Everyone's writing about R.A. Dickey and it makes good sense. Dickey is the lone knuckleballer pitching in the majors this season. He's 9-1 with a 2.44 ERA, and a 24 percent strikeout rate. He hasn't given up a run in his last three starts. And he's starring on a New York Mets team that has defied expectations with 32-27 record through the first 59 games of the season.
Yesterday, Rob Neyer wrote here about Dickey's historic run of 24⅓ innings pitched without allowing a run and wondered how it compares to baseball's greatest knuckleballers. Jonah Keri wrote over at Grantland about Dickey's control of the knuckleball, resulting in his high strikeout rate. And Paul Swydan explored Dickey's consistency over the last two seasons in a post on FanGraphs.
Rob, Jonah and Paul all mentioned Dickey's age -- he's 37 -- and the fact that he first enjoyed success in the majors late in his in his career. Very late indeed. Dickey's first good season as a starting pitcher was in 2010 when he was 35 years old.
I wondered how many other major-league starting pitchers had followed a similar path. Very few, as it turns out.
First, a bit on methodology. To compare pitchers across many decades, I relied on ERA+. That statistic measures a pitcher's ERA, adjusted for his home ballpark and the average ERA in his league that season. For instance, if the average ERA in the league is 4.00, and the pitcher is pitching in a ballpark that favors hitters, and his ERA is 4.00, then his ERA+ will be over 100. Conversely, the average ERA in the league is 3.00, and the pitcher is pitching in a ballpark that favors pitchers, and his ERA is 3.00, then his ERA+ will be below 100.
Using Baseball Reference's Play Index, I looked for starting pitchers who had at least one season with an ERA+ greater than 105 at age 35 or older. I then looked to see how old the pitcher was when he had his first season with an ERA+ greater than 105. My goal was to identify pitchers who struggled for a number of years in the majors before achieving success in their mid-30's or later.
While my criteria were simple and straightforward, the research was not. Along the way, I came across several pitchers whose major-league careers were delayed until their mid-30's, like Johnny Niggeling (also a knuckleballer), Joe Berry, and Connie Marrero (the oldest living former major league player, now 101 years old). There's also Dazzy Vance, the Hall of Famer who debuted in the majors at 24, missed five seasons due to injury, and after surgery, pitched into his 40s. Those are great stories, too, but they're not like R.A. Dickey's story. His is an unusual one, shared by few.
Dickey debuted in the majors in 2001, pitching in four games for the Texas Rangers, who drafted him in 1996 out of the University of Tennessee. He missed the 2002 season entirely, but was back with the Rangers in 2003, starting 13 games and pitching in 25 others. He ended the season with a 9-8 record, but with a 5.09 ERA. He threw a mid-80's fastball, a breaking ball and a pitch he called a forkball. Nothing special, or particularly effective. He pitched in another 35 games for the Rangers in 2004, to no greater effect. At the end of the 2005 season, the Rangers strongly suggested that Dickey convert his "forkball" into a true knuckleball. He did, and the Rangers gave him a shot at the starting rotation early in the 2006 season. In his first and last outing that season, he gave up 6 home runs, bringing an end to his career with Texas. In his five seasons in Texas, Dickey posted ERA+ of 71, 99, 90, 69 and 27.
Dickey bounced around the minors in 2007 and 2008, first with the Brewers and then with the Mariners. Seattle had him pitch in 32 games in 2008. In 112 1/3 innings, Dickey posted a 5.21 ERA with a 1.14 K/BB ratio. He gave up more than 1.2 home runs per 9 innings pitched. His ERA+ with the Mariners was 81. At age 33, he was no closer to professional success.The same was true at age 34, a season he spent with the Twins organization.
But 2010 was different. In 27 games for the New York Mets, including 26 starts, Dickey went 11-9, with a 2.84 ERA. Nearly 84 percent of his pitches were knuckleballs, up from 65 percent in 2009. Better, sharper knuckleballs. His walk rate and home run rate dropped to the lowest of his career; 2.17 walks and .67 home runs per nine innings pitched. His ERA+ that season was 138. At age 35, R.A. Dickey finally became a successful major-league starting pitcher.
Dickey's peripherals were not as strong in 2011, when he posted a 111 ERA+ in more than 208 inning pitched. But this season is Dickey's best ever. Over 81 innings pitched, his ERA+ sits at 151. So far.
Hollingsworth debuted in the majors in 1935 with the Cincinnati Reds. He was 27 years old. The left-hander started 22 games for the Reds, and pitched in 16 more, for just over 173 innings that season. He posted a 3.69 ERA, good for a 101 ERA+. He continued with the Reds in 1936 and 1937, pitching nearly 400 innings in those two seasons, but with less than positive results: 92 and 95 ERA+, respectively. Things got worse for Hollingsworth to begin the 1938 season, prompting a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies in June. He pitched more than 200 innings for the two teams, combined, with declining performance: a 90 ERA+.
In 1939, Hollingsworth bounced from the Phillies to the Dodgers, and then, in 1940, to the Washington Senators. Like Dickey, Hollingsworth found himself in his early 30's, with his career headed in the wrong direction. He spent the entire 1941 season in Triple-A.
And then, it clicked. The St. Louis Browns purchased Hollingsworth's contract and brought him back to the majors in 1942 at the age of 34. He started 18 games for the Browns, and pitched in 15 others, for a total of 161 innings. In his first winning season in the majors, Hollingsworth posted a 2.96 ERA, good for a 126 ERA+.
His success was fleeting, though. He followed his 1942 season with two more disappointing ones in 1943 and 1944, but bounced back in 1945, at the age of 37, to post the best season of his career. He started 22 games for the Browns, and pitched in 3 others, for a total of 173 innings. His 2.70 ERA was good for a 132 ERA+. Hollingsworth played one more season, pitching for the Browns and the White Sox in 1946, closing out his major-league career at the age of 38.
Rip Sewell first pitched in the majors at age 25, tossing just 10 innings for the Detroit Tigers in 1932. His time in the big show was short-lived, however. He spent five years in the minors, working his way back to the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1938. The next season, at age 32, was his first full season in the big leagues. He started 12 games, and pitched in 40 others, for a combined 176 innings. His 4.08 ERA was good for a 94 ERA+.
Sewell earned a spot in the Pirates' starting rotation in 1940 and, at age 33, blossomed into a star. He posted a 16-5 record, with a 2.80 ERA and 136 ERA+, and finished 25th in National Leauge MVP voting. Like Dickey, Sewell saw his performance decline the season following his breakout year, but not by much. Then, in the winter before the 1942 season, Sewell injured his foot in a hunting accident, causing him to re-work his pitching motion and delivery.
The result? A looping, arcing pitch that came to be known as the Eephus.
Over the next eight seasons, Sewell dominated the National League with his confounding, unhittable pitch. From age 35 to 42, Sewell won 103 games and lost 65, with a 3.48 ERA. and a 111.38 ERA+. He was a National League All-Star in 1943, 1944 and 1946.
Which brings us back to R.A. Dickey.
The buzz for Dickey to represent the National League in the All-Star Game is growing. At 37, he wouldn't be the oldest pitcher ever selected for an All-Star team. That distinction belongs to Satchel Paige, who was 47 years old when he was selected for the American League All-Star team in 1953. But if Dickey is the starting pitcher for the National League, he would be the oldest starting pitcher playing in his first All-Star game.