YCPB Awards: No UCL? No Problem

Once upon a time, RA Dickey was a top prospect. As the 18th overall pick in the 1996 draft, Dickey had a six figure offer from the Texas Rangers before a team doctor noticed his arm in an awkward position on the cover of Baseball America’s Olympic preview issue. According to the New York Times, that picture prompted further investigation that revealed that Dickey didn’t have an ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his throwing elbow.

The UCL gets mentioned often in baseball because pitchers frequently damage theirs. Tommy John surgery, the once radical procedure that is becoming more commonplace in the game, is another name for UCL reconstruction. That Dickey doesn’t have a UCL at all means that he shouldn’t be able to so much as make a fist without pain, let alone pitch. Nonetheless, he signed for $75,000 and five years later made his Major League debut.

Dickey became a long man and spot starter after that. On August 20th, 2003, just two days after picking up his first big league save (by throwing a scoreless 16th inning), he threw a 6-hit shutout against the Tigers. Granted, the Tigers weren’t exactly running Murderers’ Row out there—the loss dropped them to 31-94 on a season where they would finish with an AL-record 119 losses—but shutouts from a guy who finished the season with an ERA north of 5 are still unexpected.

For a long time, that 5.09 ERA from 2003 was the lowest Dickey ever put up. After 266 innings of a 5.72 ERA over parts of five seasons, the Rangers sent Dickey back to AAA. He was granted free agency after the season, and bounced around for another couple of years with the Mariners and Brewers while becoming a knuckleballer before signing a Minor League deal with the Mets. Nobody expected much out of Dickey, and why would they? To that point, his Major League body of work consisted of 442.2 innings, a 5.43 ERA, and 1.572 WHIP. He had also recently turned 35.

On May 19th, Dickey gave up two runs in six innings against Washington. Then he threw six shutout innings against the Phillies. With every solid to excellent start, we at YCPB kept waiting for the other shoe to drop—there was nothing in his career to that point that indicated that he had that kind of run in him, yet after seven starts he had a 2.33 ERA. After one bad start, he rattled off another seven straight starts of 5.2 or more innings and three or fewer earned runs, including 8.1 shutout innings against the Cardinals.

On August 13th, Dickey faced Cole Hamels and the Phillies at Citi Field and was nothing short of brilliant. He went the distance, walking one and striking out seven while giving up just one hit—a single to (of all people) Hamels in the sixth. In his next start, he went 8.1 innings and gave up two runs, dropping his ERA to 2.41.

In the end, Dickey threw 174.1 innings in 2010, qualifying for the ERA title for the first time in his career. His 2.84 ERA was 7th in the National League, lower than Ubaldo Jimenez’s final mark. That’s the same Jimenez whose ERA was less than 1.00 as late as June. Not bad for a 35 year old with no history of success at the Major League level.

Can he do it again? History says probably not, but Dickey’s 2010 is proof enough that you can’t predict this game. The voting wasn’t even close—this was the biggest landslide of any of our categories. Congratulations RA Dickey, your improbable season has won you the 2010 National League YCPB Cy Young Award.

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