Thursday, November 10, 2016

Sticking to the Plan: Braves Add R.A. Dickey

By slgckgc on Flickr (Original) [CC By 2.0], via Flickr
In a case of an early free agency rumor becoming true, the Atlanta Braves have signed pitcher R.A. Dickey to a contract for 2017. According to Jon Heyman, he'll receive at least $8M (total includes $500K buyout) with a chance to earn an additional $7.5 million if his option for 2018 is exercised.

Let's take a look at what the Braves got.

Profiling Dickey

I don't know if you are aware of this, but Dickey throws the knuckleball. In fact, he throws it about 88% of the time according to Brooks Baseball. Along with Steven Wright and Eddie Gamboa, he's one of three knucklers to pitch in the majors since the retirement of Tim Wakefield in 2011. All three had been in the AL East, but that is no longer the case now.

Before Dickey, nobody threw the knuckleball with such velocity. That said, Dickey has "lost" about three ticks in velocity over the last two years from an average of 75.3 mph in 2014 to 72.2mph this year. However, those averages are pretty much useless because Dickey throws two knuckleballs that are only charted as one. The fast one is the one that shocks hitters and observers as, on a good day, it can reach 80 mph. The slower one is comparable to the Bugs Bunny cartoon where a hitter can swing three times on one pitch. Okay, maybe not that slow, but the two knucklers have about, on average, a 5-to-10 mph difference.

Dickey throws three other pitches, but last year seemed to relegate himself to a two-pitch pitcher. His sinker, which averaged 83 mph, was utilized 9.2% of the time. That represents an increase of double the usage from 2015. He rarely went to his fourseamer, which he adopted in 2012, nor his changeup - though that's nothing new. Now, here's the thing. Being a two-pitch pitcher is more in line with his Mets' days. Back then, he actually used his sinker much more (around a quarter of the time). Once he went to Toronto, his knuckleball usage went through the roof.

That's one thing the Braves may attempt to change once he arrives in camp in February. Dickey will also enjoy a move away from the homer-happy stadiums of the AL East where three of the five home parks in the division are extreme hitter paradises. That's especially true of his former home in Toronto. Since joining the Jays, Dickey had a HR/9 of 1.45 at home versus 1.02 on the road. While it's unknown how SunTrust Park will play, of the dozen current stadium in baseball that parkfactors.com gives a rating of 105+ - which classifies it as a hitter's park - only one is the NL East. In an unbalanced schedule, that should aid with Dickey's homerun numbers. He surrendered between 25 and 35 homeruns as a Blue Jay and between 1.05 and 1.49 HR/9. That mark should fall with his return to the NL.

That would also help his FIP/xFIP numbers. During his Blue Jays days, his best performance in those metrics was 4.32/4.14 in 2014. They looked noticeably worse over the last two years as his strikeouts fell. On the subject of K's, it's important to point out that he rebounded there last year (3% climb) and percentage-wise, he's just about 1.5% below where he was in 2014. Of bigger concern was that Dickey's walk numbers climbed sharply as a Blue Jay to a seven-year high of 8.7% last year. Perhaps less knucklers will help with that.

It's also important to not get too attached to the home/road splits. I gave you the homerun difference earlier, but from a FIP/xFIP standpoint, it's less stark. At home with the Blue Jays, Dickey had a combo split of 4.78/4.30. On the road, it was 4.36/4.59. While the FIP does keep the big change, the xFIP doesn't. That's because xFIP normalizes the homeruns surrendered. I'm pointing out this because if you think a return to the NL is just going to fix Dickey right up, you might be very disappointed. It's not to say Dickey won't be improved by a switch of leagues, but he's also not the guy who the Mets traded after 2012 anymore either.

How Dickey Fits

Dickey does do one thing the Braves are searching for. He takes the mound every fifth day. Until last year when he finished 31.1 innings short, the right-hander had pitched at least 208.2 innings every year since 2011. He would have at least gotten closer to 200 innings in 2016, but the Jays removed him from the rotation for the September stretch run. Since the Braves have had two pitchers reach 170 innings the last two seasons, an addition like Dickey will bring some calm to the staff and help them to avoid using AAAA depth guys like Lucas Harrell and Ryan Weber so frequently.

The knuckleballer also buys the Braves some time. Sean Newcomb is coming. So is Max Fried. As is Max Povse, Lucas Sims, and others. Matt Wisler, Tyrell Jenkins, John Gant, Robert Whalen, and more are already here. But the Braves don't want to just hand them spots. They want them to earn their spot like Mike Foltynewicz has. In the mean time, a veteran like Dickey gives them an option and let's not ignore that Dickey, for all his faults, gave the Jays over 800 innings and 6.4 fWAR the last four seasons. Only one pitcher has done either for the Braves. To be fair, Julio Teheran was 4.2 innings short of doing both.

It is unlikely Dickey will be the last starter the Braves add this winter. From the start, the idea was a guy like Dickey who will provide a short-term boost and help the Braves be better in 2017 while the young guns mature. Meanwhile, the Braves will seek another starter to stick around beyond 2017. Recently, I profiled Jason Hammel as a possibility. Regardless of what happens, the Braves do not want to run out of options like they did in 2016. Adding a guy like Dickey will help with that.

It's not a sexy signing. You'll probably have to remind yourself the Braves added Dickey by the time pitchers and catchers report. But it's a good signing that helps the Braves do what they have stated is their goal for 2017 - to be better.

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