Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile: R.A. Dickey, RHP, New York Mets
R.A Dickey was drafted in the first round by the Texas Rangers 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 .but rescinded the offer after team doctors discovered that Dickey didn't have an ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow.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 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 seven years refining it, pitching for the Rangers, Mariners, Twins, and now the Mets.
Dickey didn't have the knuckler under full control until 2010, when he went 11-9, 2.84 in 174 innings with the Mets, posting a 104/42 K/BB ratio and 165 hits allowed. He wasn't quite as effective in 2011 (8-13, 3.28, 134/54 K/BB in 209 innings), but he was still solid and this year he's been nothing short of superb.
Over the last three years with the Mets, he's gone 39-28 with a 2.95 ERA and a 468/150 K/BB in 616.2 innings, 559 hits allowed, 132 ERA+. Dickey has shown a great deal of courage on and off the field, and while your guess is as good as mine regarding how long Dickey can pitch like this, knuckleball pitchers don't age the same way other pitchers do. The best ones have remained effective well into their 40s, and it is entirely possible that Dickey will still be a valuable pitcher in the year 2020.
Be sure to check out Jeff Sullivan's piece about the progression of Dickey's knuckleball.