Back in March, we would have predicted this showdown of reigning Cy Young winners R.A. Dickey and David Price -- just the third time that that has happened -- would be a monumental duel between two of the game's best pitchers, maybe with first place in the AL East on the line.
Instead, the Toronto Blue Jays entered with a lousy record, a lousy run differential and a starting rotation in shambles, both in performance and injury status. The Tampa Bay Rays were a little better but still three games under .500, and their biggest problem hadn't been scoring runs, but preventing them. This isn't the Blue Jays team we expected to see, nor the Rays team we've grown accustomed to seeing.
The Rays ended up winning 5-4 in 10 innings, but let's review how things went for our Cy Young winners.
Dickey entered with a 2-5 record and 5.36 ERA, and his problems compared to 2012 were pretty easy to spot: more walks (1.5 more per nine innings), fewer strikeouts (down nearly two per nine innings), more home runs (eight, already one-third his total of 24 from 2012) and a low strand rate (80 percent in 2012, 65 percent in 2013).
Numbers are numbers, but they don't tell us why the numbers were bad. In this case, however, a deeper dig reveals a primary cause: Dickey hasn't been throwing -- or has been unable to throw because of back and neck inflammation -- his "hard" knuckleball as often. According to research from Mark Simon and Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information, Dickey threw his knuckleball at 80 mph or higher 491 times last season, or 20 percent of his total pitches. Entering Thursday's game, he had thrown only 12 knuckleballs at 80-plus mph, or 2 percent of his total pitches. The kicker is that results against Dickey's sub-80 knuckleballs were nearly identical: .241/.293/.382 in 2012 versus .226/.294/.397 in 2013. But last season, his hard knuckleball, with that late break, was his dominant putaway pitch. He hasn't had that this season.
Thursday's outing saw more of the same. Of the 110 pitches Dickey threw, 104 were knuckleballs, but only two registered 80-plus. He walked five in his six innings, although he escaped with minimal damage, three runs allowed. It's too early to make a judgment on how Dickey's season will go; some of this could be the back, some of it could be adjusting to new catchers, some could just be not having the feel right now for the knuckler.
In his last game at home, he was booed after giving up three home runs to the Mariners. "We're somewhat of a dysfunctional team right now," Dickey said after that loss. "We're kind of searching for a way to score runs, a way to pitch well. We're doing a lot of things poorly, myself included."
Thursday's game didn't do anything to alleviate those issues. The Blue Jays ended up losing in the 10th inning on a bases-loaded two-out walk on a 3-2 pitch to Luke Scott by Brad Lincoln. He had entered with two on and walked pinch hitter Ryan Roberts to load the bases. But that had been preceded by John Gibbons having lefty Aaron Loup intentionally walk left-handed James Loney with a runner on second. I understand why the move was made; Loney is hitting .381, second in the AL, and once Roberts was announced -- he's hit .152 against right-handers -- Gibbons made the switch. Of course, Loney hasn't hit lefties in years (ignore this season's small sample size), and if Gibbons was so concerned about matchups, why not bring in Lincoln to face Evan Longoria, who had doubled with two outs to start the rally?
Anyway, another bad loss for the Jays, with plenty of blame to go around. They're 10 games under .500 at 13-23. In the wild-card era, 95 teams have started 13-20 or worse and only three (2001 A's, 2005 Astros and 2009 Rockies) recovered to make the playoffs.
The returns on Price were much more positive. He pitched eight innings, allowed four runs (two earned) with eight strikeouts and a walk. While much has been made about his drop in fastball velocity (an average of 95.4 mph in 2012 versus 93.2 mph entering Thursday's game), Mark and Katie discovered that Price's curveball perhaps has been the bigger problem. Basically, he has been throwing it for strikes too often and it has been getting hit instead serving as a punch-out pitch. Last season, batters hit .153 against it; before Thursday, they were hitting .323 against it.
He threw his curve 13 times against the Jays, but only one ended up as a decisive pitch in an at-bat (he got the out). The good news is he kept his pitches down. He'd thrown 53 percent of his pitches in the upper half of the strike zone entering the game, up 12 percent from 2012. On this night, that figure was just 26 percent. As a result, he didn't allow a home run for only the second start this season.
While one win in his first eight starts isn't how Price and Rays fans envisioned things, there are clear reasons to be optimistic about him. It hardly would be a surprise to see him roll off seven or eight great starts in a row and get that ERA close to 3.00 by the All-Star break. The Rays still need to get the bullpen going and stop surrendering so many home runs (tied for fourth most in the majors), but if you ask me which team -- Toronto or Tampa Bay -- is more likely to climb into the pennant race, I'd go with the Rays.