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October 1, 2008

Player Profile

Ryan Dempster

by Marc Normandin, Eric Seidman and Will Carroll

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Ryan Dempster has been an occasionally solid producer from the bullpen the past few seasons for the Chicago Cubs, but this year he was inserted back into the rotation at the beginning of the season with fantastic results. He had what was easily the most productive season of his career, setting career bests in wins and ERA, and posted his highest strikeout total since the beginning of the decade. What changed for Dempster that turned him from average reliever into frontline starter over the course of an offseason? Let's take a look at that today, and give you an indication of what you can expect from Dempster as he tries to do his part to take down the Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs.

Ryan Scott Dempster was the 66th pick overall in the 1995 amateur entry draft. The third-round selection signed in July of that year, and was assigned to the Gulf Coast League Rangers, as he was fresh out of high school. His first year in the minors went well, with Dempster punching out 9.7 batters per nine in the GCL while walking 4.5 per nine, then carrying over the strikeout rate after a brief promotion to Low-A Hudson Valley. That was all the Rangers needed to see from the native Canadian there, as they started him out in Charleston of the Sally League in 1996. At that point, Baseball America ranked him the seventh-best prospect in the organization, despite his being selected in the third round and with less than a full season of professional baseball under his belt.

He would find success in the Sally League, with 8.8 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, and a 3.30 ERA over 144 1/3 innings pitched in the Texas organization. That showcase was enough to get the Florida Marlins interested, and they acquired him in a deal that eventually also sent Rick Helling to Florida in exchange for John Burkett. He was nowhere near as successful after the switch, despite pitching in A-ball once again, as he walked and struck out 18 hitters in just 26 1/3 innings pitched. Despite this, Baseball America rated Dempster as the 10th-best prospect in the Marlins' organization heading into the 1997 season.

Though his 4.90 ERA at High-A Brevard County makes it appear as if Dempster struggled, his peripherals tell a different story. The Manatee struck out 7.1 per nine and kept his free passes to a minimum, allowing just 2.5 walks per nine over 165 1/3 innings pitched. He did, however, allow over one homer per nine, the highest rate of his career to that point, and 10.3 hits per nine. Baseball Prospectus 1998 had just a short capsule on Dempster, but it was an accurate portrayal of where he was at:

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.

That comment was prescient, as Dempster posted better ERAs than his peripherals suggested after a move to higher levels of the minors. He struck out 6.7 per nine with 3.0 walks per nine and a ghastly 1.6 homers per nine over 44 2/3 innings at Double-A Portland, but nevertheless managed to put up a 3.22 ERA. Next, he was promoted to Triple-A Charlotte in the International League, and put up similar peripherals—though this time with 1.1 HR/9 in 33 innings—and managed a similar 3.27 ERA. The Marlins apparently mistook those numbers as progress, and plopped Dempster down in their major league rotation; the right-hander would strike out 35 and walk 38 over 54 2/3 innings and 14 games, 11 of them starts, a struggle with the strike zone that surprised nobody except for the Marlins.

The next year, the Fish put Dempster back at Triple-A to begin the season. This short session would go much smoother than his jump to the majors and his last stint at Triple-A, with Dempster whiffing 8.5 while walking just under three per nine, though he would give up six homers in just 30 2/3 innings pitched to cancel out some of that progress. The Marlins called him up and put him to work starting May 11. The Good: 7.7 strikeouts per nine, 8.9 hits per nine, and a 4.71 ERA over 147 innings pitched. The Bad: 5.7 free passes per nine and 1.3 homers per nine. Things would go much better in 2000 for Dempster, as he would increase his strikeouts, lower his walk rate substantially (all the way down to 3.9 per nine) and throw 226 1/3 innings. Of course, now we have a 23-year old who has never approached the 200-inning threshold not only passing it but busting right through it. Baseball Prospectus 2001 was all over the reasons for the turnaround:

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.

Adding a few mph and some stamina could only be a good thing, because while 226 innings could be construed as abuse given his age, if he were to pitch efficiently, then 226 for Dempster might not have meant the same as it would for someone who labors through their innings as much as he had to. Dempster ranked 21st in Pitcher Abuse Points though, and his 2001 season would see that only get worse, as the right-hander ranked eighth in the majors. His September was awful—he allowed a line of .312/.385/.495, with a 5.93 ERA and 1.3 homers per nine—which was most likely an indication that the abuse had taken its toll on the young starter.

The 2002 season wouldn't go any easier for Dempster: he split the season between the Marlins and Reds, and over 33 starts managed to find himself "only" 31st in PAP. He crossed the 200-inning threshold again, this time with a 5.38 ERA, 6.6 strikeouts, and four walks per nine along with 28 long balls. It wasn't a total loss though, as Baseball Prospectus 2003 pointed out:

Dempster’s mechanics were a mess when he arrived from Jeff Torborg’s Chamber of Slag. By the end of the season, [Reds pitching coach Don] Gullett had lowered his leg kick and lengthened his delivery, which helped keep his fastball down and put some bite back on his slider.

These results wouldn't show up during his 2003 performance though, because Dempster would spend a significant chunk of time recovering from injuries. He went down in May with an inflamed nerve in his neck, and again in July with inflammation in his right elbow. Thanks to the abuse at the hands of the Marlins, Dempster wound up requiring Tommy John surgery. He would not pitch for Cincinnati again, instead finding his way to Chicago, where he would find himself in a bullpen role.

Chicago's first taste of Dempster was the kind of thing you expect to see from a pitcher who lacks command in the first place, recovering from a surgery that makes harnessing your command more difficult. He allowed 5.7 batters per nine to reach base via the walk, though he struck out 7.8 per nine, proof that his velocity wasn't as far behind as his command. A description of Dempster's 2005 season is best left to Baseball Prospectus 2005, which hit the nail on the proverbial head:

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.

Dempster's ground-ball percentage shot up to over 57 percent, which is to this day his career high, and a massive positive for a pitcher who oftentimes struggles with homers and walks. The next two seasons would see Dempster fail as a reliever in much the same way he struggled as a starter during the earlier portions of his career: he went 3-16 with 12 blown saves, thanks in part to a poor BABIP and walk rate in 2006 (.333 and 4.3 per nine) and another poor walk rate and an increase in the rate of homers allowed in 2007 (4.1 and 1.1). Reminding a Cubs fan of the existence of Dempster was a good way to receive an icy glare.

With Kerry Wood returning to the Cubs, only this time as a closer, Dempster's place on the roster was compromised unless he returned to the rotation. Saying that his subsequent season was more successful than anyone imagined would not be a strong enough way to describe how his 2008 has gone, as Dempster cut over two-thirds of a walk per nine off of his rate, increased his strikeouts by about the same despite leaving the bullpen, nearly sliced his home-run rate in half, and chopped almost two runs off of his ERA while tossing over 200 innings for the first time since 2003. Though he lost nearly a mph of velocity by moving out of the bullpen, he increased the percentage of times he used his fastball, coming in around 56 percent of the time, a figure very close to his 2005 production—the last time he was effective.

There's no questioning that Dempster had an excellent season, though there are some issues with it that need attending to—more on this later—and given how much PECOTA loathed him so in the weighted mean and below percentiles this offseason, it's intriguing to consider what kind of comparable players and forecasts may pop out for the 2009 season. The chances are good that they won't be of the same caliber as his 2008 campaign, but given some of the luck he has had on the way to reviving a once-promising career as a starter, that's no surprise. Dempster deserves plenty of credit, he's now healthy, and he's no longer saddled with a manager whose deepest desire is to work the life out of the arms of his starters. Just don't expect him to repeat 2008 every year from here on out.—Marc Normandin

Performance Evaluation

In 2003, Ryan Dempster was a starting pitcher for the Reds, and had joined the team halfway through the 2002 season. He was being relied upon to help solidify a very liquid rotation counting on the likes of Paul Wilson, Danny Graves, and Jimmy Haynes. Dempster did not really solidify anything, as his 6.54 ERA, 5.10 FIP, 1.76 WHIP, and 1.20 K/BB ratio were all among the worst in the sport. He had been pitching through injuries, however, and underwent Tommy John surgery after making 20 starts.

His next four years were spent primarily as closer for the Chicago Cubs, where one study I found showed that usage of Pepto Bismol and Tums correlated quite strongly with Dempster's appearances. New skipper Lou Piniella hinted that a return to the rotation might be in order, but a depleted bullpen sidelined that idea. In his second season, however, Lou decided to place Ryan back in the rotation prior to this season, meaning he would once again be a full-time starter. Oddly enough, after four years in the bullpen following surgery, 2008 proved to be the best season of Dempster's career.

His 2.96 ERA, 3.41 FIP, 2.46 K/BB, and 1.21 WHIP are all career bests, and are almost the inverse of that disastrous 2003 campaign. He kept hitters in check, registering the seventh-lowest opponents' OPS, and posted solid numbers in every month except June, when the overall numbers were largely deflated thanks to one game against the crosstown rival White Sox squad. In that June 27 outing, Dempster gave up eight runs on seven hits in just 2 1/3 innings. In his other four starts that month, he gave up seven total runs in 27 1/3 innings.

When closing games out, his fastball usage steadily declined, dropping from 53 percent in 2005 to 49 percent in 2006 to 46 percent last year. To make up for this decreased reliance on the heater, he'd turned to his changeup, which, from 2005-2007, rose from being thrown 10 percent to 26 percent of his deliveries. That all changed this year; as a starter this season, his slider usage was reduced from 33 to 27 percent, he upped the fastball frequency to 55 percent, higher than any season as a closer, while his changeup usage fell to 17 percent. His velocity, while lower than the recent past, was not lower enough to sound any alarm bells; dropping from 92 to 91.1 in one year, especially when going from closer to starter, is not exactly Barry Zito-esque.

Lefties are hitting him better this year, to the tune of a still-low 693 OPS, and his success against righties can be at least partially attributed to a very low .263 BABIP. His percentage of fastballs is virtually identical to hitters on both sides of the plate, with the only real shift coming in sliders and changeups. To lefties, he's throwing the slider 14 percent of the time and the chanegup at 28 percent; to righties, changeups are thrown under 10 percent of the time, making him primarily a fastball-slider pitcher against them. With nobody on, Dempster held hitters to a 551 OPS with a HR/AB of one every 157 at-bats. When the runners reach base, despite doing so at a rate lower than any other season, the OPS rises to 786, and the HR/AB increases to once every 27 at-bats. His numbers with runners in scoring position are very similar to men on base, with a 742 OPS and a HR/AB of one every 23 at-bats. Luckily, Ryan has kept a higher rate of runners off the bases this year than in the past, so his struggles with runners on base have been less of a problem.

Dempster has had a career year, posting his lowest BB/9 and drastically reducing his number of hits allowed. His .288 BABIP helped out in that department, and his 77 percent strand rate kept a large number of those runners on the basepaths rather than crossing home plate. While I hate poking holes in a great season, I would not be doing my job if I refrained from mentioning that, among those with 120 innings pitched or more, Dempster has the thirteenth-lowest quality of opponents' OPS. In case you have not seen this statistic before, it measures the OPS of the batters he has faced, and it suggests that he did not really face too stiff the competition on the whole. When we increase the qualifier to 200 IP or more, his quality of opposition ranks as the fifth lowest.

Do not let that necessarily rain on Dempster's parade, however, as his season has still been great, and he is definitely worthy of pitching the first game of the NLDS. He might not be this good next year, but he will no longer have to rely on ninja training as a fallback job.—Eric Seidman

Health Report

Ryan Dempster's switch from closer to ace starter isn't unprecedented. What is more surprising is his ability to make the shift while changing his arsenal and mechanics. The most noticeable change is his "twist," a movement of his hand-in-glove during his motion. Dempster has told Cubs announcer Len Kasper that he starts every pitch with a splitter grip and switches the grip while twisting (or doesn't). Switching a grip while in motion might seem unusual, but pitchers regularly do this, especially if they rely on pitches that require some effort to grip, such as a splitter or a deep change. While the splitter does often put more pressure on the elbow, due more to the anatomical position of the forearm more than increased stresses of the pitch itself, Dempster has shown no signs of any problems in his heavy usage of the pitch.

Dempster has been here before, going 200-plus innings in 2000 and 2001, but he spent the next three years struggling to stay healthy and effective before the Cubs took a chance in 2004 based on the recommendation of Dr. Tim Kremchek, gambling that he could come back and shift to the bullpen after Tommy John surgery. That was effective, as he ended up as the team's closer for the better part of two seasons. Shifting back to the starting rotation was a gamble that his elbow could hold up to the innings load that broke him before. Thus far, there's been no indication that he's wearing down. Going deep into the playoffs would be a warning sign, so using him judiciously next season wouldn't be the worst idea, no matter where the free agent-to-be ends up, as he's coming out of the Tommy John "honeymoon" period.—Will Carroll


Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Eric by clicking here.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

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