Elements in place for Dickey's continued success
R.A. Dickey would have been happy to remain with the New York Mets.He just wanted to get what he felt was a market-value contract. Turns out, Dickey is getting what he wants financially, and even more. The Toronto Blue Jays believe enough in the 38-year-old Dickey that before they made the deal to acquire him from the Mets, they wanted to make sure they had control of him for more than the one year that was remaining on his contract. They got it. And Dickey? Dickey hit the Triple Crown. He received financial security, signing a two-year extension that guarantees $30 million during the next three seasons, including a $1 million buyout on a $12 million option for 2016. And that's not all. He gets to keep his catcher. Josh Thole, Dickey's primary catcher during his three successful seasons with the Mets, also was included in the trade, along with Minor League catcher Mike Nickeas, who was the primary alternative to Thole behind the plate for Dickey the past two years. And that's not all. Dickey is going to pitch his home games at Rogers Centre, where the climate-controlled environment will provide a consistency less likely to interfere with Dickey's knuckleball than the great outdoors. Charlie Hough, a longtime knuckleballer, sees it as a win-win for Dickey and the Blue Jays, who see the addition of Dickey to a rotation that already has been beefed up this winter -- by acquiring Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle from Miami -- as a key to making a run at ending the franchise's two-decade postseason drought. "They have been playing baseball an awful long time and he's the only knuckleballer to win the Cy Young, so that says plenty about his ability," said Hough. "You're looking at a good athlete, with a feel for the game and a desire to do whatever it takes to be successful." Dickey was a first-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers in 1996. After initially offering him a $810,000 signing bonus, the Rangers discovered that Dickey was born without the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, and they reduced the bonus offer to $75,000, which Dickey took. Ten years later, he was released by Texas with a resume that included a 16-19 record and 5.72 ERA in 77 big league games, only 33 starts. Dickey, however, never gave up. Now look at him. There's that 2012 National League Cy Young Award he earned, thanks to a 20-6 record and a 2.73 ERA last season. There was an All-Star selection. And now there's a financial reward for Dickey, who will more than double his career earnings of $14 million in the next three seasons. "He's an awfully determined guy to have stuck with it," said Hough. "He signed out of college. It was 14 years later before he really made it to the big leagues, and he had to go back to the Minor Leagues and reinvent himself [as a knuckleball pitcher]. He didn't start to throw it until , and in 2010, he finally made it." And Hough, who continues to work with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a special adviser in player development, thinks it will be three seasons that both Dickey and the Blue Jays will enjoy. The fact Dickey will still have Thole behind the plate when he pitches is a positive. Thole caught 66 of the 94 games that Dickey pitched in three years with the Mets. Nickeas was behind the plate for 12 others the past two years. "That's pretty good, getting a guy who is familiar with you to be part of the deal," said Hough. "You have to have someone who is comfortable with the challenge [of the knuckleball] catching you. He has to be a guy who realizes he's not going to win a Gold Glove. He's not going to get style marks. He can't get caught up in form. He has to focus on keeping the ball in front of him." Hough doesn't go into details, but during his days in Texas, the word was Jim Sundberg, a regular Gold Glove winner, had problems catching Hough because he was such a technically sound catcher. The three catchers with sub-3.00 ERAs catching Hough at least 20 innings in his career? Glen Brummer (2.54), Orlando Mercado (2.59) and Jerry Grote (2.68). The climate-controlled Rogers Centre does have an artificial surface "which is going to be a little quicker. There are trade-offs in everything. But being in a dome will help." If the wind or breeze comes from home plate toward the mound, Hough said, it's not bad, because it will help the movement of the knuckleball. But if the wind comes from behind the pitcher, it will straighten the pitch out and "side winds are more a problem than anything. They start blowing and you don't know where to start your pitch because of the break. "R.A. is a little different. His knuckleball doesn't break a lot. He throws it real hard and it's in the zone longer." Dickey did turn 38 in October, but Hough doesn't feel the Blue Jays took a gamble in giving him a contract that guarantees his salary through the age of 40. "You take a regular pitcher and say he's 32 and won the Cy Young Award, you'd give him a five-year deal," said Hough. "Well, he's like a 32-, 33-, 34-year-old pitcher in terms of what's left, so that contract is well within his range." Hough, as an example, won 72 games in the five-year period starting with the season he turned 38. Phil Neikro won 71 games in the four years after turning 38 on his way to enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. "Reflexes are the key," said Hough. "Mine were never really good. I had a bad shoulder, and legs that always hurt. That's why I had to try the knuckleball. R.A. did it because he wanted a chance to be a big league pitcher. "He was one of those guys people talk about as a 4-A pitcher," said Hough. "He was fine at Triple-A, but not at the big league level. He could never get over the jump, so he decided to try something different. It worked." And it still is working, much to the pleasure of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.