R.A. every fourth day? Mets have pondered it
Club decided against idea to keep other starters on routine
NEW YORK -- Armed with a pen, a pad and a fair bit of imagination, Mets manager Terry Collins and pitching coach Dan Warthen huddled last month and mapped out a plan for knuckleballer R.A. Dickey to pitch every fourth game, rather than every fifth.
"We just haven't been brave enough to try it just yet," Collins said Tuesday.
In theory, such a system could work to the Mets' advantage. Knuckleballs tend to be less stressful on the arm than fastballs and sliders, allowing Dickey to proceed on short rest more easily than other pitchers. But Collins ultimately nixed the idea out of concern for his other four starters, considering it would have forced them to pitch at times with more than a full week of rest.
"What you want to do is give everybody the best chance to do well," Dickey said, discussing the difficulty of pitching on extra rest. "You think about that kind of stuff. Because you want the overall body of work for the team to be productive."
It has certainly been productive for Dickey, who leads the National League with 11 wins, 103 strikeouts and a 2.00 ERA through 14 starts, in what is blossoming into a tremendous season for the knuckleballer at age 37. Given Dickey's utter dominance over his last six starts (a 6-0 record, 0.18 ERA, 63 strikeouts and five walks), the Mets have every reason to want him on the mound more often.
Physically, Dickey said, the four-day turnaround between starts would not be a problem. But even he admitted that his body might not hold up to the resulting five- or six-dozen extra innings over the course of a season. Not to mention there is some merit to doing everything possible not to disrupt his current rhythm, which has helped Dickey string together one of the more remarkable runs of any starting pitcher in baseball history: He has not allowed an earned run over his last 42 2/3 innings, putting him 19 shy of Orel Hershiser's 24-year-old record.
"The knuckleball does allow you to get on the mound more often than you would otherwise be able to do as a conventional pitcher," Dickey said. "But now you have to talk about how effective can you be? And that's the question. I could get out there and pitch probably every fourth day. How effective I would be, I don't know."
His own history provides limited evidence in that regard. Dickey has started on short rest just thrice since joining the Mets in 2010. And while he has performed at least adequately in each of those outings, that sample size is small and lacking in cumulative effects.
Then again, perhaps the greatest concern is not whether his right arm could endure all the stress, but whether the rest of his body could. Dickey tore the plantar fascia in his right foot early last season and admitted in his book, "Wherever I Wind Up," to taking a dose of the pain-killer Toradol before each of his final 22 starts.
Asked which part of his body might suffer the most on a four-day schedule, Dickey responded with: "Maybe your brain, to be honest. It's a mental grind. Not that I don't love the challenge of that."
Dickey also regularly throws his knuckleball at speeds faster than 80 mph, putting more stress on his arm than a typical knuckleballer. And he has recently begun throwing his hardest pitches more often than ever, firing 106 knuckleballs of at least 80 mph in his past three starts. Over his first 11 outings, he threw a total of 100 such pitches.
Though four-man rotations used to be the norm in Major League Baseball, American pitchers are now conditioned from a young age to start every fifth -- and often every sixth -- day. Pitchers have grown stronger throughout the last century, to be certain, but their arms are no longer accustomed to such frequent use. Consider it another concern for Dickey, who admitted that he "would need preparation for that."
"Theoretically, he probably needs three days," Collins said. "But to keep him on pace with four days is going to be great. Everything looks great now. It's June. Ask him how he felt last September. He was tired. And the one thing we aren't going to do is look up in August and have this guy worn out."
If the Mets are able to exceed expectations throughout this summer and remain competitive into September, perhaps Collins and Warthen will revisit the argument -- in truth, they may not be able to avoid it if they are fighting for a playoff spot or attempting to win a postseason series.
But for now, the Mets will simply use Dickey every fifth game and hope he continues pitching them toward that direction.