESPN colleague Rob Neyer's research, is a pretty comprehensive list of 86 such pitchers. If you've been playing this game for any length of time, you can probably name a good half dozen, maybe more, but among those 86, these are the all-time, single-season, ERA-qualifying (162-plus innings) leaders in those two "command categories":
K's per nine innings ratio
8.13 -- Ken Johnson, 1962
7.90 -- Tim Wakefield, 2001
7.52 -- Wakefield, 2003
7.38 -- Wakefield, 2002
7.14 -- Phil Niekro, 1977
7.03 -- Charlie Hough, 1987
Strikeout to walk ratio
3.87 -- Johnson, 1962
3.39 -- Wilbur Wood, 1971
3.39 -- Niekro, 1969
3.11 -- Niekro, 1968
3.09 -- Niekro, 1972
Those are the only historical instances of a knuckleballer having managed at least seven K's per nine or three K's per walk in a single year, and in Johnson's case, understand that he wasn't nearly as reliant upon the pitch as Dickey is. Johnson threw the knuckler roughly a third of the time. And to put these numbers into perspective, assuming Dickey throws, say, 220 innings, he would need to average 7.14 K's per nine and 3.20 K's per walk from today forward to secure his place as the all-time leader on both of those charts.
History -- or at least statistics printed on a piece of paper or displayed on a screen -- might say that's about right for a Dickey expectation from today forward. Heck, even I have said it, even recently. And I've said it despite having warmed to the right-hander at blazing speed the past several weeks; apparently, I've always been lagging a few steps behind this bandwagon. Thanks to the many New York Mets/Dickey fans, such as reader @zackdanielssr, to prompt me to dig out the microscope for a more meticulous examination of Dickey's prospects moving forward.
Again, throw out that "book" on knuckleballers. Dickey's performance is not only unprecedented, his knuckling style is very likely unprecedented.
As knuckleballers' fortunes hinge primarily upon command and velocity, Dickey's mastery of each makes him special. In the past week, I've watched portions of several of his past six starts and have determined that his strengths are location, ability to throw his knuckler at a high speed, and ability to change speeds.
The stats back this up. It appears that 78 mph is the "breaking point" on Dickey's knuckler, both performance-wise and the fact that he throws almost exactly half of his knuckleballs as fast or faster (51%) than that speed. Here are his knuckleball numbers compared to that velocity in 2012:
78 mph or higher: 194 PA-enders, .111 BAA, 40.7 K%, 1.0 BB%, 32 Miss%
77 mph or lower: 137 PA-enders, .283 BAA, 12.4 K%, 10.9 BB%, 23 Miss%
Here are Dickey's splits during his Mets career (2010-12):
78 mph or higher: 778 PA-enders, .175 BAA, 29.7 K%, 1.4 BB%, 24 Miss%
77 mph or lower: 766 PA-enders, .285 BAA, 9.8 K%, 7.2 BB%, 21 Miss%
Those numbers illustrate Dickey's superb control, as well as the unhittable nature of his knuckleball at a high speed. Consider that in 2012, he has thrown his knuckler at 80 mph or faster 17 percent of the time, and it's his strikeout pitch, thrown 40 percent of the time at 80 mph or higher with two strikes. Hitting Dickey's "fast knuckler" is the effective equivalent of trying to hit a peach slathered with butter.
Unfortunately -- and this addresses the absence of a "book" on knuckleballers -- there aren't any velocity-based comparison points we can make with Dickey. Tim Wakefield is the most notable full-time knuckleballer during years for which there are velocity readings, but he averaged 65.5 mph with the pitch and never topped 74.7 mph since 2009, the first year for which we have pitch data, and per FanGraphs, he averaged 66.5 mph with the pitch since 2002, the first season for which they have velocity readings. We can assume that no knuckleballer threw the pitch harder than Dickey does, because it seems unlikely that anyone could have as frequently as him, but there are no data points to confirm that.
Addressing Dickey's ability to change speeds, consider this: Though he has thrown only four percent of his knucklers during his Mets career at 70 mph or slower, he has limited opponents to a .159 batting average, has a 27.7 percent K rate, 2.1 percent walk rate and 21 percent miss rate on those pitches. Dickey is capable of dropping in a "slow knuckler" at any moment, just to throw you off the scent.
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Might regression strike Dickey? It's certainly possible, just as it would be for any pitcher off to an equally unexpected hot start to the season, such as Ryan Vogelsong. Dickey has allowed a .249 BABIP, which is 12th-lowest among qualifiers, and his left-on-base percentage is a major league-high 83.8. Those could endure some correction given time, though even the slightest hint of "correction" would keep him among the upper tier of fantasy starters.
And here's the counterargument: Since Dickey is a knuckleballer, relying on the pitch that has been historically impossible to project, who is to say he can't continue at or near the pace he's currently on? From today forward, you could claim him the No. 1 fantasy starter, the No. 16 or the No. 50 starter, and every one of those would have an equal claim to being "right" though the latter must reside in the camp that believes that you cannot project knuckleballers.
If you're a Dickey owner, or are targeting him in trade, what you decide as your path from today forward will very likely have a major stake in your team's finish. I've now seen enough that I deem it absurd to continue doubting him.
Among the streaming starter -- something I define as single-start options in daily leagues among pitchers owned in 25 percent of ESPN leagues or fewer -- options for the upcoming week, here are my picks by day:
Tuesday, June 19: Aaron Harang at Oakland Athletics
Wednesday, June 20: Francisco Liriano at Pittsburgh Pirates
Thursday, June 21: Jarrod Parker versus Los Angeles Dodgers
Friday, June 22: Kevin Millwood at San Diego Padres
Saturday, June 23: Clayton Richard versus Seattle Mariners
Sunday, June 24: Jonathan Sanchez versus St. Louis Cardinals
Monday, June 25: Joe Blanton versus Pittsburgh Pirates
Tuesday, June 26: Jarrod Parker at Seattle Mariners
Tuesday, June 12: Wei-Yin Chen -- 6 1/3 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 4 K's
Wednesday, June 13: Brian Matusz -- 5 2/3 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 7 K's (moved to Friday)
Thursday, June 14: Scott Diamond -- 6 IP, 5 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 1 K
Friday, June 15: Jarrod Parker -- W, QS, 7 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 6 K's (moved to Thursday)
Saturday, June 16: Alexi Ogando -- scratched, now on DL
Sunday, June 17: Alex Cobb -- W, QS, 7 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 10 K's
Monday, June 18: Jonathan Sanchez -- QS, 6 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 3 K's
Week's total: 6 GS, 2 W (33.3%), 3 QS (50.0%), 38 IP, 37 H, 15 ER, 13 BB, 31 K, 3.55 ERA, 1.32 WHIP
Season total: 67 GS, 30 W (44.8%), 38 QS (56.7%), 414 IP, 376 H, 170 ER, 139 BB, 305 K, 3.70 ERA, 1.24 WHIP
Trevor Cahill, Arizona Diamondbacks: He's 3-for-3 in the month of June -- three starts, three wins, three quality starts -- and while all three games came against teams that rank among the 10 worst in the majors in terms of runs scored (@SD, OAK, @LAA), don't quickly dismiss Cahill's performance as merely matchups-driven. When Cahill is on, he's doing two specific, related things correctly: He's relying more upon his breaking pitches (curveball and slider), and he's throwing them more effectively. To that end, during those three June starts, Cahill has thrown one of those pitches 24 percent of the time overall and 50 percent of the time with two strikes, limited opposing hitters to a .091 batting average, and tallied 11 of his 20 K's. Granted, he'll always be riskier than your average pitcher because of his dependency upon his defense -- he has a lifetime 5.62 K's-per-nine ratio -- but even if Cahill regresses, that he's steadily improving (career-wise) as a strikeout artist and pitches in a division conducive to plenty of favorable matchups speaks well about his potential the remainder of the year.
Phil Hughes, New York Yankees: Speaking of young pitchers realizing their full potential, so far in the month of June, Hughes is a perfect 3-for-3 in terms of wins and quality starts and has a 1.69 ERA and 9.70 K's-per-nine ratio. Two of the three came against teams ranked among the top 11 in baseball in runs scored, and the third was on the road (at Washington, this past Friday). Hughes might be more difficult for fantasy owners to embrace, considering he's a well-publicized Yankees pitcher who has struggled with the long ball throughout his career, as well as one whose career has been remarkably up-and-down thus far. But here's something to think about: He has averaged 92.5 mph with his fastball for the season, higher than his 2010 (92.4) or 2011 (91.2) numbers and has averaged 92.7 mph with it in June. He has also thrown it in the strike zone 56 percent of the time and generated misses on 25 percent of swings; between Opening Day 2011 and the end of May 2012, his numbers in those categories were 53 and 15. That shows Hughes' fastball both has more life and he's commanding it better, and it shows that his recent uptick might portend greater things ahead.
Josh Johnson, Miami Marlins: "Luck" might be an overused, overrated and misused word, generally in fantasy baseball analysis. But in certain instances, it's entirely appropriate. When examining Johnson's performance this season, one stat stands out: In his first five starts, he allowed 20 hits on balls in play judged "soft" contact, but in nine since, he has allowed 14 hits on those total. He also allowed a .446 BABIP in those first five starts, but .319 since, compelling evidence that a few "unlucky bounces" were ruining his ERA and WHIP early on. Johnson had a 5.34 ERA and 1.74 WHIP in his first five starts, but a 3.58 ERA and 1.32 WHIP since, despite scarcely any change in K's and walk ratios or velocity, and a lower ground ball rate. He has quality starts in seven of his past eight games and a 2.18 ERA and 8.71 K's-per-inning ratio in the month of June. It's time to believe again.
Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers: Walks are unraveling his season. Among ERA qualifiers (111 of them), Darvish's 5.13 walks-per-nine innings ratio is third-worst; only out-for-the-season Kyle Drabek (5.93) and Ubaldo Jimenez (5.35) have worse. What's more, Darvish received extra rest before his most recent start this past Friday after complaining of fatigue (per the Fort Worth Star-Telegram). The Rangers have begun treating Darvish more carefully, and he's taking more care with his location; his two-runs-in-eight-innings, 11-K performance in that Friday game was as much a testament to his skills as it hinted the need for more cautious management. There's little doubt he has the skills to compete for a Cy Young Award. On stuff, Darvish is that good. But he drops in this week's rankings because of the questions about his command and workload, as a top-20 starter really shouldn't face the magnitude of questions about those as he does.
Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays: Never known -- at least at the big league level -- for his strikeout ability, Hellickson's K's/walks numbers have taken a disturbing downturn in his past two starts. He issued seven walks compared to one strikeout in 4 1/3 innings of a June 8 game at Miami, then was hammered by the Mets for eight runs on nine hits, three of them home runs, in 3 2/3 innings on June 14, failing to record a strikeout. Hellickson has been nibbling too much: He has thrown 69 percent of his pitches "down" (bottom third of the zone) and only 40 percent of his pitches in the strike zone during those two starts, and if you break his stats down righty/lefty, he's throwing the majority of those pitches "away" (outer third) and far too many outside the zone. There's little question Hellickson has been missing his spots recently, and as a pitcher who induces a lot of contact -- 82.2 percent career contact rate allowed -- he needs to hit them in order to succeed.
Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants: His miserable season has reached the stage at which his manager is peppered each turn of the rotation about his status; Bruce Bochy has been insistent for multiple turns now that he's neither skipping nor removing Lincecum from his starting five. But at what point might Bochy succumb to that temptation? Since May 1, Lincecum has but one quality start in nine games, his ERA 6.44 and WHIP 1.57 during that time span. What's more, his schedule since that date has featured several outstanding matchups: COL (home game) on May 15, OAK on May 20, @SD on June 5, @SEA on June 16. Not one of those resulted in a quality start for the right-hander. In fact, his ERA in those four starts combined was 6.95. Don't be surprised by a demotion from the rotation in the near future.
Tristan H. Cockcroft examines the peripheral numbers behind R.A. Dickey's recent dominance and updates his Top 100 starting pitcher rankings.