Dickey Losing Command Of His Knuckler

BY @CHRIS_TOMAN

Another rough start for R.A. Dickey on Thursday in what has been a rough season for the knuckeballer. To make matters worse, stuff wise, Dickey actually looked good for parts of the afternoon contest against the Twins, and they didn't start to hit him until late. But, once again, Dickey was done in by the walks and as the game was clearly slipping away from him, he was left out there and it cost the Blue Jays.

Dickey had a bad first inning but wiggled his way out of trouble until surrendering five runs in the fifth, four of which he was on the mound for. Manager John Gibbons kept him out there and the last batter Dickey faced, Josmil Pinto, punished a 3-1 fastball off the wall in left-center field to give the Twins a 4-0 lead. Dickey was slipping in the fifth, that much was clear. He was walking the tightrope for the majority of the contest but came up with big pitches to escape some jams. Gibbons played a risky game and paid for it. With a doubleheader, Gibbons was clearly trying to get more out of Dickey, and have his No. 1 starter make it through five frames.

But during a game that was within reach, and Dickey progressively looking worse with his pitch count rising, it's easy to second guess that call from Gibbons. With Todd Redmond, Esmil Rogers and J.A. Happ on the roster, the Blue Jays have three long men in their bullpen, so perhaps Gibbons shouldn't have been so reluctant to yank Dickey early.

This is has been a major theme with Dickey during his brief tenure with the Blue Jays. Gibbons has had a difficult time deciding when to lift him from contests, and many times it has come too late and after the knuckleballer has put his team in a big whole by surrendering a big hit. Thursday was no different.

Yes, the Blue Jays need and want more from Dickey but the reality is they shouldn't be treating him any different than a backend arm when he's not pitching better than one. If he doesn't have it, and is costing his team a game, he needs to be lifted. He is supposed to be an innings-eater that can help save the bullpen from overuse, though, so it's definitely a tough spot for Gibbons, who also needs to manage to win games.

Toronto's offense did nothing, getting shutout, 7-0, so much of the loss in on the bats. But that doesn't take away from the way Dickey pitched or how Gibbons handled him.

Dickey walked the first two batters he faced and, despite throwing first-pitch strikes to all four batters he met in the first inning, he went to three-ball counts on all of them. He escaped the inning unharmed, though. Dickey's knuckleball was moving but he had difficulty throwing the pitch for strikes. It seems like there is always an excuse for Dickey but, to be fair, he appeared to be squeezed on some calls and the game-time temperature at first pitch was -1C.

It was evident from the start that Dickey was going to be turning to his fastball more so than usual. He was throwing first-pitch fastballs and getting plenty of called strikes on the offering -- five through two innings -- early on. According to Brooks Baseball, Dickey entered the start having thrown 26 fastballs this season without allowing a hit. The first hit in 2014 he allowed off his fastball came in a 3-2 count to Kurt Suzuki, which the catcher took the other way for a single to right field. In the third, the fastball worked again for Dickey, as he got Brian Dozier looking for the second out of the frame.

Here's the problem with Dickey's fastball, though: it's not a weapon. It's a pitch he can effectively mix in at times. When the knuckleball isn't working, like Thursday when he was unable to consistently throw it for strikes, turning to the fastball more often is a dangerous game to play. Of the five pitches Dickey threw to Pinto in the fifth, the final batter he faced, four of them were fastballs. With two on and trailing, 2-0, Dickey obviously knew it was a pivotal point in the game. And after starting Pinto off with two-straight balls, Dickey had to find the zone. But the problem is that since he was having trouble throwing the knuckleball for strikes, he threw three-consecutive fastballs to Pinto, and the last one was crushed off the wall and ended his day.

Dickey's fastball sits in the low-80s and can be solid, as it has primarily been this season, but not when he is turning to it a lot. He can fool batters by sneaking one in from time to time, but when they are seeing it frequently, and consecutively like Pinto did, it's a recipe for disaster. It's not a pitch he turns to much. Dickey is only going to be successful if the knuckleball is working, which is the problem for him. He's not like most starters -- if his knuckleball is off, he can't abandon it and live off other offerings. In other words, if the knuckleball isn't working, the Blue Jays are likely going to have to score plenty of runs to win games that Dickey starts.

The Twins have been a patient team this year, too, as the club entered Thursday's game with the second-most walks in baseball this season. And, overall, hitters haven't been swinging at pitches Dickey throws out of the zone this season as much as they have in the past.

In 2012, Dickey's Cy Young Award-winning season with the Mets, hitters swung at 34 percent of the pitches he threw out of the zone, per Fangraphs. Last year, that dropped to 30.7% and, entering Thursday's start, it was down to 23.9% this season. This year's sample is small, but this is definitely something to keep a close eye on. Dickey can generate weak contact and pile up strikeouts by getting hitters to expand the zone against the knuckleball. But if the league has adjusted and overall become more disciplined against him, the walks will continue unless he can throw the pitch for strikes more often. And if he can't do that with his knuckleball, it means more fastballs, and more fastballs isn't a good thing.

According to MLB GameDay, 25 of the 112 pitches Dickey threw were fastballs. That means 23 percent of his pitches were fastballs and this is a pitcher who entered the start throwing the pitch under 10 percent of the time this season and just a shade over that mark in 2013. Dickey threw first-pitch fastballs to 25 percent of the batters he faced (6/24), and it's a pitch he primarily throws when he's behind in counts. To jump to an overall fastball usage of 23 percent was not by design. In his first three starts combined this year, Dickey threw his fastball 26 times.

Dickey, sporting a 6.26 ERA through four starts, is a real issue right now, especially considering this is an arm the Blue Jays are counting on big things from. After the five walks he issued Thursday, Dickey has walked an American League-leading 15 this season over 23 innings. He struggled with control last season, too, recording his highest walk rate since he transformed himself into an effective knuckleballer in 2010. His knuckleball velocity isn't an issue, either. Declined velocity on the pitch was at least a theory behind his 2013 first-half struggles but, on average, he's throwing his knuckleball as hard as he was during his second-half turnaround and just under where he was at with it in 2012. Even in the Minnesota cold, his knuckleball was coming in at 76-plus mph and he was able to hit 80 on it, which is where he has been with the pitch throughout the season.

The big problem appears to be Dickey's ability to command the pitch and, since he has struggled doing so, it appears opposing batters have been less reluctant to chase it. Dickey's not an ace, that 2012 year with the Mets was an anomaly, but Toronto needs him to be better than a backend arm. There's a lot of season left and plenty of time for him to fix things, as he did in 2013, but so far his year is not going according to plan.

h/t Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball for stats