TORONTO — It’s quirky, unpredictable and been described in baseball circles as an oddity and “pitch of last resort.”
But the Toronto Blue Jays are banking heavily on R.A. Dickey’s dancing knuckleball leading them back to the baseball playoffs.
Toronto acquired the National League Cy Young Award winner in a seven-player deal with the New York Mets on Monday. Dickey, 38, becomes the fourth pitcher to win the Cy Young then be traded before the next season, joining David Cone, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens.
Dickey posted a 20-6 record and 2.73 earned-run average last season with New York, but his go-to pitch wasn’t a blazing fastball, nasty slider or deep-bending curve. Often he got batters out with the knuckleball, a slow, unassuming pitch that flutters like a butterfly as it heads to home plate.
“This may be a pitch of last resort, which I think is accurate, but think about over history how many last resorts have ended up being successful,” Dickey said during a conference call Tuesday. “A lot.
“It doesn’t mean just because it’s a last resort it can’t be a legitimate, successful weapon in the major leagues and that’s what I’m trying to prove and it has taken a long time . . . at the end of the day, results usually speak for themselves and I think in this case that’s what happened.”
Toronto hasn’t made the playoffs since winning its second straight World Series title in 1993 and last season posted a 73-89 record in the AL East. General manager Alex Anthopoulos has been busy this off-season revamping his roster, having acquired all-stars Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Melky Cabrera and Dickey.
Anthopoulos is investing heavily in Dickey, signing him to a two-year, US$25-million contract extension with a $12-million club option for 2016. Dickey is scheduled to earn for $5.25 million in 2013 coming off becoming the first knuckleball pitcher to capture the Cy Young Award.
“I think Alex should be commended on being able to see past those stereotypical analyzations a lot of guys give the pitch as a gimmick or something that isn’t legitimate,” Dickey said. “I think we can all admit the past year and the past three years in general have been legitimate and I think because of that and the consistency.”
The good news for Toronto is Dickey started six games against American League competition over his three seasons in New York, posting a 4-0 record and 1.71 ERA.
Dickey began toying with the knuckleball in 2005 while with the Texas Rangers and initially struggled with it. But Dickey continued working on the pitch and has enjoyed solid success with it since joining the Mets in 2010, posting a 2.95 ERA over his three-year span in New York.
A former first-round draft pick of the Rangers, Dickey will anchor a rotation in Toronto that includes Johnson and Buehrle as well as returnees Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow. But Dickey admits he didn’t initially embrace becoming a knuckleball pitcher.
“A part of me was sad about that because I was having to admit that what I had to offer as a conventional pitcher wasn’t good enough and that’s always sad for a competitor,” he said. “But I was thankful I was down in my career far enough to be able to have people that cared enough about me to tell me the truth.
“I had to be self-aware enough to know what I was wasn’t going to cut it if I wanted to chase the big-league dream and I had to come up with something else. Thankfully I was at a place where I had to embrace what they were offering.”
The busy off-season certainly makes Toronto a solid pick in the AL East, at least on paper. The challenge for Dickey and the new-look Blue Jays will be getting to know one another in spring training and developing into a cohesive unit heading into what will be an eagerly anticipated 2013 in southern Ontario.
“You’ve got a lot of guys there that have experience,” Dickey said. “Another thing that’s going to help is a lot of us have played with one another throughout our careers, certainly against one another.
“I played with Jose Reyes as a New York Met, I’ve played with Brandon Morrow with the Seattle Mariners and I know those guys and I know what they’re all about and that certainly helps the situation.
“I think we’re going to have a great dynamic in the clubhouse. There’s a lot of older guys, there’s a lot of younger guys, there’s a lot of energy . . . but I think it’s going to get back to what it normally gets back to and that’s what kind of leadership do you have and how can that permeate through the clubhouse in a way that makes us a better ballclub?”