NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12: R.A. Dickey #43 of the New York Mets throws a pitch during the game against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field on September 12, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)
Tuesday night, Tim Wakefield goes for his 200th career victory. Again.
Monday night, R.A. Dickey went for his ninth victory this season. He didn't get it.
What Dickey did do, though, was pitch well. Again.
In 2010, Dickey -- barely an afterthought in the Mets' pre-season plans -- wound up going 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA that ranked seventh in the National League.
What seems to have largely been missed this season is that Dickey, far from being a one-season wonder, has firmly established himself as Wakefield's successor as baseball's premier knuckleball pitcher.
As a starting pitcher with the Red Sox, Wakefield's peak seasons were 2003-2005, when he averaged 32 starts and 205 innings per season, and went 39-29 with a 4.35 ERA (108 ERA+).
Those numbers made Wakefield an exceptionally valuable pitcher, good enough to start for any team in the major leagues. He began that stretch at 36, and turned 39 in August 2005. As many knuckleball pitchers have, Wakefield did his best (or near-best) work in his late 30s.
Bobby Dickey is 36, turns 37 next month. As you probably know, he (like Wakefield) got a late start as a knuckleball pitcher. Where Wakefield was a first baseman early in his professional career, Dickey was a conventional pitcher who threw his fastball in the 90s. But that didn't work out so well, and ultimately he turned to the knuckleball.
Which didn't pay off immediately. Dickey spent 2007 in the minors, and struggled with the Mariners in 2008 and the Twins in 2009. But in 2010 everything clicked. And here's the best part (so far) ... Dickey's been just as good in 2011; once you skip past his ERA, the numbers have been almost identical this season.
In 2010 and '11, Dickey's got a 3.15 ERA (122 ERA+). Where Wakefield's strikeout-to-walk ratio in his peak seasons was 2.2, Dickey's is 2.6. Where Wakefield gave up 1.3 home runs per nine innings, Dickey's given up just 0.8 homers per nine.
Yes, some of that's the difference between the leagues, and some of that's the difference between Fenway Park and Citi Field. But there's good reason to think that Dickey is, at this point in his career, at least as good as Wakefield was at that point in his.
And of course Wakefield's still pitching at 45.
Does this mean Dickey will still be pitching 10 years from now?
Of course not. He has to stay healthy, he has to keep pitching effectively, and he has to want to keep pitching.
The point is that if we're looking for someone to keep the knuckleballing tradition alive after Tim Wakefield retires, we could hardly find a better candidate than Robert Alan Dickey, who seems to have exactly the qualities of a knuckleballer who will still -- like Wakefield, and before him Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro -- be throwing, well into his 40s, fooling the world's best hitters with the world's most interesting pitch.