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Burning Questions: Will R.A. Dickey regress with Blue Jays?

Photo: Tomasso DeRosa/AP

R.A. Dickey's increased use of the knuckleball since the 2010 season has made him an elite pitcher.

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Singling out a fantasy baseball MVP is more challenging than doing the same for fantasy football. The size of rosters and length of the season make it harder for one guy to be on the roster of a large percentage of league champions. However, you can still gather a handful of commonly valuable players for the team photo, and there's no doubt that R.A. Dickey would have been a part of that for the 2012 season.

Dickey entered last season coming off two solid years with the Mets, but he was still an inexpensive commodity in drafts and auctions. In shallower leagues, odds are he was a free agent on Opening Day. His first eight starts were fine, but nondescript. He had a sparkling 5-1 record with a 3.75 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 40 strikeouts in 50.1 innings. He ended May with a bang, allowing one run on eight hits with 21 strikeouts in 14.1 innings in wins over the Pirates and Padres. It was a sign of things to come, for with June came the Summer of Dickey.

He kicked off the month with a complete game shutout of the Cardinals, allowing seven hits while fanning nine. He worked 7.1 shutout innings, giving up just four hits while whiffing eight, in his next start. Then, in two of the most dominant performances of the year, he threw back-to-back complete game, one-hit shutouts, notching 25 strikeouts in the process. He went on to have the best year of his career, going 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 230 strikeouts in 233.2 innings and a Cy Young Award.

Despite his superlative season, the Mets weren't willing to break the bank on a contract extension. They are in the middle of a significant rebuild, and Dickey is in his age-38 season, but this hinted at something more. The Mets' unwillingness to go beyond two years for $20 million suggested they didn't totally buy that Dickey could do it again. Apparently, they didn't lack company. The Mets sent Dickey to Toronto after the pitcher and Blue Jays worked out a two-year, $25-million extension. That's a lower average annual value than deals signed by Ryan Dempster (Red Sox), Dan Haren (Nationals), Edwin Jackson (Cubs), Hiroki Kuroda (Yankees), Jake Peavy (White Sox) and Ervin Santana (Angels). Those guys have combined to win one Cy Young, and that was Peavy way back in 2007. Dickey had just tied a bow on one of the best seasons for a starting pitcher in recent memory. So, um, what gives?

That's the question you'll have to consider when valuing Dickey this offseason, and it's the next in our Burning Questions series. As he approaches his 40th birthday, can Dickey continue his career resurgence? What impact will moving to the AL East from the pitcher-friendly National League have on him? Where does he belong on your draft board?

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Let's take those one by one. Whether or not you believe Dickey can keep having the best years of his career in his late 30s depends on how strongly you believe in his Mets tenure. As I noted earlier, Dickey's 2012 season didn't come from out of nowhere. In his three years in Queens, Dickey went 39-28 with a 2.95 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings. The only real outlier from 2012, when you look at his entire Mets career, was his strikeout total, which he built on the strength of the best knuckleball the majors has seen in a long time. The question, then, is did something change when he joined the Mets in 2010?

The answer is yes. In '10, Dickey, for the first time, fully committed to the knuckler. Dickey started throwing the knuckleball with the Rangers in '05, when he threw it 49.2 percent of the time. In '08 with Seattle, that number jumped to 67 percent. In '09 with Minnesota, it remained basically flat at 64.4 percent. But the next year, Dickey's first with the Mets, he abandoned the slider and curveball he had been throwing and cut way back on his changeups, as well. More than four-fifths of the pitches he threw, 83.8 percent, were knuckleballs. After dipping down to 75.3 percent in 2011, the knuckler was back up at 85.4 percent last year. Put another way, Dickey was not a true knuckleballer until he joined the Mets, and it was the mastery of that pitch that made him a Cy Young winner. Really, the stats he has posted in the last three years are the only ones that matter.

Dickey's repertoire also suggests he'll age well, given that he doesn't rely on blowing hitters away to be successful. In the last three years, Dickey's average fastball has been clocked at 83.9 MPH, 84.4 and 83.4, respectively. As long as he can keep floating that knuckler up there with precision, his low-80s heat will continue to look like low-90s. Whereas you'd be worried about most any pitcher in their age-38 season, it shouldn't be anything more than a number for Dickey.

No matter who you are, the American League will be a more challenging league in which to pitch than the National. That shouldn't really require any explaining. While that could serve as a tiebreaker in a debate of Dickey against, say, Adam Wainwright, it shouldn't fundamentally change your opinion of him. One way we can better quantify the difference is by comparing the parks of the NL East with those of the AL East, with a focus on Citi Field and the Rogers Centre.

Dickey's new home in Toronto was almost exactly neutral, according to park factors. On a scale where 1.000 is right down the middle and the higher the number, the more the park favors the hitter, the Rogers Centre posted a park factor of 1.008, compared with 0.874 at Citi Field. Dickey's new environment is a slight downgrade, but, like his move to the AL, it shouldn't be considered as anything more than a tiebreaker with an equal hurler.

As for the road stadiums he figures to pitch in most often, Fenway Park and Camden Yards both played as extreme hitters' parks a year ago, Yankee Stadium was neutral, and Tropicana Field was tied with Citi as one of the best pitchers' parks in the league. The four other stadiums in the NL East all played very close to neutral, with Turner Field, Nationals Park and Marlins Stadium slightly above 1.000, and Citizens Bank Park slightly below. The road parks of the AL East figure to be a bit more imposing than those of the NL East, but not enough to move the needle. Don't let Dickey's move to the American League scare you away.

Only the final question remains. Where should you slot Dickey on your board of starting pitchers? Stephen Strasburg, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and David Price comprise my top tier. After that comes Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish, Johnny Cueto, Matt Cain and Cole Hamels.

I have Gio Gonzalez at No. 11, followed by Chris Sale and CC Sabathia. And those are the lucky 13 I rank ahead of Dickey. I'll be taking him ahead of Cliff Lee, Wainwright, Madison Bumgarner, Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke and a host of other worthy options. The Dickey we saw in New York these last three years is the only one who matters. That Dickey relies on the game's second most dominant pitch, according to Fangraphs' pitch values. Only Kershaw's fastball scored higher. There's no reason to believe that age or a change of scenery will keep his knuckleball from dancing as maddeningly as it did last year. He may not have been the fantasy baseball MVP in 2012, but he was in the team photo. Get him in your team photo this year.

More Burning Questions: ? Part I: Can Trout, Harper avoid sophomore slump? ? Part II: Will R.A. Dickey regress after Cy Young? ? Part III: Is Anthony Rizzo an elite first baseman? ? Part IV: Can Brett Lawrie reach his potential? ? Part V: How will the Upton brothers fare in Atlanta? ? Part VI: Is Atlanta's Kris Medlen a top-tier starter? ? Part VII: Is Kansas City's Eric Hosmer worth the wait? ? Part VIII: Can Wil Myers be MLB's next rookie sensation? ?Part IX: Are hitters still more valuable than pitchers? ? Part X: Predictions for the 2013 MLB season

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