Dickey to young Braves: Losing like this is not OK

Living with the knuckleball is not easy at times, as R.A. Dickey has long known and the Braves learned this season in the veteran’s first and possibly only season with the team. The Braves hold an $8 million option on Dickey’s contract for 2018, but they haven’t said if they’ll exercise it, and the 43-year-old former Cy Young Award winner and father of four hasn’t decided if he’ll pitch again or devote his energies to being a full-time dad at home in Nashville.

Whatever decisions are made, this much is certain: Dickey has been well worth the $7.5 million the Braves paid him this season, as his contributions to a young team and pitching staff have transcended his admittedly modest stats – 9-10 record, 4.41 ERA entering his 30th start tonight against the Nationals – and likely kept the team's disappointing season from slipping off the rails a lot sooner.

Young pitchers and others have learned from the hirsute teammate who is not of their generation, but is someone who has demonstrated a thoughtful approach and professionalism that traversed the age gap and will serve well those who’ve paid attention.

“There was somebody on the bench the other day that told me, like, Ozzie Albies could be my child,” Dickey said, laughing. “And there’s a couple of other guys, too, who probably could have been if I would have misbehaved when I was young. But it’s like, these guys – its great to see the future of what this could become. I grew up watching us (the Braves) be really, really good. And you’ve got some pieces (young players on the team now) that you could go back to that again here. And down (in the minors), too. But here in particular, I’ve seen two or three guys who could be guys you can count on. Which is great.”

It's been an up-and-down season for 42-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, whose contributions to the young Braves team have extended beyond his performance on the mound. (Getty Images)

Don’t think that Dickey has been some kind of soft-spoken cheerleader just telling young teammates to have fun and enjoy it all regardless of the totals on the scoreboard at the end of the day. Realistic or not, Braves veterans, including Dickey and Freddie Freeman, among others, entered the season saying the team had a legitimate chance to make the postseason and shouldn’t have any goal less than that.

They reached the 90-game mark with a 45-45 record, but have spiraled since, long since eliminated from the playoff picture and now at 67-83, assured of a fourth consecutive losing season, the longest such streak for the Braves since 1984-90. Rebuilding or not, Dickey said he’s made it clear to young players that the team has fallen short of expectations and should strive to never let this happen again. He’s enjoyed the season and his teammates, but ...

“When I signed here, I understood the business of the game, and I knew where we were as a team,” Dickey said. “I had hoped, and we all have pushed, for greater results, but at the end of the day I think there are a few of us that understood this is a process. And my job in that process is to try to help as much as I could people who I interact with, and provide the team with some stability on the mound, posting up every fifth day, in an effort to get 200 innings and 32 starts. So from that standpoint I feel like it’s been a successful year.

“Now, I think we all are disappointed, for sure. Especially the young guys. You don’t want them growing up in this culture thinking that what’s happening to us this year is OK. You don’t want that, so you have to be diligent about that, and intentional about making them feel, this is not it. They can look over there (to the Washington Nationals dugout) and see what it should be like, across the diamond in this series.”

Not that his own roller-coaster season or the Braves’ disappointing record will be a determining factor in his decision whether to pitch again in 2018, he said.

“No, it’s not so discouraging to me to say that I never want to play again,” he said. “If I don’t play next year it will not be because I’m physically unable or because I do not enjoy being a baseball player and getting to interact with my teammates. It will not be for those reasons. And we’ll make those decisions at the end of the year and we’ll see what happens. But I’ve really had a great time in this city, with this stadium and with my teammates. It’s been great.”

Manager Brian Snitker said Dickey has meant a lot to a team that’s in the third year of its rebuilding project.

“The consistency and knowing he’s going to go out there and cover innings,” Snitker said. “(Dickey’s performance) has been up and down -- I don’t know that that’s not the life of a knuckleballer because he’s been really good in periods and other periods where he fights to kind of get the feel for it.  But he’s been a great influence on these (players).

“We see him in the dugout, and he’s on the top step pulling for these young guys, and he’s available for them and enjoys doing that. I think he enjoys imparting the knowledge that he has to those young guys. He’s been just a true pro. I’ve enjoyed being around him. He’s a great guy to talk to, he’s got a real good take on things, a professional take on things. I’ve really enjoyed the year with him.”

Here’s what we mean by Dickey’s up-and-down season:

He went 3-3 with a 4.22 ERA in his first seven starts despite allowing nine homers in that span. Dickey pitched at least six innings in five of those starts and won three of the four games in which the Braves scored more than two runs while he was in during that stretch.

Next came a six-game stretch from May 19-June 13 in which he was 1-2 with a 6.75 ERA and .298 opponents’ average, failing to take advantage of 5.2 support runs he received per nine innings pitched in that span and lasting 5 1/3 or fewer innings in half of those starts.

But just as quickly as his performance dipped, it rose again during the best period of Dickey’s season, a 10-start stretch from June 19-Aug. 13 in which he was 4-2 with a 2.12 ERA, .230 opponents’ average and 50 strikeouts with 21 walks and only four homers allowed in 63 2/3 innings, including six or more innings in nine of 10 starts. In five of the six games he didn’t win in that period, the Braves scored two or fewer runs while he was in.

Just when it looked like Dickey might carry that run through the rest of the season and reach his personal goals, he hit another rough patch, beginning with a three-homer game against the Reds at SunTrust Park on Aug. 18. In his past six starts beginning with that one, he’s 1-3 with a 6.55 ERA and .333 opponents’ average, allowing four or more earned runs in all but one outing and lasting five or fewer innings in each of his past three starts.

Dickey’s 4.41 ERA entering tonight’s start against the Nationals is his second-highest in eight seasons as a full-time starter. His 1.43 WHIP (walks-plus-hits per innings pitched) is his highest as a starter and his 67 walks in 29 starts (175 1/3 innings) is seven walks shy of the career-high 74 he issued in 34 starts (215 2/3 innings) in 2014.

He’s going to finish with fewer than 200 innings for the second consecutive season, after averaging more than 219 innings for five seasons through 2015, including a career-high 233 2/3 innings in his 20-win Cy Young Award season with the Mets in 2012.

On the other hand, with a 9-10 record and likely two starts left after tonight, Dickey needs one win for his sixth consecutive season with at least 10, and has a chance to post what would be his first winning record since going 48-32 over three consecutive winning seasons in 2012-14. And this is an important one for him: He could make 32 starts, which would be the sixth time in seven seasons he’s made at least that many.

He’s going to fall short of his innings goal, but Dickey’s 175 1/3 are tied for the team lead with Julio Teheran, who’s made one more start (30). The 4.41 ERA isn’t great by his standards, but it’s the best among Braves who’ve been in the rotation all season, ahead of Teheran (4.52) and Mike Foltynewicz (4.79). Only Sean Newcomb (4.32 ERA in 17 starts) and Jaime Garcia (4.30 in 18 starts) have better ERAs among Braves who made at least three starts.

R.A. Dickey and catcher Tyler Flowers began to develop a good working relationship at spring training. Here they went over things after Dickey's first mound session at training camp. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

And did we mention the contributions he’s made beyond those innings when he’s on the mound every fifth day?

“You know what I enjoy?” Dickey said Wednesday. “And this may sound corny to somebody, but it’s the truth because this is what I felt when I was coming up: I had guys like Kenny Rogers and Orel Hershiser and John Wetteland and other guys that poured into me when I was young. The thing that I like the most, is not listening to me talk about how to play the game; I don’t really enjoy that actually. What I enjoy is seeing guys take steps forward and getting to encourage them when they do. Like when you see a guy, let’s say a young guy gives up two or three runs in the first (inning) and he makes it through seven innings. That’s a big step for a guy. So to be able to encourage him in that after it’s happened is what’s fun for me.

“That’s the funnest part, to kind of pat them on the back. Now, there are times where you have to kind of pull them aside and say, ‘Hey, you can’t do this,’ or ‘This isn’t the way that pro baseball players play.’ That’s part of it. But my favorite thing about it is getting to see people take steps forward.”

Snitker said, “He’s such an honest, down-to-earth guy, he’s easy to talk to and he’s got a really great take on things. I really respect everything (veterans) have gone through to have those careers, like a Nick Markakis-type guy, watching him every day and talking to him, steady, even keel every day.”

“(Dickey is) a good man. You watch him interact; he brings his kids out here, has a lot of fun. They’re good kids. He’s a good person and fun to be around.”

• Let's close with Willie Nelson's version of this classic, "September Song."

"SEPTEMBER SONG" by Willie Nelson


Oh, it's a long, long while 

From May to December 

But the days grow short, 

When you reach September. 

When the autumn weather 

Turn leaves to flame 

One hasn't got time 

For the waiting game. 

Oh the days dwindle down 

To a precious few . . . 

September, November . . . 

And these few precious days 

I'll spend with you. 

These precious days 

I'll spend with you.

Oh the days dwindle down 

To a precious few . . . 

September, November . . . 

And these few precious days 

I'll spend with you. 

These precious days 

I'll spend with you.

These precious days 

I'll spend with you.

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About the Author

David O'Brien
David O'Brien
David O'Brien covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for more than a decade.