Prospect Retro: R.A. Dickey
One of the bright spots for the New York Mets this year has been veteran R.A. Dickey. Promoted from Triple-A in May, he's 6-3, 2.63 in 11 starts with a 51/20 K/BB ratio in 72 innings, the best pitching at the major league level in his career thus far. Dickey had an unusual and unique path as a prospect, and I've had several requests in recent weeks to look at his career.
R.A Dickey was drafted in the first round in 1996, from the University of Tennessee. He used a 90 MPH fastball, a strong breaking ball, and a funky delivery to go 9-4, 2.76 with a 137/33 K/BB ratio in 127 innings for the Volunteers. The Rangers offered him a $850,000 bonus. . .but rescinded the offer after team doctors discovered that Dickey didn't have an ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. The ligament wasn't damaged; it simply wasn't there, and it was possible that he was born without one. The condition was unprecedented for a professional pitcher. The (reportedly guilt-ridden) Rangers front office still offered to sign him, but cut their bonus offer back to $75,000, which Dickey accepted in August, knowing that no one would draft him if he reentered the pool in '97.
There was some talk of Dickey having Tommy John surgery, but the procedure was never performed. Instead, he pitched 36 innings for Class A Charlotte in '97, posting an ugly 6.75 ERA after giving up 51 hits, though his 32/12 K/BB wasn't bad. He was shut down at midseason and had surgery to remove bone chips from the elbow, but they didn't touch the ligament issue. I put him in the '98 book, but with the notation that a grade was somewhat pointless at that point. There were rumors that he was going to be released.
He avoided getting the axe, however, then performed much better in a return engagement at Charlotte in '98, saving 38 games, posting a 3.30 ERA with a 53/22 K/BB in 60 innings, 58 hits. His fastball was just 86-88 MPH, but his funky delivery, good breaking ball, newly-developed forkball, and bulldog demeanor impressed observers. I gave him a Grade C in the '99 book.
Moved up to Double-A Tulsa for 1999, Dickey was used as both a starter and reliever, making 11 starts but also picking up 10 saves in 25 relief outings, posting a 4.55 ERA. His K/BB was unimpressive at 59/40 and he showed just mediocre velocity, but his personality and work ethic continued to draw attention. He pitched 23 innings for Triple-A Oklahoma, with a 17/7 K/BB and a 4.37 ERA. I gave him a Grade C in the 2000 book, writing "making an objective assessment, he's just a Grade C prospect, though I think he eventually might have a good year or two in the majors."
Dickey spent all of 2000 with Oklahoma, posting a 4.49 ERA and an 85/65 K/BB in 158 innings, 167 hits, showing an admirable ability to eat innings but not dominating anyone. In 2001 he improved with a 3.75 ERA and a 120/45 K/BB in 163 innings; his fastball ticked up a notch back into the lower 90s at times, although this wasn't consistent and he still relied mostly on junk offerings and deception. He got into 12 innings for the Rangers, allowing 13 hits and nine runs. He still rated as a Grade C.
He had another decent season for Oklahoma in '02 (4.09 ERA, 109/47 K/BB in 154 innings) but didn't get into major league action. That changed in '03, the Rangers using him as a swingman that season and in '04 with mediocre results, ERAs over 5.00 with erratic peripherals. In 2005 he began using a knuckleball, and he's spent the last five years refining it, pitching for the Rangers, Mariners, Twins, and now the Mets.
Dickey's major league career: 28-31, 5.04, 322/197 K/BB in 515 innings, 590 hits, ERA+ 92, below average obviously, although his pitching this year is a nice taste of success for him. Keep in mind that in the summer of 1996 it looked like Dickey may never even pitch professionally. He never gave up, showing great perseverance and making a career for himself. Even if he never pitches another major league inning, his career has to be considered a success given the circumstances.