Ryan Dempster has always been a solid pitcher, and given that he regularly piles up the innings, has developed a reputation as a workhorse as well. The 35-year-old righty has battled quad and back injuries this season, but when he’s pitched, he has been spectacular. And now that he is back on the mound, he is attracting quite a bit of trade interest, as teams that may not want to pony up the prospects that it would take to land Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels (should they even really become available) try to find an alternative solution.
This season has been a revelation of sorts for Dempster. He has made 13 starts, and has pitched at least six innings and allowed four runs or less in 11 of them. One of the other two outings was on May 30, when he allowed six runs to the Padres in 4.1 innings. The second was this past Sunday, when he shut out the Mets for five innings in his return from the disabled list. Part of his success is due to the fact that he has posted a career-best walk rate this season. Not only has he controlled his walks, he has been consistent in controlling them. Over the past two seasons, Dempster’s walk rate had blown up, shooting way over league average after two seasons under it in 2008 and 2009. In 2010 and 2011, it shot up because of his flareups. Dempster walked two or fewer batters in 39 of his 68 starts, but when he lost his control, he lost it bad — he had eight outings in those two years where he walked either five or six batters. In those eight outings, he had a BB/9 of 8.42. This season, he has tempered his control, as he hasn’t walked more than four batters in any start.
The added control couldn’t have come at a better time. After years of maintaining the same velocity range, Dempster has finally felt the pinch of father time, as his average fastball velocity has dipped under 90. As his velocity has dipped, so too have his strikeouts. He is not getting the same velocity on his four-seamer and sinker, so he has worked in his cutter more to compensate. It has worked so far. The question will be whether or not the success will continue. In examining his Dempster’s batted ball rates, there doesn’t seem to be any discernible shift from last year to this year — there have been just fewer balls leaving the yard. The same is true for his BABIP. After seven straight seasons in a Cubs uniform with a BABIP that ranged from .271-.324, Dempster is rocking a .241 BABIP this season.
So the question is, is Dempster really pitching better, or is he just experiencing better results? xFIP and SIERA would have us believe the latter. With fewer balls leaving the yard, Dempster’s ERA and FIP are down, and on the surface he’s having a career year. But his xFIP and SIERA paint different pictures:
Not only do xFIP and SIERA paint Dempster as an identical pitcher to the one he was last year, but they see him as being pretty much the same guy ever since he was slotted back into the rotation in 2008. As such, it might not be a great idea to fall head over heels and overbid for him, something that could happen considering there may be 10 teams scouting him this weekend. With the power in the market shifting towards the seller, it seems likely that some margin of overpay will need to be built into each trade this July, so it may not be able to be helped. But teams should know going in that if they are to acquire Dempster, they may not be getting the 1.99 ERA version, especially if the team doing the acquiring — say, for instance, the Orioles or the Tigers — isn’t as sharp defensively as have been the Cubs.
Still, there is comfort to be found in these numbers, as interested parties have a pretty solid baseline for Dempster’s performance moving forward. He may keep doing the low-BABIP dance — in the past two seasons, there have been eight sub-.250 BABIP campaigns — and may retain his league-leading ERA for the season’s duration. But even if he doesn’t, he should remain a top-30 starting pitcher. And the fact that he has been able to course correct so quickly to his drop in velocity and maintain his performance should be of further comfort.
Ryan Dempster is not as good a pitcher as fellow 2013 free agents Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels, but over the course of two to two and a half of months, the difference between them probably won’t be much more than a win and a half. And Dempster is going to cost far less to land, whether by quantity, quality and even ETA to the Majors. while the Brewers and Phillies are still veteran-laden teams that are built to win soon and will thus need prospects that are close to the Majors, the Cubs are just the opposite. They are trying to ramp up to compete in 2014 and beyond, so A ball prospects may be perfectly suitable. Dempster’s health is still be an open question, but when you put together the whole equation — performance plus cost of acquisition — he may just be the better trade target.