An Unlikely Ace.

by Jonathan Leshanski
May 5, 2004

I looked at the standings today and initially I thought that things were pretty much as expected. But that is not really true - I expected teams like the Red Sox, Padres, Angels, Twins and the Astros to be at the top of their divisions and I predicted that the Marlins and Yankees would be contenders and probably take the Wild Card births. I have to admit I never pictured the Texas Rangers as a first place team after more than perhaps the first 10 games of the season.

Now I know that this is probably just an aberration, after all we have never seen any pitching thrive in Arlington – it’s just one of those parks that favors hitters and allows batters to pad their stats. However the Rangers staff at this point in the season has been tremendous - ranking first in the AL in Wins and third in the AL in ERA.

The Rangers’ starting rotation hardly reads like a who’s who of pitching; their highest paid starter, Chan Ho Park, also has their highest ERA. What has emerged in Texas is an unlikely ace in 29 year old right-hander R.A. Dickey, who was considered such a nothing pitcher that more than half of this season’s fantasy guides did not even have him listed.

Dickey, who was characterized as a “middling middle reliever” that relies on sheer guts, has had the last laugh with a 4-1, 3.48 start. It is certainly a step up from last season’s 9-8 record and ERA of 5.09 – Dickey is already more than a third of the way towards matching his career best win total (11), which came in 2001 with Oklahoma of the Pacific Coast League.

The Rangers had great hopes for Dickey, who was their first round pick (18th overall) in the 1996 draft. However prior to his signing a medical anomaly was found - it was discovered by a Rangers’ team doctor that Dickey was missing the ulnar collateral ligament on his right arm. According to experts that should have prevented him from doing simple things like carrying groceries or even turning a doorknob or driving.

Maybe not knowing this was a real blessing. Prior to this discovery Dickey was one of the top pitchers in college and he played with the 1996 USA Olympic team. After being picked by the Rangers in the draft the world appeared to be his oyster. Then the team doctors checked him out and discovered the unique nature of his elbow.

The team pulled back his bonus and his future was suddenly in doubt. Not only did he not have the ligament but his elbow also showed signs of injury. Almost out of desperation he still signed with the Rangers - for about three quarters of a million dollars less.

His minor league career was unimpressive for the most part until 2001 while playing for Oklahoma in the Pacific Coast League where he posted an 11-7 record with a 3.75 ERA. That earned him a late season call up as a reliever but it was just a cup of coffee. 2002 found him toiling in the PCL again, not quite good enough for the majors and perhaps just a little too talented for AAA.

Last year he finally got his break. He came back to the big team and pitched in 38 games, starting 13 of them. He finished with a 9-8 record and a 5.09 ERA - the best numbers for any American League rookie pitcher that started more than 10 games in 2003. Those numbers look much more ugly than they really were and they caused him to be overlooked by a lot of experts coming into 2004.

On Sunday night Dickey started his 5th game of the season, which was only his 18th major league start. The game was televised on ESPN with a national television audience and he showed both experts and fans alike just what he has to offer. He earned the 13th win of his career and fourth of the season by limiting the Boston Red Sox to only 4 hits and one run over 8.2 innings.

He worked this magic with a nice mixture of pitches including a good fastball, change up and curve, and a special pitch that he credits as being the key to his success - “the Thing”. In layman’s terms “the Thing” is a combination of a knuckleball and a curve but it really appears to be more of a combination of everything that he throws rolled into one pitch.

Whatever that “thing” is, it is certainly difficult to hit - as Dickey used it cool off one of the hottest hitters in baseball in David Ortiz, snapping his 12 game hitting streak and finish the sweep of the Sox. Manny Ramirez categorized his stuff as “nasty” following the game.

It may very well be that the “thing” is a unique pitch delivered by a unique elbow or it might just be that Dickey has just been lucky. Whatever the case may be, it makes Robert Alan Dickey a player to watch and to cheer - he might become the ace that the Rangers have craved since the Ballpark in Arlington opened.

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