The Blue Jays have done it--they've finally convinced me that they're the favourites to win the American League East division.
How have they done it? By trading their best and 3rd best prospect for last season's National League Cy Young award winner, R.A. Dickey.
Dickey put up amazing numbers last season, and during one stretch looked like arguably the greatest pitcher of all time. However, people are loathe to believe in him because he's a knuckle-ball thrower. That is absurd. Results are results, and historically knuckle-ball specialists have aged VERY well.
Basically, the Toronto Blue Jays have added a guy who was, by RA9-WINS (meaning, based only on results/outcomes and not peripheral stats or funky metrics), the 4th best pitcher in baseball in 2012, the 38th best pitcher from 2011, and the 25th best pitcher in 2010. Combine all 3 seasons, and he's the 13th ranked starting pitcher over the last 3 years. That's an ace.
Let's also keep in mind that last season he started throwing a different knuckle-ball. Different not only in the sense that it was different from what he himself typically throws, but also different in the sense that no other starting pitcher has ever thrown this type of knuckle-ball. Simply, he now features a faster knuckle-ball, which he throws about 80 mph. It made hitters look silly all season, and allowed him to spike his strikeouts to 8.86 per 9 innings pitched. That's stellar, and every peripheral indicator suggest its is for real, and thus Cy Young-caliber-Dickey is also for real.
Knuckle-ball pitchers consistently outperform their indicative stats, and Dickey's indicators were amazing. 3.27 xFIP, 3.18 SIERA, 3.39 tERA. To think that those underestimate his prowess is staggering.
But that is the likely case, because those stats assume that when batters make contact with his pitches, "normal" things will happen. Like fly balls will turn into home runs, and grounders will get to holes too quickly for infielders to gobble them up, and 20% of that contact results in a hard, unplayable, line drives. But that isn't the case with the ol' knuckler. The knuckle-ball cares not for good contact. Hitting Dickey's knuckle-ball is for major league hitters what running in sand is to distance runners--super uncomfortable, and performance-destroying.
Some more rate-stat examples, you want? Done!
Total Contact rate: 75.2% vs. league average 79.7%
Strike Zone contact rate: 79% vs. league average 87.2%
Swinging Strike rate: 12.2% vs. league average 9.1%
Swing rate: 50.6% vs. league average 46%
First-Strike rate: 62.2% vs. league average 59.9%
Situational Wins: 1.95 vs. league average -8.77
*those league averages include relief pitchers, whose rate stats almost always look better
To summarize that, Dickey convinces guys to swing at his pitches early and often. But they seldom make contact. When they do make contact, they don't hit it hard. And no matter how tough the situation, he's good. Why? Because he doesn't have to think about which pitch he's going to throw, or where he's going to aim it/release it. 86% of the time it's a knuckle-ball, and nearly all the time it's a bitch to hit.
He does throw a standard/slow knuckle ball about 73 mph and that new, different, harder knuckle-ball about 80 mph. So he throws a knuckle-fastball and a knuckle-change-up, and the speed difference is roughly optimal. HAHAHA...WTF!? That's a dirty arsenal right there.
The only question I have about Dickey is this: why on God's glorious earth did the Mets decline to give him 2 more years and $25 million? The only reasonable (it isn't reasonable) answer I can think of is that they don't trust the knuckle-ball. They're stupid. The Blue Jays do--they're smart.
So, for very little money (comparatively), the Jays just added arguably the best pitcher in baseball, a durable guy who gets lots of swings and strikes and throws a pitch that puts little-to-no strain on his arm (also, he doesn't have a UCL, literally born without one, so...ya) for Jeremy Guthrie/Ervin Santana/Joe Blanton Money. Are you kidding me? Of course they did that! Why was that an option for them? What is wrong with the Wilpons? Why weren't other teams climbing over themselves to nab this guy?
Well, the Jays did give up a fair amount for Dickey. D'Arnaud is probably the best catcher in the organization right now, not to mention how good he could be in the near and slightly further future. He isn't flawless or anything like that, but it looks like he has a nice career ahead of him, and a potentially stellar one. The team also gave up Noah Syndergaard, who is 20 and has dominated A ball. Pitchers flame out all the time, and he has a long way to go, but he throws hard, he throws strikes, and he doesn't give up many home runs. That's a sexy pair of prospects going to the Mets.
But for the Jays, given their current roster and the state of the AL East, it was a no-brainer. They needed an ace. I like Josh Johnson. I like Brandon Morrow. I like Mark Buehrle. I don't like Ricky Romero. I don't trust J.A. Happ. I'd still like to see them prop up the first base position a little, because other than against right-handed pitchers I really don't like Adam Lind, and it'd be nice if they could snag a better centre fielder than Colby Rasmus. Anthony Gose is not going to be ready to help a team looking to win in 2013. I'd love to sign Michael Bourn (give him a higher AAV for a shorter-term perhaps), and then deal Rasmus for a back-up infielder to spell Reyes and/or Izturis.
Anyway, now Toronto has the ace that they (I) so strongly coveted. A rotation of Dickey, Johnson, Morrow, Buehrle, and Romero is pretty darn good on paper. Back those guys up with Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Brett Lawrie, with a smattering of other league-average-ish hitters, and you have a recipe for a 90+ win team.
GO JAYS GO!