R.A. Dickey, born in Nashville, TN in 1974, spent parts of 15 seasons pitching in the Majors for six different organizations, including the Atlanta Braves in 2017 - the final season of his career.
On the field, Dickey didn’t establish himself as a full-time Major League player until 2010 - when he was 35 years old. Yet, for 2023, Robert Allen Dickey was one of the players whose name appeared on the ballot as eligible to be elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Coming into the 2023 season, less than 23,000 players have appeared in an MLB game. And of those, only 269 have been enshrined into the Hall of Fame as players.
Each year, when the Baseball Hall of Fame releases the list of players eligible to be voted for enshrinement, there are a group of players - between 10 and 20 - who realistically have little chance to have their likeness hung on a wall in Cooperstown, NY.
The honor of being up for election does provide an opportunity to appreciate the career of those players, whose longevity and achievements were deemed worthy for Hall of Fame consideration.
While Dickey will not be elected to Hall of Fame based on statistics he produced on the field, the story of how he came to find on-field success is dwarfed only by some of his notable off-the-field endeavors.
Dickey was drafted by the Texas Rangers as the 18th overall pick in the 1996 draft out of the University of Tennesse after also being drafted out of high school in 1993 but electing to go to college.
During his medical examination following his selection by Texas, it was discovered that he was missing an ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The signing bonus Dickey was offered by the Rangers dropped from $825,000 to $75,000 because of the issue.
Working his way through the Rangers’ minor league system with middling success, Dickey debuted for Texas in 2001. For the next five seasons, he struggled as he bounced between the Rangers and their AAA affiliate, posting an ERA of 5.72 across 77 games and 33 starts.
Prior to the 2006 season - his last with the Rangers - Dickey began working on throwing a forkball as a way to try to prolong his career. While working on the forkball, he began developing a knuckleball as an option to offset the decline in velocity he had experienced with his fastball.
Dickey made the Rangers starting rotation out of spring training after leveraging his knuckleball as one of his primary pitches in 2006. In his season debut, he allowed a recording-typing six home runs in 3.1 innings while throwing the knuckleball. The Rangers dispatched Dickey to Oklahoma City after his lone appearance and he would stay in AAA for the remainder of the season and ended his time with the Rangers organization.
Dickey pitched in 2007 with the Nashville Sounds, the AAA affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers. Playing for the team located in the same city he was born, Dickey pitched well and was named the PCL Pitcher of the Year, although the then-32-year-old did not appear in the big leagues for the first time since 2002.
Continuing to work on perfecting his versions of a knuckleball - one with a lower velocity and a faster version that he was able to throw in the low 80 MPH range - Dickey spent 2008 with Seattle and 2009 with Minnesota, pitching in the minors and majors for both clubs. In 2008, he tied a major league record by throwing four wild pitches in one inning.
In 2010, Dickey and his knuckleballs finally found sustained success. After starting the season in AAA, Dickey was recalled by the New York Mets and found a home in the team’s starting rotation. In 26 starts and 174.1 innings, Dickey pitched to a 2.84 ERA with a 1.187 WHIP and 138 ERA+. Finding the control that had previously alluded him, he walked only 2.2 batter per nine innings while allowing just13 home runs.
Dickey’s 2011 season marked his first full season in the Majors and saw him pitch more than 200 innings while starting 32 games for the Mets. He maintained the same SO/W rate as he had in his breakout 2010.
Dickey’s 2012 season is what likely gained him inclusion on the 2023 Hall of Fame ballot. Despite being 37 years old, Dickey won the National League Cy Young Award after going 20-6 for the season and leading the NL in games started, complete games, shutouts, innings pitched, strikeouts, and batters faced while putting together a 139 ERA+ and 1.053 WHIP. His SO/9 jumped from 5.8 to 8.9 while he also set a career best in BB/9 at 2.1. For the season, he was credited with 5.7 bWAR/4.7 fWAR.
He was the landside victor for the NL Cy Young Award, receiving 27 of 32 first place votes. He was also selected the All-Star Game for the only time in his career and finished 14th in the NL MVP balloting.
After the 2012 season, the Mets - who had finished below .500 and fourth in the NL East - traded Dickey to Toronto in a massive seven player deal.
The Blue Jays - whose general manager was Alex Anthopolous - gave up top prospects Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard in the deal but signed Dickey to a lucrative contract extension.
Leading the Blue Jays rotation, Dickey wasn’t able to replicate the success he’d had with the Mets, although he did lead the American League in games started in both 2013 and 2014. In 2013, he pitched 224.2 innings and won his only Gold Glove, but also struggled with the long ball, giving up a whopping 35 that season.
Dickey rebounded in 2014, again providing more than 215 innings to the Blue Jays rotation, while pitching to slightly better than league average results. He continued to be a plow-horse in the rotation in 2015, giving Toronto 214.1 innings in 33 starts, with a solid 1.194 WHIP - the best during his time with the Blue Jays.
The 2016 season would be his last with the Blue Jays, when he made 29 starts, but was bumped from the rotation in the post-season in favor of Toronto’s trade deadline pick-up, Francisco Liriano. Dickey became a free agent after the season.
With the Atlanta Braves in the midst of a re-build, the organization looked to a couple of well-seasoned veterans to provide stability alongside rotation anchor Julio Teheran as the team looked to give young starters Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb (and as it turned out, prospects such as Lucas Sims, Luiz Gohara, and Max Fried) a chance to gain big league experience.
Prior to the start of the 2017 season, then-Braves General Manager John Coppolella filled the final two spots in the team’s rotation by adding the long-time major league starters he coveted in 44-year-old Bartolo Colon and the 42-year-old Dickey.
Although Colon only lasted 13 starts with the Braves, Dickey took the hill 31 times and gave the staff a team-leading 190 innings pitched for the season. He pitched well, too, with an ERA+ of 102 - the highest of any Braves pitcher with 10-or-more starts.
Pitching for the Braves allowed Dickey reach two numerical milestones in his final start with Atlanta. He pitched in his 400th career game and made his 300th start against the Mets, throwing 6.2 inning and allowing only two earned runs but did not factor in the decision as the Braves lost 4-3.
Dickey opted to skip his last start with Atlanta in leu of Max Fried after his loss to the Mets. His time with Atlanta also afforded him the opportunity to play for the team for whom he grew-up rooting while only being 3.5 hours from his home.
Despite pitching well in what would be his final season, Dickey opted to spend more time with his family thus bringing an end to his plaining career.
Dickey finished his career with 120 career wins in 400 games, providing 2,073.2 innings and 1,477 strikeouts across parts of 15 seasons. He won the 2012 NL Cy Young Award and 2013 AL Gold Glove and appeared in the 2012 All-Star Game.
A journeyman pitcher until his age 35 season, his late-career renaissance saw him average 32 starts and two complete games in the final eight seasons of his career, with an above average 106 ERA+, a 1.231 WHIP, and a 3.76 ERA in 229 games - including 226 starts - and 1,456.2 innings.
For his career, he accrued 23.7 bWAR/18.5 fWAR.
The high point of his career was his Cy Young Award-winning season of 2012, although his three seasons with the Mets were by far the best run of his career, pitching to a 39-28 record with a 2.95 ERA backed by a 1.150 WHIP, 129 ERA+, while averaging 6.8 SO/9 in 616.2 innings.
Off-the-field, Dickey was known for his eclectic interests that included charitable missions in the U.S. and abroad, such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro after the 2011 season as part of a charity climb - and event that ran the risk of having his contract with the Mets voided. He also wrote several books, including an autobiography that revealed details about abuse he endured as a child and the widespread use of steroids he encountered as a rookie with the Rangers.
One of what may be the last knuckleball-throwing starting pitchers in MLB, Dickey’s career was not on the same plane of overall success as those enshrined in the Hall of Fame. His inclusion on the ballot does provide an opportunity to reflect on the career of a pitcher whose determination to find success and willingness to take unusual paths on and off the field are worthy of a congratulatory tip-of-the-cap to the success he was able to achieve.