Quick. Who leads all pitchers in total wins this season? If you guessed anyone other than one Robert Alan Dickey of the New York Mets, you guessed wrong. R.A. Dickey continued his unexpected mastery of NL batters this morning, shutting out the Nationals for seven-and-a-third innings, while striking out eight. Dickey's record now stands at a scalding 9-1, with a 2.44 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 81 innings. He's now tossed 24-and-one-third straight scoreless innings (look out, Orel Hershiser!). Once a knuckleballing waiver wire curio who seemed destined to perish as a lame gimmick, Dickey has incredibly transformed himself into one of the most dominant starters in the National League, and he shows no sign of stopping. Insanely, he appears well on his way to not only being a first time All-Star, but conceivably the National League starter. How cool would that be?
Dickey is pretty much the reason we watch baseball. He's just freaking awesome, and the story of how he got to this point is even better. I first remember hearing his name way back when, as he came up as a hard-throwing prospect with the Texas Rangers. He didn't pitch particularly well, getting regularly beat around in two stints in the rotation in 2003 and 2004 for a Texas franchise that needed more bad pitching like it needed a foot to the groin. In fact, at that point in his career, the only noteworthy thing about Dickey was that he somehow made the majors despite being without an ulnar collateral ligament. That particular ligament is, uh, kinda important for the whole throwing a baseball thing.
After more struggles in 2005 and 2006, Dickey finally washed out with his original team and entered baseball limbo. While in the minors, he started experimenting with the knuckleball, apparently viewing it as his only path back to the major leagues. It seemed like a long shot, as for every success story like Tim Wakefield, there were a dozen Charlie Haegers or, God help us, Mark Lemkes. It was sort of a long-held tenet that dabbling in knuckleball-dom was the last desperate act of a pitcher well on his way out of the league.
Credit Dickey, though, for his persistence. He mastered the pitch in the minors, spent an entire year honing his new craft with the Brewers' AAA team, and didn't give up after abortive stints with the Twins and Mariners. He was given an extended chance by a nothing-to-lose Mets team in 2010, and he's been, no joke, one of the best pitchers in baseball ever since.
When one reads that assertion, it seems completely laughable at first, but facts are facts. Since 2010, Dickey has put up a 3.02 ERA and has struck out 308 batters. Even as late as last summer, Dickey was scumming around waiver wires, as a lot of owners simply didn't know what to make of him. Many managers viewed his age and knuckleball repertoire as radioactive, and perhaps more simply saw his success with the pitch as promoting the sissification of the National League, and thus were simply rooting for him to fail. However, any doubt that Dickey is the real thing has gone out the window. He's simply been doing this for too long now to continue doubting his ability.
The most startling fact about Dickey's 2012 season is that his strikeout rate has skyrocketed to 8.6 Ks per nine innings. That's far and away a career high (his previous was 7.3, in 2003 when he still threw hard). Batters are whiffing more than ever at his dancing knuckler, and that has his fantasy owners salivating. Not only is he helping out in ERA and innings, but he's now a genuine asset in the strikeout category. In short, a fantasy star. We're at the point where we have to take Dickey seriously as a top fantasy pitcher. If there's an argument to be made that he's still going to break down and be revealed as a fraud, the evidence to support it is diminishing.
The great thing, too, is that he's a safe pickup in keeper leagues since knuckleballers last forever and Dickey could well stick around well into his 40's if the knuckler keeps knuckling. His story is inspirational, he's a blast to watch pitch, and he's apparently a truly great guy who just penned a terrific book. If you own him, consider yourself fortunate and enjoy the ride. If you don't, root for him, anyway.
After the jump, some thoughts on some waiver wire types who might (or might not) have a positive impact on your fantasy team.
--Gregor Blanco entered Spring training fighting for his career. After crapping out with the Royals, the Giants threw the 28-year-old journeyman a non-roster Spring invite to fight for a role as a fifth outfielder. No one expected much from the supposed glove-only bench-warmer, but Blanco swung a hot bat in the Cactus League and fought his way into a crowded Giants outfield picture.
Flash forward to June, and you can pardon Giants fans for having visions of Andres Torres 2.0. Like Torres, Blanco pretty much came out of a sea of obscurity and low expectations to shockingly win a job as a starting outfielder. He somewhat recently usurped Nate Schierholtz as the Giants' starting right fielder and he's been quite the revelation, as he's mixed in a pleasing combination of walks, steals, and even surprising power from the Giants' leadoff spot.
Is he worthy of a roster spot on your team? Absolutely! Blanco ends the day hitting .288/.390/.468. He just clubbed two home runs in as many days, totaling three on the year, after entering the season with just two to his credit thus far in the majors. While he isn't going to keep hitting home runs like this, he does have a long, pull-oriented swing that is prone to fly balls, and he hit for surprising pop in the Spring. He isn't the slap-hitting offensive eunuch that he appeared to be with Atlanta, trust me on this.
The thing is, this kind of hitting didn't come out of the blue. Blanco spent all of 2008 in the majors as Atlanta's starting left fielder, and while he wasn't good, he did walk 74 times and showed that he had a general clue at the plate. Despite a .366 OBP in his rookie season, and evidence that he could play, he was barely given a chance in 2009 and was shipped off to Kansas City, where he didn't impress much. Now he's starting with the Giants and is bunching some extra base hits along with the typical penchant for walks. As long as he keeps getting on base, he'll help you in the runs scored category atop an improved San Francisco lineup. Go get him! Now!
--If you're looking at Jason Marquis in a Padre uniform and are thinking that Petco Park might hide his crappiness just enough to make him a worthwhile pickup...to quote a favorite Sicilian-American sterotype, fuggedaboutit! Marquis's success at this point depends on having a shutdown infield defense behind him, and there's little evidence that that exists in San Diego right now, especially with Jason Bartlett sidelined. Back in 2009, Marquis had a standout year in Colorado (arguably the best of his career) because he had Troy Tulowitzki and Clint Barmes smothering anything hit on the ground. The second he left Coors Field, ironically, things went downhill, and he hasn't really come close to being that pitcher again.
Marquis is entering Jeff Suppan territory, in that he'll only survive if his team's defense is sublime. Seeing as how the Pads are only middle of the pack in Baseball Prospectus's Team Defensive Efficiency this year, it's hard to see Marquis being much of an asset. Since he's an extreme groundballer, Petco Park's huge dimensions are only going to help so much. Home runs haven't been the problem so much (excepting his awful stint with the Twins); general crappiness has. Avoid!