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February 17, 2014

The BP Wayback Machine

Ryan Dempster and Jake Westbrook: Two Careers in Player Comments

by Baseball Prospectus


While looking toward the future with our comprehensive slate of current content, we'd also like to recognize our rich past by drawing upon our extensive (and mostly free) online archive of work dating back to 1997. In an effort to highlight the best of what's gone before, we'll be bringing you a weekly blast from BP's past, introducing or re-introducing you to some of the most informative and entertaining authors who have passed through our virtual halls. If you have fond recollections of a BP piece that you'd like to nominate for re-exposure to a wider audience, send us your suggestion.

On Friday, Jake Westbrook announced his retirement, and on Sunday, Ryan Dempster announced that he won't pitch in 2014, potentially bringing his career to an end. Both pitchers first appeared in the Baseball Prospectus annual in 1998, and as a career retrospective, we've collected the comments our book authors have written about them over the years. As a reminder, annual comments through 2013 are available to BP subscribers on our player cards. Baseball Prospectus 2014 is on sale now.

Ryan Dempster
Position: P
DOB: 05/03/1977
Height/Weight: 6’2” 215 lbs
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: Third round, 1995 draft (Rangers)
Teams played for: Marlins, Reds, Cubs, Rangers, Red Sox
Career Stats: 579 G, 351 GS, 2387 IP, 4.35 ERA, 132-133, 7.8 K/9, 4.0 BB/9

Year Comment
2014 Dempster's 2013 was spoiled by an on-again, off-again groin injury, but he did his job for a Red Sox squad that, while flush with young pitching, was lacking in prepared young pitching. Dempster held on in the rotation for 29 starts even as he pitched just a hair of above replacement level. That sounds dire, but consider that it allowed Allen Webster and his bloated ERA to head back to Rhode Island, limited time spent with the Steven Wright Knuckleball Experience and let the team move Brandon Workman to the bullpen after the trade deadline while using Dempster as the bridge to the return of Clay Buchholz. Granted, Dempster's $13 million price tag was high for a security blanket, but sometimes what you need in a relationship is for the other person just to be there.
2013 After more than 14 seasons in the National League, Dempster announced his presence in the AL last summer with a rocky 12-start stint for Texas. He’ll be staying in the junior circuit after signing a two-year deal with Boston this offseason. One of baseball’s more reliable pitchers since rejoining the starting ranks in 2008, Dempster logged 200-plus innings in four consecutive seasons until notching just under 180 frames last year. Despite his struggles in Texas, the righty had one of his better seasons. Entering his age-36 campaign, he has yet to show signs of slowing down. Although he doesn’t overwhelm with velocity—mostly working at 88-92 mph—he consistently posts strikeout rates north of 20 percent. There’s some concern that Dempster’s numbers will suffer in a full season in the AL and Fenway, but expect a reliable mid-rotation starting pitcher.
2012 With a winsome personality and a sense of humor, Dempster has managed to remain above most of the blame-tossing in Chicago despite results short of his paychecks, spats with his manager, and a self-inflicted injury in 2009 that cost him playing time. His velocity was down a tick in 2011, but the big jump in ERA wasn't really his fault—as shown by both his FIP and FRA—and the Cubs wasted no time picking up his $14 million option for 2012. Though he walks too many to front a rotation, Dempster's committed to his craft, mixing pitches and pitch sequences to support his two fastballs and nasty slider. All indications are that he'll be good enough and durable enough to rack up 200 innings again.
2011 Dempster's transmogrification from former blue-chip Marlin to damaged goods to expensive closer to beloved Cub workhorse ought to be enough of a roller coaster to challenge the notion that American lives have no third act. The late-career addition of a fluttering glove flip when he's pitching from a full windup gives a new generation of Cubs fans one of those lovely idiosyncrasies to forever retain in their mind's eye, like Rick Sutcliffe's big, rolling wrist snap, or Lee Smith's saunter, or Turk Wendell's endless rituals. At this stage, there's little you don't already know about Dempster. Although he posted a career-best strikeout rate, his season can come across as somewhat mediocre, right down to a .500 support-neutral winning percentage. However, he was undercut by some of the bullpen's issues, as he suffered three blown quality starts after the first six innings; using three runs and six frames as the standard, he delivered a winnable ballgame in 23 of 34 turns.
2010 There was some understandable hand-wringing when the Cubs inked Dempster to a four-year, $52 million deal after his first healthy and effective season in a major-league rotation since the Clinton administration, but so far, so good. The affable Canuck logged 200 innings (pausing only for a broken toe), saw small reductions in his strikeout and walk rates, let a few more fly balls leave the yard, lost a smidge of velocity, got more mileage out of his slider, and generally duplicated his 2008 production. There is likely to be some settling of contents as Dempster enters his mid-30s, but nothing he did this year raises any warning flags, and as he’s currently outperforming his contract, some future lack of production has already been paid for. With Zambrano’s health and headspace in question, Lilly entering his walk year with a fresh scar on his shoulder, and Wells' future an open question, Dempster is clearly the rotation’s anchor, if not its ace. Who would have predicted that three years ago?
2009 Teams get so worked up over exotic items like pitching imports from Japan or Cuba, but if you prefer to shop domestic, is there anything that inspires more jibber-jabbery enthusiasm than Marlins moundsmen? Big-game Fish-ing has made hurlers like Carl Pavano, Dontrelle Willis, Kevin Brown, and A.J. Burnett rich beyond their wildest dreams of avarice, but not one of them has topped their single best professional seasons, all of which were made in Marlins uniforms. Last year, though, Dempster managed to become just the second high-profile former Fish to exceed his best year in Miami (as per SNLVAR), and where Josh Beckett's '07 with the Red Sox was a predictable bit of blossoming by the youngster, Dempster's long and winding road back from surgery and failure and relief-work and wildness is a bit more inspiring. The move back into the rotation after years of bullpen work was a risk, but Dempster held up well, and he didn't even lose significant velocity starting; if anything he simplified his repertoire instead of expanding it, relying on pounding the zone with his fastball and moving it around. Re-signed for four years and $52 million, he might yet be cause for Pavano or Willis-like heartburn, but compared to the non-Sabathias on the market, it seems a reasonable risk that the years in the pen will give Dempster the durability to deliver on that deal. Add in an above replacement-level Harry Caray impression and the new, distinctive, distracting glove flip in his delivery, and Dempster has made himself a popular player on a sports scene that loves a bit of personality.
2008 A closer by assignment only, Dempster may not even be that for much longer. He has experienced a steady decline in his groundball rates over the past three seasons which, coupled with command that was never very good to begin with, has rendered him an unreliable ninth-inning option. The Cubs are considering trying him in the rotation, which might not be the worst idea; his PECOTA as a starter includes a 4.78 ERA and sees his VORP improves slightly from the 8.2 above to 10.9.
2007 It wasn`t just that he blew nine saves, but how he blew them. Other pitchers who blow a save might give up a run, allowing the other team to tie, then vulture a win out of it when their team comes back. Not Dempster--when he blew a save last year, it tended to stay blown. The Cubs lost seven of those nine games; Dempster took all seven losses, giving up 19 runs, but the two times he blew a save giving up just one run, the Cubs came back to win. Dempster had 17 appearances in which he gave up two or more runs; Brad Lidge had an awful year, and he had only nine. Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, and B. J. Ryan had 10 combined. Jon Papelbon only had one month in which he gave up two runs. Dempster`s hold on the closer`s job is only as strong as Kerry Wood`s shoulder is weak.
2006 If you remember the Transformers toy craze of the `80s, you might also remember that most of the transformations were pretty lame. If you`ve got a killer, attack missile-equipped giant cyborg, what possible advantage do you gain from disguising it as a giant robotic space puppy? The element of surprise? Baker`s exercise in vanity--trying to transform Dempster into a starter again--was the equivalent of taking a great weapon and folding it into a useless shape. After six starts and a 5.35 ERA, Dempster went back to the pen, where he cranked out one of the best Cub relief seasons ever. Intriguingly, it wasn`t his strikeout rate that improved but his GB/FB ratio, which he basically doubled to better than 3-1 in relief. The Cubs let his success go to their heads; it isn`t the money ($15.5 million) that`s as troubling as the length. Do they really expect Dempster to pitch three full seasons?
2005 Any time a pitcher returns from Tommy John surgery, it's a good thing. The Cubs seem to have done well for themselves in the deal they signed with Dempster, which included one cheap guaranteed year and a team option, a strategy that paid dividends this year with Jon Lieber and Chris Carpenter. The trouble is that Dempster, when healthy, was not as good a pitcher as Lieber or Carpenter; his resume included just one above-average season (2000), a year in which he still walked 97 hitters and gave up 30 homers in Pro Player Stadium. The usual rap against a pitcher recovering from Tommy John is that his velocity will come back before his command. It's hard to tell if that's the case with Dempster, since his command was never there to begin with. As a power righty out of the bullpen, he might do enough to justify the $2 million that the Cubs are paying him this year, but he's unlikely to do more than that, and he's ill-equipped for a high-leverage role.
2004 Credit the Marlins with trading Dempster, who threw a ton of pitches in 2000 and 2001, at the right time. Dempster was about to get expensive and they had better pitchers coming. Juan Encarnacion has been a league-average right fielder for them, while Dempster gave the Reds 35 starts with an ERA of 6.39 before Tommy John surgery ended his time in Cincinnati. He's been released, and is unlikely to pitch in the majors in 2004. Moving Dempster is just one of many good moves Larry Beinfest made on his way to a championship.
2003 Swags don’t get much sweeter than Bowden’s mid-season flip of $2.4 million worth of Juan Encarnacion and Wilton Guerrero for a legitimate power arm. Dempster’s mechanics were a mess when he arrived from Jeff Torborg’s Chamber of Slag. By the end of the season, Gullett had lowered his leg kick and lengthened his delivery, which helped keep his fastball down and put some bite back on his slider. The Reds aren’t always penurious with their money; although Dempster is eligible for arbitration, they’re committed to seeing if he can be the top-of-the-rotation starter they desperately need.
2002 Dempster wasn't right all year, fighting his control even during his periods of relative effectiveness. He was particularly bad in September and October, an indication that the number of pitches his wildness had forced him to throw—he ranked 14th in the majors in Pitcher Abuse Points—had taken its toll. If he makes 25 starts in 2002, it'll be an upset. One of the arguments for signing Charles Johnson was his impact on the Marlins' young rotation. Given the performances of Dempster, Burnett, Clement, and Chuck Smith, it's hard to see where he had any positive impact. None of the pitchers showed improvement in 2001. This doesn't mean Johnson was a negative; it just means there's no evidence that his "veteran leadership" helped these pitchers.
2001 The youngest survivor of the 1998 Leyland Massacre, Ryan Dempster has been able to put the atrocities he witnessed and suffered behind him and is climbing into the upper echelon of major-league starters. A strenuous off-season regimen added a few mph to Dempster's low-90s four-seam fastball, along with the strength and stamina to maintain his stuff deeper into games. He also improved his command of his fastball and vicious slider, slicing his walk rate by nearly two a game. While Felipe Alou likens Dempster to Curt Schilling, let’s hope that we won’t be seeing any similarities between his workloads and those meted out by Terry Francona.
2000 To his credit, he bounced back from a 1998 in which he was rushed to the majors as part of the Marlins’ Pitcher-Eating Program. Dempster doesn’t have exceptional stuff, but he can be a placeholder while the real pitchers develop, hopefully picking up some trade value along the way. See Meadows, Brian.
1999 Clearly wasn’t ready, and rushing him up was one of the most unfortunate of the various live sacrifices made in ‘98. What’s strange about it is that his assortment isn’t even that good. It doesn’t look like he throws that hard, and tossing him into the fire at the first sign of success was thoughtless.
1998 The other pitcher acquired from Texas for Bobby Witt. He’s got the kind of live arm the Marlins love to collect in trade, but his fastball hasn’t developed a bite to it yet, and he’s still quite hittable. Only 21, a couple of years away, worth keeping an eye on.

Jake Westbrook
Position: P
DOB: 09/27/1977
Height/Weight: 6’3” 210 lbs
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: First round (21st overall), 1996 draft (Rockies)
Teams played for: Yankees, Indians, Cardinals
Career Stats: 315 G, 273 GS, 1747.7 IP, 4.32 ERA, 105-103, 5.0 K/9, 2.9 BB/9

Year Comment
2014 The sun is rapidly setting on Westbrook's career. While he posted a 1.78 ERA through his first eight starts of 2013, that figure was the miragest mirage that ever miraged, coming complete as it did with more walks than strikeouts in that span. It’s nearly impossible to thrive without a K/BB ratio over two; when you've got more walks than strikeouts, you start asking about survival. Thriving is out of the question. Thus, things came crashing down predictably and quickly for Westbrook as he posted a 6.85 ERA over the rest of the season. Humans have a surprising capacity to reinvent themselves, but unless Westbrook learns the knuckleball or becomes a submariner (or Namor the Sub-Mariner, better yet), his days of being a decent, cheap-ish asset are over.
2013 Westbrook is coming off a nice little bounceback year himself. His sinker continues to produce groundball outs at league-leading rates, but last season his walk and strikeout rates moved a few ticks in the right direction. Westbrook can provide excellent production for a fourth or fifth starter, something the Cardinals recognized when they re-upped him for roughly $10 million and a superfluous 2014 mutual option. Now four years removed from elbow surgery, his arm has remained healthy, but we should all expect a few more ancillary problems—like last season’s oblique strain—to crop up as Westbrook continues his inexorable creep toward male pattern baldness, early bird specials, and black socks with sandals.
2012 Sometimes, it’s funny how things work out. After not making an appearance in the Division Series, the Cards’ fourth starter was left off the roster in favor of an extra reliever for the NLCS. But by the end of the World Series, Westbrook and his turbo sinker had made two appearances, earning the victory in one of the wildest finishes in postseason history with a scoreless 11th inning in Game 6. Westbrook lasted beyond the sixth inning in just eight of his 33 starts, but he’s locked in at the back of the St. Louis rotation for at least one more season at a cost of $8.5 million.
2011 Westbrook returned to the Indians after nearly two years lost to elbow surgery and struggled with his control early on before a mid-season trade to St. Louis righted the ship and earned him a two-year, $16.5-million return engagement. Pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery often require some time to reestablish their command, so that—if not the move to the easier league—may have been the prime factor behind Westbrook’s sudden rejuvenation, but many will attribute it to Dave Duncan. After entering Duncan's orbit, Westbrook’s walks plummeted, his strikeouts soared to the highest rate of his career, and the life-long sinkerball devotee managed to increase his ground-ball percentage by over 10 percentage points—geologists are concerned that giving Duncan someone like Westbrook to work with on a multi-year basis may cause hitters to start pounding the ball through the earth’s core. It looks like a marriage made in heaven, and if Westbrook can stay healthy, he’s a great bet to solidify the back of the Cardinals' rotation.
2010 After Tommy John surgery in June of 2008 (with a September 2008 hip surgery thrown in just for kicks), Westbrook's return wasn't anticipated until mid-season in 2009 at the earliest. Instead, he had multiple setbacks due to elbow pain and was forced to miss the entire year, save for some rehab work at Double-A. In the first two years of his contract, the Indians have paid $20 million for five big-league starts; with $11 million on the line for 2010, there are no guarantees that Westbrook will pitch for the Indians again. However, there is one guarantee: Mark Shapiro has said that if Westbrook is healthy, he will be the 2010 Opening Day starter. Way to motivate that rehab, Mr. Shapiro.
2009 Westbrook and Victor Martinez formed a snakebit battery in 2008. After a strong beginning the sinkerballer went down for a month with a strained ribcage muscle, then lasted just one start in his return before experiencing elbow soreness. That classic kiss of death precipitated the need for a Tommy John reconstruction in June; recovery will knock him out until at least mid-season in '09. Even then, Westbrook didn't get quite enough face time in the operating room, however, and so topped off his lost campaign with arthroscopic hip surgery in early September, but that shouldn't affect his rehab timetable.
2008 Westbrook is something like a younger Paul Byrd. All he has to do is keep throwing sinkers and changeups for strikes, get a little help from his defense and some runs to work with, and everything works out just fine. Whether that's worth $31 million for the next three years is worthy of a debate, but an abdominal strain that cost him six weeks last year is the only knock against his health record in the last four seasons, and sometimes dependable can be as valuable as good.
2007 Westbrook`s $6.1-million option for 2007 looks like an absolute bargain given the inflation that hit the offseason pitching market. At the very least, Westbrook is a proven workhorse, having exceeded 210 innings in each of the last three seasons. That`s really all he is, a guy who can keep you in the ballgame and give the bullpen some rest. That`s not such a bad thing, and if the Indians support his groundball stuff with some better, younger defenders in the infield, as it appears they will this year, he could see even better results.
2006 Westbrook`s 2004 season, in which he was third in the AL in ERA, was indeed too good to be true. His 2005 campaign was not without its positive signs, though. Both his strikeout and walk rates improved for the second straight year, and better yet, he posted the second best groundball-to-flyball ratio in the majors among qualified pitchers and was fourth in double-plays induced, suggesting that while Westbrook may not be the top-of-the-rotation guy he posed as in `04, he just might have a career as a solid innings eater somewhere in the middle.
2005 Westbrook's 2.72 GB/FB rate was third in the major leagues, behind only Derek Lowe (2.82) and Brandon Webb (3.55). What's intriguing is that this alone cannot account for his breakthrough season; his GB/FB rate actually declined from 2003, when it was 3.02. Similarly, his double-play rate of .19 double plays per opportunity was slightly lower than the .222 of 2003. What is more telling is Westbrook's greatly improved strikeout-to-walk ratio—which went from roughly even to nearly two-to-one—and his strikeouts per nine, where he averaged nearly five, one more than the year before.

These adjustments, some of them small in themselves, created a positive cascade. When a pitcher puts as many balls in play as Westbrook does, then walks some more, and never strikes anyone out, he's expecting the defense to catch anything that moves and do his work for him. It doesn't work for long. When Westbrook took more of the effort onto himself, the results were revealing. Continuation depends on Westbrook's maintaining his control and the Tribe's new keystone combo.
2004 Now that Miguel Batista's gone and become a full-blown good big league starter, the term "utility pitcher" can revert to someone more appropriate, someone like Westbrook. An extreme groundball pitcher, he's not a rubber-armed workhorse as much as he's the sort you can stick in any role for a stretch. He opened the year starting, went to the pen, then got plugged back into the rotation. He'll compete for the fourth or fifth slot in the rotation, but if he loses, he'll mop up in the starts of the winners, and eventually stand in for whoever flops.
2003 Westbrook struggled with his release point throughout the year, holding on too long and pushing the ball inside and into the dirt, or not long enough, leaving the ball up and out for left-handers, both results products of his perfect three-quarters delivery. He missed much of the season with a bone bruise, and will be back, healthy, and not particularly noticeable pitching long-relief and spot starts again next year.
2002 Recalled in late May, Westbrook was doing wonderfully in relief, finally looking like he was ready to stay in the major leagues: 20 innings, a 2.75 ERA, good peripherals, and, best of all, he actually looked comfortable after a couple of years of bouncing around. The Indians tried to use him as a starter again and he collapsed, making six starts, each one a bit worse than the last. The Tribe needs starters more than they need relievers, and Westbrook is still the best solution for the #5 rotation slot.
2001 When you see him, Jake Westbrook’s talent jumps out at you. He has a fastball with a natural boring, sinking action and a good slider. He needs to pick up a solid change-up. The Expos wanted him to add a splitter, but with Westbrook going through his third organization in less than a year, it’s impossible to know if he’s going to master it any time soon. A broken rib kept him from pitching for Buffalo. He has an outside chance at the fifth slot in the rotation depending on how quickly the Karsay experiment breaks down.
2000 So far, Westbrook is the most famous of the three pitchers acquired in the Lansing deal. He’s got a good sinker that generates a ton of groundball outs, but despite having a good infield defense behind him, he didn’t pitch that well. There’s debate on what to think: scouts say he can pitch, he’s young and projectable, and not overly reliant on breaking stuff. The Expos are talking about having him learn to throw a splitter. If there’s a guy the scouts could be right about while all of the numbers fly in the face of their spiral notebooks, it might be Westbrook. The Yankees hope so, having picked him in the Irabu deal.
1999 Great stuff, but he's busy trying to thread the needle rather than just airing it out. Better that than to have no stuff, of course. He's clearly not on track for the majors with that dropping strikeout rate. Could come alive with good coaching, or he could be a Triple-A All-Star in 2007.
1998 First-round pick by the Rockies in 1996. Baseball America named him the eighth-best prospect in the South Atlantic League, but that seems like a real stretch, even given his young age. His strikeout rate is abysmal. Westbrook is rumored to have a great fastball, but it sure doesn’t show up in the stats. Traded to Montreal in the Lansing deal.

Related Content:  Ryan Dempster,  Jake Westbrook

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