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Toronto Blue Jays’ R.A. Dickey, based on knuckleballers’ history, should be ageless at 38

R.A. Dickey (Ronald Modra, Getty Images)

Perish the thought, at least based on history, that the Toronto Blue Jays overpaid for past performance by making a huge trade for a 38-year-old knuckleballer.

While bandwagon Blue Jays fans are beating their chest and declaring "no mercy!" on the rest of the AL East after the the team's trade for R.A. Dickey, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, others might grativate toward sober second thought. Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos seems sharper than his predecessor J.P. Ricciardi, who occasionally overpaid for past performance. Granted, the team's off-season airlift of Dickey, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson Maicer Izturis and Melky Cabrera gives Toronto a legitimate shot at playing deep into October for the first time since the 1990s.

Of course, the last time Toronto went big to bring in a right-handed starter of Dickey's vintage was in the 1991-92 off-season when the 37-year-old Jack Morris was signed right after pitching the Minnesota Twins to victory in the best World Series of modern times. It's not remembered as such since the Jays went on to win the next two World Series and people still treated pitcher wins as a pertinent stat, but Morris (86 ERA+, 1.414 WHIP) tailed off badly in Toronto, awesome mustache notwithstanding. Fatalistic types might wonder if that lurks with Dickey, but it's different with a knuckleballer. The pitch takes old-man savvy to throw, so do not worry about Dickey's age.

From Rany Jazayerli:

But to anyone who knows anything about knuckleball pitchers, Dickey's age is a feature, not a bug. The knuckleball is so difficult to master that historically, knuckleballers don't peak until their mid-to-late 30s. Yet the pitch is so easy on the arm — and it requires so little velocity — that those who throw it tend to pitch well into their mid-40s.

The most successful knuckleball pitcher of the last 25 years was Tim Wakefield. Wakefield had his best season when he was 28, his first season with the Red Sox, when he had a 2.95 ERA in 195 innings — he accumulated 4.7 bWAR (wins above replacement, as calculated by baseball-reference.com). His second-best season? It was 2005 — when he was 38 years old.

From ages 33 to 37, Wakefield was worth 10.5 bWAR. From ages 38 to 42, Wakefield was worth 12.4 bWAR. He was better at ages 41-42 than he was at ages 32-33. (Grantland)

Jazayerli went on to quote chapter and verse about other renowned knuckleballers such as Hall of Famers Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm and long-time major leaguers such as Joe Niekro and Charlie Hough. the who were each credited with more than 200 wins despite not becoming full-time starters until well into their 30s.

With the exception of [Tom] Candiotti, who wasn't a pure knuckleball pitcher, every one of these guys was a well-above-average starting pitcher at least through his age-40 season. (And Dickey, keep in mind, just had his best season at 37 — Candiotti was already in decline at that point.)

And even though he wasn't a starter for most of his career, Hoyt Wilhelm has to be mentioned. Wilhelm didn't reach the show until he was almost 30. Then he spent 21 seasons in the majors. From ages 41 to 45 — in the heart of the pitching-dominated 1960s, granted — Wilhelm averaged 108 innings per season with a 1.74 ERA. After the 1970 season, when Wilhelm was 48, he was still pitching well enough that the Atlanta Braves traded for him.

So the next time someone tries to criticize Dickey by pointing out "he's 38 years old!," throw it back at them. "YES! HE'S 38 YEARS OLD!"

Whether the Jays gave up too much for Dickey is good debate fodder. From a payroll perspective, it is genius for the Jays since knuckleballers are not as valued a commodity as pitchers who throw high heat. It is a specialty that it tough to teach and tough to control, so baseball men do not value it as much. Chances are that Travis d'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard pan out for the New York Mets, but the Jays got close to a guarantee their new pitcher will not fall apart.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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