Dickey, Lincecum and the biggest surprises from the first half
R.A. Dickey has emerged as the New York Mets' ace and a Cy Young favorite
Giants ace Tim Lincecum has yet to pitch like the two-time Cy Young winner he is
The Pirates, Mets and Orioles are up while the Tigers and Phillies are down
On Tuesday I took at look back at five of the biggest stories from the first half of the 2012 baseball season. However, that only told half of the story of the season's first three months. To complete the tale, here are the five biggest surprises of the first-half:
Dickey's story is already evolving into a legend. A college star at the University of Tennessee, Robert Allen Dickey was drafted 18th overall by the Rangers in 1996, but in his initial physical, the team's doctors discovered that Dickey's pitching elbow lacked an ulnar collateral ligament, the one replaced in Tommy John surgery, prompting Texas to slash his signing bonus by more than 90 percent. After four years in the minors, Dickey pitched poorly across parts of three seasons for the Rangers before turning 30, at which point the Rangers, specifically manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Orel Hershiser, advised him that his last chance to stick with the organization was to give up being a conventional pitcher and commit to his knuckleball.
Dickey did, but the next two seasons were no better, and his Rangers career came to end with his first start of 2006, when he gave up six home runs in 3 1/3 innings. After a full year in the minors in the Brewers' organization, he reemerged in the majors as a knuckleballing swing man with the Mariners in 2008 and the Twins in 2009, but his results were not markedly better than they had been in his 20s. A non-roster invitee, Dickey was the first man cut in Mets camp in 2010, and when he was called up as an emergency starter by in mid-May of that year, he arrived as a 35-year-old with a 5.43 career ERA.
Then something amazing happened. Dickey proved to be the Mets' second-best starter over the remainder of the season, posting a 2.84 ERA over 174 1/3 innings, good for a 138 ERA+, the first above-average mark of his career. It was a great story, so much so that the eloquent and introspective former literature major landed a book deal. That book, the excellent, soul-baring Wherever I Wind Up, came out this March and it was supposed to contain Dickey's entire story, culminating in his emergence as a solid mid-rotation starter for the Mets in 2010 and 2011. However, starting in late-May, just after the two-year anniversary of his initial call-up to the Mets, Dickey went from being a solid major league starter, an accomplishment that had seemed near impossible just two years earlier, to being the best pitcher in baseball.
From May 22 to the present, a span of eight starts, Dickey has gone 7-0 with a 0.86 ERA, 0.61 WHIP, 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings and 12.7 strikeouts per walk while averaging 7.8 innings per start. Over those eight starts he has held his opponents scoreless five times, allowed only one unearned run on a sixth occasion, pitched three complete games, two of them shutouts, struck out 10 or more men five times (and eight or more seven times) and twirled consecutive one-hitters, the first time any pitcher had pulled that last trick since 1988. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first pitcher in major league history to strike out eight or more men in each of five straight starts without allowing an earned run.
Dickey enters his start against the Phillies on Thursday night with the major league lead in wins (12 against just one loss), WHIP (0.89) and quality starts (14, tied with four others, in 16 turns). He is second in the ERA behind only Jered Weaver (who has posted a 2.13 mark in 24 1/3 fewer innings), fourth in K/BB ratio (4.64) and seventh in K/9 (9.2). He needs six strikeouts to tie the major league lead (he has 116), and four innings to move into second place in the majors (he has 113, second among starters with less than 17 starts to Matt Cain's 113 2/3; Cain is also pitching on Thursday). That is an outstanding season for any pitcher, never mind that one who is a 37-year-old knuckleballer who didn't succeed in the majors until he was 35. If you thought Dickey's book was good (and it is), just wait for the paperback.
Another college pitcher drafted in the first round, Lincecum was one of the best pitchers in baseball from 2008, his first full season, to 2011. An All-Star all four of those years, Lincecum won consecutive Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009, finished 10th in the voting in 2010 (while also going 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA to help deliver the Giants' first world championship since moving to San Francisco), and sixth last year. Over those four seasons, he posted a 2.81 ERA (143 ERA+), while averaging an even 10 strikeouts per nine innings (244 per season), three times leading the league in both total strikeouts and K/9. Lincecum wasn't just one of baseball's best pitchers, he was one of the faces of the sport, a short, scrawny, long-haired iconoclast with a fun-to-imitate delivery and geek appeal.
This year, though, Lincecum has the worst adjusted ERA+ of the 105 pitchers who have thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. He gave up 16 runs in 13 2/3 innings over his first three starts and allowed four or more runs in 10 of his first 14 starts, just one of which was quality. After his 13th start I wrote on our Hit and Run blog that Lincecum, who has struggled with both his velocity and his control this season, needed to be rested and tested for a possible injury, but the Giants just keep running him out there.
In his next start after that post, Lincecum gave up five runs in five innings to the punchless Mariners. He then rallied for just his second and third quality start of the season, but in his most recent outing, in Washington on Tuesday, he took his worst beating of the year, giving up eight runs (seven earned) in 3 1/3 innings against the Nationals. He is now 3-9 with a 6.08 ERA on the season and that MLB-worst 59 ERA+, (meaning he has been 41 percent worse than the average pitcher). Lincecum has always had his doubters because of his size and his unorthodox delivery, but anyone who says they saw this coming is lying.
If playoffs were to start today, the Mets would fall just a half-game short of the second National League Wild Card spot, the Orioles would claim the second Wild Card in the American League and the Pirates, who moved into first place Wednesday night, would win the NL Central. Coming into the season, the Mets and Orioles were near-unanimous picks to finish last in the NL and AL East, respectively, while the Pirates were similarly favored to have their 20th straight losing season.
The Mets are winning thanks largely to their starting rotation, which has added a strong comeback from Johan Santana and solid work from fellow lefty Jonathon Niese to Dickey's monster season to help produce the third-best rotation ERA in baseball. They've also gotten an MVP-quality performance from David Wright (.350/.441/.559) and solid clutch hitting: .281/.356/.434 as a team with runners on base, good for a 790 OPS, better than the overall OPS of every team in the majors except the Texas Rangers. That last has helped them score more runs per game than all but two teams in the National League, one of them being the ballpark-assisted Rockies, though much like Dickey and Wright's eye-popping numbers, it doesn't seem sustainable.