At around 9:17 p.m. ET on June 18, 2012, Mets right-hander R.A. Dickey delivered his final pitch of the evening: a 1-2 offering that knuckled past the Orioles' Chris Davis. With the backwards K in the books, Dickey had hurled a one-hit shutout with 13 strikeouts and two walks. The performance, equating to a game score (an equation used to determine a pitcher's dominance) of 96, was the second consecutive extraordinary effort from the 37-year-old knuckleballer, following a one-hit, complete-game win with 12 strikeouts and no walks vs. the Rays on June 13.
With the back-to-back efforts, Dickey became the ninth pitcher since 1918 (and the first since Dave Stieb in '88) to hurl consecutive complete games on one or no hits. He was the only one of the nine pitchers to have at least 12 K's in each, and the only pitcher since at least '18 to have back-to-back efforts with a game score of at least 95 in each.
The performance on June 18 also served as the final installment in a six-start chunk of the season during which Dickey posted a 0.18 ERA with 63 strikeouts and five walks in 48 2/3 innings, establishing him an early National League Cy Young Award candidate. It also gave him a nice foundation for a season which would conclude with him leading the league in shutouts, complete games and strikeouts and ranking second in ERA and wins.
Dickey's year -- one that can now forever be identified as a Cy Young Award season -- promises to retain much of its vibrancy long after other pitchers turn in brilliant campaigns. The rarity of a performance from such an old arm, coupled with the narrative behind his late-career renaissance, should take care of that. And while most of the baseball world has a fairly comprehensive understanding of the path that started as a first-round pick in 1996, less has been offered on some of the more interesting pairings that Dickey's age and numbers in 2012 created.
A few for consideration -- with all references to ranks and groups for pitchers 37 or older, since 1893:
Dickey's 230 strikeouts are the 11th most. Randy Johnson (three), Nolan Ryan (three), Steve Carlton (two) and Phil Niekro (two) occupy the 10 spots ahead of Dickey.
Dickey's 1.053 WHIP ranks as the 17th lowest for any qualifier. Of the 16 seasons ahead of him, Cy Young -- a pretty fair old-man pitcher in his own right -- owns four.
Dickey's 140 ERA+ ties him with Johnny Niggeling in 1942, Bert Blyleven in '89, Nolan Ryan in '91, and John Smoltz in 2007 for the 32nd best for any qualifying pitcher.
Dickey is one of eight pitchers to lead his league in innings pitched. Niekro did it three times, while Warren Spahn and Carlton did it twice. Ray Kremer, Early Wynn, Charlie Hough and Johnson each did it once.
Dickey is one of seven pitchers to lead his league in strikeouts. Ryan did it four times, while Johnson turned the trick on three occasions. Wynn and Carlton each did it twice, while Dazzy Vance and Niekro each did it once.
Dickey is one of 13 pitchers to lead his league in shutouts. The only pitchers to do this more than once were Vance and Spahn, with two titles apiece.
Dickey joined Carlton in 1982 as the only two to lead their league in innings, strikeouts and shutouts. In '82, Carlton was 23-11 with a 3.10 ERA (119 ERA+) in 295 2/3 innings, and he struck out 286 while throwing six shutouts.
In addition to leading in innings, K's and shutouts in 1982, Carlton also topped the NL in wins, starts and complete games: a fair amount of black ink for an old man (Carlton, like Dickey, was 37). But Carlton takes a back seat to the work done by another southpaw. In 2002, Johnson -- pitching in his age-38 season -- won the Triple Crown in the NL with 24 victories, a 2.32 ERA (a 195 ERA+) and 334 strikeouts. In addition to leading in the three biggies, Johnson also led in ERA+, winning percentage, complete games, innings and strikeouts per nine innings. For another example of a pitcher topping the league in several categories while nearing his 40s, consider the case of the righty Vance. In his age-37 season in '28, Vance led the NL in strikeouts, ERA, ERA+, shutouts, WHIP, hits per nine innings, strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Dickey and Vance -- besides sharing a common throwing arm -- are also similar in their paths to stardom. Although Vance made his big league debut in 1915 as a 24-year-old, he had thrown only 33 innings through his age-30 season. And then, in '22, he started on a nine-year run that eventually earned him a plaque in the Hall of Fame. Over those nine seasons, Vance won 164 games (the most in the Majors in that span), posted a 3.05 ERA (second lowest in the Majors), fanned 1,637 batters (the most), posted an 1.198 WHIP (the best), allowed 8.30 hits per nine innings (the lowest mark) and struck out 6.37 per nine (the highest mark). Over the course of those nine years, Vance led the NL in wins twice, strikeouts seven times, ERA three times, WHIP three times, K's/9 seven times, hits per nine four times and strikeout-to-walk ratio seven times.
While Vance fell three wins shy of capturing his second Triple Crown in 1928 (he won it in '24, when Vance also captured league MVP honors), the breadth of his work on the mound contributed to a 9.7 wins over replacement (WAR) -- the third highest in the modern era for a pitcher in an age-37 or older season. Johnson's 2002 campaign comes in at No. 1, while Dickey's '12 slides in at a tie for 27th.
Vance's most dominant performance of the 1928 season came on June 17, when he faced the Cubs at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. In an affair lasting one hour and 35 minutes, Vance dispatched Chicago on three hits, twirling a shutout with 15 strikeouts and two walks. He was 37 years and 105 days old on that Sunday afternoon, with his line producing a game score of 94.
This gets us back to Dickey and those two starts in June 2012. Before he took the mound against the Rays on June 13, only four pitchers since 1918 had posted a game score of at least 94 in a nine-inning affair after having passed their 37th birthday. The names will jump out for sure: Ryan (with four such starts), Johnson (four), Spahn (one) and Vance (that one in '28). Among the efforts: a perfect game from Johnson and three other no-hitters (two by Ryan and one by Spahn). Of course, by the time each of the four produced their gems, their individual ledgers were quite filled with extraordinary efforts, while Dickey's twin supernovas stand almost completely alone when tracing his career.
It's this final element -- added to the historical context, the age and the superb year -- that will certainly help us fondly recall Dickey's place in the 2012 Major League baseball season.