Is R.A. Dickey even better than we thought?

Tom Szczerbowski

By nature, I'm skeptical. I'm also somewhat cynical. So, yeah: I'm just, you know, generally a great deal of fun.

Getting back to the skeptical part, though ... It started within about an hour of purchasing my first Baseball Abstract, some decades ago. I think my skepticism has been good for my career because there's always been a great deal of baseball's Conventional Wisdom that deserved skepticism. Remember, it really wasn't so long ago that a majority of baseball's top experts thought LaMarr Hoyt was the best pitcher in the American League.

Among the many, many bits of CW about which I was skeptical: the relevance of pitch-framing, and the notion that a knuckleball pitcher conferred some special advantage to the pitchers who followed him.

Pitch-framing just didn't make any sense to me. The umpires were (and are) trained to follow the path of the pitch, and make their calls based on the location of the baseball, relative to the strike zone, regardless of what the catcher might be doing. Yet the ex-players in the booth, and particularly (as I remember) Tim McCarver, just couldn't stop blathering on about how important the catchers were. How they could both "steal" and "lose" strikes, depending on their actions.

Well, thanks to the availability of PITCHf/x data and the fantastic work of some fine researchers over the last few years, it's now hard to resist the conclusion that pitch-framing is both real and occasionally fantastic.

And the knuckleball thing? If anyone's ever studied that, I don't believe I've seen it. If anyone's ever studied that and actually found anything, I know I haven't seen that.

Until now.

Over at FanGraphs, Christopher Carruthers has conducted an extensive study of "the R.A. Dickey Effect" ... as in, what happens to the pitchers who follow Dickey? Carruthers studied the relievers in the same game as Dickey, and also the starting pitchers in the next game (if the next game was in the same series).

Before I tell you what Carruthers found, here's why I've always been skeptical about any suggestion that any sort of pitcher could "screw up" the hitters enough to benefit the next hitter: muscle memory. These guys have taken thousands and thousands and thousands of swings in their lives, against hundreds and hundreds of pitchers. They essentially have programmed their minds and their bodies to hit effectively against the best pitchers in the world. How (I "reasoned") could facing a dozen or so pitches from one anomalous pitcher screw them up? Yes, I know hitters say it screws them up. But baseball players say a lot of things, and some of them don't bear the scrutiny of a well-constructed study.

Here's what Carruthers concludes:

Combining the un-regressed results, by having pitchers pitch after him, Dickey would contribute around 1.4 WAR over a full season. If you assume the effect is just 10% reduction in FIP for both groups, this number comes down to around 0.9 WAR, which is not crazy to think at all based off the results. I can say with great confidence, that if Dickey pitches over 200 innings again next year, he will contribute above 1.0 WAR just from baffling hitters for the next guys. If we take the un-regressed 1.4 WAR and add it to his 2013 WAR (2.0) we get 3.4 WAR, if we add in his defence (7 DRS), we get 4.1 WAR. Even though we all were disappointed with Dickey’s season, with the effect he provides and his defence, he is still all-star calibre.

--snip--

You may be disappointed with Dickey’s 2013, but he is still well worth his money. He is projected for 2.8 WAR next year by Steamer, and adding on the 1.4 WAR Dickey Effect and his defence, he could be projected to really have a true underlying value of almost 5 WAR. That is well worth the $12.5M he will earn in 2014.

l'm not ready to say anything with "great confidence" yet. But it now seems likely that there's a Dickey Effect, and it seems certain that this warrants further study. Why stop at Dickey? This research doesn't depend on PITCHf/x or hit-location data, so could easily be extended to all knuckleball pitchers. Maybe it's not a Dickey Effect, but rather a Knuckleball Effect. Which would be great news for Steven Wright.

For that matter, why stop with knuckleballers? Maybe there's an Extreme Power-Pitcher Effect, or a Curveball Effect, or a Finesse Effect.

As I type these words, it seems difficult to believe that nobody's studied these questions before. Actually, people have. But it's possible that they've not studied them with Carruthers' rigor; he "matched" innings to remove the biases that would otherwise muck up the data.

Man, I sure hope I've been wrong about this. For the sake of the knuckleballers. And for the sake of my own sense of wonder at the world's mysteries.

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