Dickey, the journeyman knuckleballer without an ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm who had never qualified for an ERA title prior to his career-saving age-35 season with the Mets in 2010, won the 2012 National League Cy Young award Wednesday night. He received 27 of a possible 32 first-place votes to beat out the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, the reigning NL Cy Young winner.
Meanwhile, in the American League, the Rays' David Price won the closest non-tie vote in Cy Young history to beat out defending winner Justin Verlander.
Both results were unprecedented in their own way. The AL award because of how Price won, the NL award because of who won. Dickey becomes the first knuckleball pitcher to win the Cy Young and, having just turned 38 in October, the second-oldest first-time winner whose career started after the creation of the award in 1956.
Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley was 26 days older when he won his first and only Cy Young as a reliever in 1992. Hall of Famer Early Wynn won for the award for the first and only time for his age-39 season in 1959. Dickey, Eckersley and Wynn form an interesting trio. Eckersley, like Dickey, benefitted from a mid-career conversion, Eckersley from the rotation to bullpen, Dickey from conventional pitching to full-time knuckleballing. Wynn, meanwhile, did have a knuckleball in his arsenal, as did 1952 AL MVP Bobby Shantz, but the knuckler was not the primary pitch for either man.
Dickey threw his knuckler 84 percent of the time this past season, per the Pitch f/x data at TexasLeagurs.com. Actually, that should read "knucklers," plural. In contrast to the recently retired Tim Wakefield, the last fully established major league knuckleballer, Dickey threw the pitch anywhere from 60 to 80 miles per hour, a range of speeds twice as large as what is typically considered excellent separation between a pitcher's fastball and changeup.
Just to keep hitters on their toes, Dickey mixed in a low-80s fastball and, on very rare occasions, a low-60s curve. He restored that curve to his repertoire this season after dropping it in 2011, but it was his improved master of the knuckler, which he threw roughly 77 percent of the time in 2010 and 2011, that powered his Cy Young campaign.
Dickey went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA this past season while leading the National League with 233 2/3 innings pitched, five complete games, three shutouts and 230 strikeouts, that last total one more than Kershaw.
The biggest change in Dickey's performance in 2012 was his up-tick in strikeouts, from 5.8 per nine innings in 2011 to 8.9 this year. That combined with his 2.1 walks per nine innings gave him a handsome 4.26 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That sort of command of the strike zone is not typically associated with knuckleball pitchers, but Dickey did a lot to rehabilitate the pitch's reputation this season.
Strikeout rates, and thus strikeout-to-walk ratios, were lower in decades past, but Dickey's nonetheless compares favorably with some of the best knucklers in the game's history. Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro averaged 2.3 walks per nine innings over a nine-year span from 1967 to 1975 and posted a 3.39 K/BB ratio thanks to 1.8 walks per nine innings in his Cy Young runner-up season of 1969.
Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm had a 2.3 BB/9 and 3.11 K/BB over a seven-year span from 1963 to 1969. Knuckleballer Wilbur Wood had a 3.39 K/BB ratio and 1.7 BB/9 when he finished third in the Cy Young voting in 1971. Wood finished second in the voting the next year, albeit with a lower strikeout rate. In 1979, Joe Niekro, brother of Phil, became the third knuckleballer to finish second in the voting, though he had less impressive peripherals.
You see what's happening here? Dickey is being mentioned alongside the greatest knuckleball pitchers and greatest knuckleballing seasons in history, but to limit his praise to a discussion of knuckleballers is to sell him short. During a dominant run from late May through the end of June, Dickey became just the seventh pitcher in major league history, and the first since Dave Stieb in 1988, to throw consecutive one-hitters, and the first pitcher ever to have five consecutive starts in which he struck out at least eight men while not allowing a single earned run.
However, Dickey's accomplishments go beyond the baseball field. His career arc of fall, reinvention and redemption is one of the great stories in the game's history. To hit the highlights one more time: Dickey was a college star and Olympian who was drafted 18th overall but had his signing bonus taken away when his initial team physical revealed that he didn't have a UCL in his pitching elbow. A decade of struggle on the cusp of the major leagues led to his conversion to full-time knuckleballing, a Hail Mary of a career move suggested by then-Rangers manager Buck Showalter and coaches Orel Hershiser, and Mark Connor. Dickey passed through four organizations across four seasons before finally mastering the pitch with the help of retired knuckleballers Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro and the still-active Wakefield before finally sticking in the Mets rotation at the age of 35 in 2010. Before Wednesday night, that was the end of the story, but now that story ends in a Cy Young.
In truth, a close reading of the numbers gives runner-up Kershaw the edge in performance this past season. He went 14-9 with an MLB-best 2.53 ERA, and 6.7 hits per nine, while leading the NL with a 1.023 WHP. The margin between the men is so small that to deny Dickey's story would be the worst kind of stats-based humbug.
Neither of those two was the best pitcher in the majors in 2012. Nor, for that matter, was AL Cy Young award winner Price. The best pitcher in baseball, for the second year in a row, was runner-up Justin Verlander. Price led the American League in wins (20, against five losses) and ERA (2.56), but Verlander led the majors in ERA+ (160), innings pitched (238 1/3), strikeouts (239) and complete games (6), received less run support than Price, and his home ballpark was more favorable to hitters. The result was the closest Cy Young vote in the award's history after the 1969 tie between the Orioles' Mike Cuellar and the Tigers' Denny McLain.
Price won by just four points, 153 to 149, after being placed first on exactly half of the 28 ballots submitted by the writers. Verlander received 13 first-place votes, with the last going, courtesy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Drew Davison, to Rays closer Fernando Rodney, who didn't rank higher than third on any other ballot. That vote alone didn't cost Verlander the award, however, as Davison had Verlander second on his ballot and the difference between first and second place was just three points. What's more, if Davison had ranked Rodney behind both Verlander and Price, it would have given an extra point to Price as well (one point separated second and third places), resulting in a mere two-point gain for Verlander.
The 28 ballots were submitted by two writers from each of the 14 American League markets and the two Angels writers, Michael Martinez of FoxSportsWest.com and Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register, both put third-place finisher Jered Weaver second on their ballots and Verlander third. They did not cost Verlander the award either, as the difference between second and third place was just one point, so Verlander would only have had two more points if Martinez and Plunkett had flipped Weaver and Verlander on their ballots.
Rather, it took all three ballots to make the difference in the award, so one can't necessarily call shenanigans on the voters. This is not like 1999 when two voters left Pedro Martinez off their MVP ballots entirely, costing him that award. Price won fair and square. The voting results are proof, however, that as far as the Cy Young voting has come in terms of minimizing the influence of pitching wins -- Tim Lincecum in 2009, Zack Greinke in '09 and Felix Hernandez in '10 each took home the hardware despite winning fewer than 17 games -- it's still not all the way there.
Price, who finished second in the voting in 2010, had what was arguably the best pitching season in the short history of the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays, and deserved to finish no lower than second place, but the best pitcher in baseball went home without an award Wednesday night. That said, it seems petty to harp on that given Verlander's Cy Young and MVP wins last year and Dickey's remarkable season, story and grace. Wednesday night was a good night for baseball, even if the numbers say the wrong men won.