Ryan Dempster, Quality AL Pitcher

According to Ken Rosenthal, Ryan Dempster is close to signing with the Boston Red Sox. Assuming the deal gets done, you’re going to hear a lot about how Dempster is an NL pitcher transitioning to the AL East, and how this is bound to go poorly. You’re going to hear about Dempster’s 5.09 ERA with Texas after the mid-season trade ended his long stint as an NL only pitcher, and you’re going to hear about how he got taken apart by the Yankees, giving up eight runs in six innings of work.

Because Dempster is headed for his age-36 season, has a fastball that sits around 90 mph, and had spent his entire career in the NL before the mid-season trade to Texas, many are going to expect Dempster to be exposed in the AL East. Whenever a pitcher without top-shelf velocity makes the move from the NL to the AL, and especially to the AL East, there’s always an expectation of disaster. The theory goes that pitchers with marginal velocity can dominate in the NL, but get exposed when facing the big bats of the super scary American League East.

The problem is that we’ve got too many pieces of evidence to suggest that it’s not true.

Last year, the guy making the big move was Hiroki Kuroda. At 37, he was leaving Dodger Stadium and the NL West for the Yankees, and he was going to find out just how different life was on the east coast, with the warm summers, small ballparks, and fearsome offensive line-ups. Instead of regressing, Kuroda had perhaps the best season of his career. His ERA- of 79 was tied for the sixth best mark in the league, and his peripheral numbers all head steady, even his strikeout rate. There was next to no difference between NL West Kuroda and AL East Kuroda.

Kuroda wasn’t the only NL West pitcher who made his way to the AL East last year. Jason Hammel was traded from Colorado to Baltimore in exchange for Jeremy Guthrie, and while leaving Colorado is always good for a pitcher’s career, landing in Baltimore didn’t seem like a huge improvement for a guy who had already been bounced out of the division after struggling in his early career with the Devil Rays. Instead, Hammel reinvented himself, added a two-seam fastball and some velocity, and posted career bests in bsaically every relevant pitching category. Hammel’s career HR/9 before last year was 1.06, but then he took his act to Baltimore and allowed 0.69 HR/9 while transitioning back to the AL East.

Going back to 2011, we see soft-tossing right-handers Carlos Villanueva and Freddy Garcia coming east, with Villanueva also making the switch from the National League. Over the last two years, Villanueva has posted an ERA- of 100, while Garcia has come in at 102, both improving over their performances with their previous clubs. And neither are exactly what you’d call stuff guys.

Even international rookies Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen had few problems transitioning to the AL East last year, despite throwing fastballs that sit around 91 and lacking anything resembling a true out pitch. Chen and Gonzalez both posted ERAs that were significantly better than their secondary results would suggest, but even with expected regression, they performed better than expected given their stuff and the supposed heightened level of competition in that division.

Yes, the AL East features some good offensive clubs, some smaller ballparks, and the heat and humidity of on the eastern seaboard allows the ball to carry better in the summer months than it does out west. Yes, the DH means that fringy pitchers have to get an extra big league hitter out each time, and can’t pitch around the bottom of the order the same way they can in the NL. Pitching in the AL East is harder than pitching in the NL Central.

But, the difference isn’t so large that it should be expected to turn a good pitcher into a bad one, and make no mistake, Ryan Dempster is a good pitcher. He’s posted an xFIP- between 85 and 96 every year since 2005, so while variation in BABIP and LOB% has caused his results to jump around a bit, he’s always regressed right back into being an above average hurler. Last year, his ERA was artificially low in Chicago because of a .255 BABIP, and it was artificially high in Texas because of a .330 BABIP. He didn’t magically get worse when he moved to the AL – his BABIP was just bouncing around randomly, as BABIPs do from time to time. In fact, he actually increased his K% after moving to the AL, which doesn’t really fit into the “NL pitcher” narrative.

Headed into his age-36 season, Dempster is almost certainly on the downside of his career, and can be expected to get a little worse just from natural aging. It’s probably safter to project him as an average pitcher for the next few years rather than an above average one. But, there’s really no reason to think that he’s just going to find the AL East so inhospitable that he’s incapable of getting hitters out, or that there’s any real evidence that pitchers without big time stuff fall apart once they have to face the Yankees a few times each year. Adjusting for quality of competition and the differences between leagues is one thing; pretending that there’s a gap so large that pitchers can’t successfully move from the NL to AL East is just not representative of reality, however.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


54 Responses to “Ryan Dempster, Quality AL Pitcher”

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  1. Eric says:

    I’m curious of how much written here can apply to Mark Buehrle

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  2. Prop Joe says:

    Buehrle racked up roughly 48 career WAR while pitching in a hitters paradise. Has everyone suddenly forgotten this?

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  3. Basebull says:

    Should one be concerned about Dempter’s GB% trend?

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  4. Steve says:

    Color me unimpressed with Mr. Cherington thusfar.

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    • Bob Zaffrann says:

      What would impress you?

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      • Steve says:

        Not trading Reddick and Lowrie for 2 relievers? Not giving $38M to Shane Victorino? Not signing Ryan Dempster?

        I mean, is his record so unimpeachable as to warrant this comment?

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      • Bob Zaffrann says:

        No judgment. I’m just interested in what you would have him do instead. I’ve heard a lot of people criticize, but not a lot of suggestions about what he might have done differently that is realistically achievable. Lowrie was a puzzler, but hard to know if that was Cherington or Lucchino.

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      • Dustin says:

        I’d be impressed by buying low on Bauer, or grabbing some of the Marlins players, or committing to the rebuild by grabbing Wil Myers.

        The best you can say about his moves is that they aren’t bad. Three year deals aren’t going to lock up the team’s finances for the long term. This should allow them to use their money to grab elite players when they become available. But there won’t be many elite players that become available in the near future. So these deals aren’t really good, they’re just ok. The one elite player who is available has already been boxed out by other signings.Victorino and Gomes are making about the same as Josh Hamilton will for the next two years. A Hamilton signing at 5/$125 would have been a much better way to spend the money.

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      • Bob Zaffrann says:

        Reddick . . . meh. I liked the trade when it was made and not going to criticize after one year of results. Reddick was .242/.305/.463 last year. HR likely to regress back to norm. ISO up to .221 last yr after never going higher than .177 previously.

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      • Bob Zaffrann says:

        Dustin – what package of prospects would you have given up to try to get Bauer or do the Marlins deal? Boegarts? Barnes? Bradley?

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      • Steve says:

        “Lowrie was a puzzler, but hard to know if that was Cherington or Lucchino.”

        I will grant you that much of 2012 was colored by the Bobby Valentine debacle, something that Cherington was NOT responsible for. That is why I left off giving away Youkilis for some magic beans after a bad month of baseball. That seemed to be a result of some clubhouse issues that were most likely Valentine’s fault.

        So, we should probably give Cherinton some more time before we draw conclusions, but hey, this is the internet….

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      • Dustin says:

        Bob, nothing close to a top prospect went the D-Backs for Bauer. I’d rather have Iglesias and Bailey than Gregorius, Lars and Sipp. I would have made Bradley/Doubront available to see what came back. Maybe they did that. The Jays have a good deep system so they had more prospects to move in the Marlins deal so it’s possible they were outbid.

        I don’t think Cherington should be slammed over not getting a deal done, but those trades were impressive. These signings are just ok.

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      • B N says:

        If he could offload Lackey to the Angels and get Bourjos back for taking on only 1/4 of Lackey’s salary, I’d be impressed. Or in other words, some “Wells-for-Napoli” magic. :)

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    • Brendan says:

      Here here.

      I don’t understand what they’re trying to do exactly. Obviously with the signings of Victorino and Dempster, they’re trying to win now. But if they’re trying to win now, then why trade one of the best position players in the game in his prime (Gonzalez)? I get that they unloaded a ton of payroll. But it’s not like they couldn’t have kept Gonzalez and Crawford and still signed Victorino and Dempster. They have the money.

      And the other problem with trying to win now is…. they’re not going to. They have no pitching.

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      • Pat says:

        They are semi-rebuilding I guess. They got a free pass on the Crawford and Gonzo deals that Cherington wasn’t responsible for. Gonzo was regressing but still good and Crawford was useless, Beckett was checked out mentally, can’t blame them for taking that deal.

        Instead of just sitting on something like 60M in free money, they decided to give shorter deals to decent FA’s so they can still be competitive. I guess they figure they owe the fans something after last year’s debacle.

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      • Brendan says:

        I guess as a fan, I would rather see some of the younger guys get a little bit of time (I realize that gets them closer to arbitration, but first of all, it’s the red sox and they have tons of money, and second they can at least learn a little more about what they have, and maybe build some of their younger players’ value if they don’t fit in long-terms).

        It’s a good point about the three-year deals, as opposed to the dice-k, lackey, and drew atrocities. But all they really do is make them mediocre for those years. If they really feel bad about the last few years, they would need a little more than what they have now to atone for it. My main concern is the direction the team is heading in – I would not be surprised if they didn’t make the playoffs for another ten years

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      • Jonathan says:

        “I guess as a fan, I would rather see some of the younger guys get a little bit of time”

        What younger guys? The moves they’ve made haven’t blocked anybody in the organization and, by all accounts, they’ll be handing SS to Iglesias before he’s ready as it is.

        As much as the Sox have improved their farm system over the last year and a half (Via the Punto trade and the 2011 draft), they still don’t have a lot of guys poised to contribute this year.

        All of their best prospects are at AA (Bradley, Barnes, Bogaerts) and the handful at AAA are either just starting there (Webster) or working back from injury (RDLR).

        In short, there are no “young guys” to play over these guys. The Sox signed a 1B (Our system is barren at 1B), some corner OF (The best and closest we have is Brentz, who probably needs another year) and a SP (Who we’re short on for this season).

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      • Brendan says:

        You’re right… most of their prospects are still a year or two away, for sure. And they definitely needed a 1B (they had the best in the game last yr but okay). I guess my main disappointment is if they were trying to win in the short-term, then why victorino and dempster, and not hamilton and grienke? I realize they would have required longer deals, but it’s not like they don’t have the money.

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      • Brendan says:

        one more thing…. in the interest of full disclosure, a lot of the negative things I have to say about the team and ben cherington stem from the fact that boston’s chances of winning in the near (and perhaps distant, although that’s impossible to tell right now) future are poor. honestly, there’s nothing terrible about victorino/napoli/dempster. you could definitely say they paid more than they had to for victorino, but whatever. that’s pocket change to them.

        it’s just hard to see so many more competitive teams out there, especially after having been through the last three years with boston. but we definitely had our moment. I really can’t complain after 2004. I would love to see some other teams – esp the rays, royals, and rays win a pennant. prob even more than the red sox honestly. it’s just easy to be critical and bitter when things aren’t going your way.

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      • ODawg says:

        They are trying to get into that 85-95-win-team range. The offseason champion doesn’t always win the regular season (ahem, 2011 Red Sox), because it’s baseball and lots of random things happen in 162 games. They are doing what the majority of MLB teams do every year, trying to get competitive immediately without mortgaging the future.

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      • jsp2014 says:

        they had an opportunity to get out from under some of Epstein’s horrific contracts and took the opportunity. I don’t think that signaled any sort of rebuilding effort.

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      • Brendan says:

        85-95 wins? I mean yeah, I could see 85 maybe. But does anyone in the world think they’re going to sniff the playoffs next year? or the year after that? I realize you’re right – you never know what’s going to happen. But come on – don’t we know totally know what’s going to happen?

        In all seriousness, name one year ever when you could reasonably say that boston “overachieved”

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      • Brendan says:

        “they had an opportunity to get out from under some of Epstein’s horrific contracts and took the opportunity. I don’t think that signaled any sort of rebuilding effort.”

        okay – sure, crawford’s contract was terrible. but if they’re not rebuilding, then why trade gonzalez?? who cares if you owe him $100 million, or $200 million, or $100 trillion. it’s boston. lucchino/henry/werner have the money. they have more money than we can fathom. why do we care so much about how they spend it?

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      • B N says:

        Crawford’s deal was going to lose some serious money, in all likelihood. I liked that trade 100%, maybe even 110% when I saw the prospects that came back in return. Due to that trade, they have the money AND they have some prospects who might help in the rotation.

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      • Jason B says:

        “okay – sure, crawford’s contract was terrible. but if they’re not rebuilding, then why trade gonzalez??”

        If you think they could have offloaded the Crawford contract without involving Gonzalez, I think you’re mistaken. Even with the Dodgers spending like a drunker seaman on shore leave, they had to provide some semblance of worth to be able to offload the Crawford albatross.

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  5. Matt says:

    Now write the opposite of this story – point to all the players that have made the transition to the AL East and have struggled mightily. Hell, the Yankees have plenty just themselves: Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez, AJ Burnett, Randy Johnson to name a few. John Lackey, Brad Penny, Steve Trachsel, etc.

    Or even pitchers that have gone from the AL East to other divisions. Burnett again, Ian Kennedy, etc.

    The list could go on and on I’m sure if someone wants to research more. The point is that an argument can be made from either side, but I’d guarantee more pitchers have been worse in the AL East than any other division.

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    • Atothe says:

      Aj burnett had a successful year with Toronto prior to signing with the Yankees, he has been a pretty good pitcher his entire except his last two years with New york.

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    • Mr Punch says:

      As a Red Sox fan, I really have to challenge your inclusion of Randy Johnson in this list. In 2005 the Yanks went 7-0 in his starts against Boston, a pretty good hitting AL East team, enabling NY to win the division.

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    • steex says:

      Steve Trachsel never had consistency in either league, it’s impossible to say his struggles were related to the division. Burnett has had success and struggles in both leagues as well.

      Ian Kennedy pitched fewer than 60 innings in the AL East, and those represent his first appearances in the major leagues – we probably can’t attribute that sample to an inability to perform in the AL East.

      Kevin Brown moved to the AL East for the first time in his age 39 season. He may have been out of gas in any division.

      Randy Johnson similarly showed up in the AL East at 41, and New York loved him in 2005. He had a bad year at age 42 before leaving the division.

      Brad Penny has had injury problems and very little success since his 2007 season in Los Angeles, two years before he first signed with an AL East team.

      But you’re right, someone should write an article about how all of these guys are examples of the AL East being impossible to handle for mere mortal pitchers.

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      Is this because the AL East is so ridiculous or could it be (just maybe) that the Yankees and Sawks like to sign guys to huge contracts after age 30 when their best years are behind them? Combining that with a strong division and hitter-friendly parks, and you have a pretty good recipe for guys “not being able to handle the spotlight” narrative.

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      • Steve says:

        Well, probably both, just not so much anymore.

        I think during the height of the silly ball era, the Yankees and Sox both had absolutely obscene offenses. Pitching in that division, and in that era, was really, really hard.

        But things have calmed down significantly the last 3 years. The average ERA in the AL is probably down /2 a run since the early/mid 00’s. Offense is down significantly for whatever reason (not all of it is probably steroids, but I’m sure SOME of it is), so maybe it is no longer as difficult to jump from the NL to the AL.

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    • ODawg says:

      This is really all Jeff Suppan’s fault.

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    • B N says:

      Well, it’s a silly thing to compare guys who came to the AL East 5-10 years ago to right now. In my opinion, the AL East hit better back when Randy Johnson came around than these days. When I look around the league now, I see hitting talent spread across the AL much more evenly.

      Who are the big hitting powerhouses this year?
      AL East: Yankees, Blue Jays
      AL Central: Detroit
      AL West: Angels, Rangers

      It’s fair to say that moving from the NL to the AL is going to hurt your numbers. However, looking at the AL, no division is going to give you a much smoother landing. The Red Sox don’t have bats like the Ortiz-Manny days. The Rays just lost hitting. The O’s bats aren’t scaring anyone. Heck, even the Yankees are weaker-hitting than ever: A-Rod, Jeter, and Tex are shells of their best selves. Cano is the best hitter on the team. If you’re going to come to the AL East, this is the time to do it.

      I just don’t see how one can compare guys who came in to face the AL East during the height of steroids and hit-first clubs against guys who are coming over now, in a much depressed run environment and weaker-hitting AL East.

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  6. John says:

    You know, considering how Fangraphs glorifies every signing the Red Sox make you would expect the team not to be so mediocre in recent years.

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  7. Jason H says:

    You claim that Dempster’s difference in BABIP between Chicago and Texas is just random, yet you offer no analysis to support this either way. If Dempster was facing tougher hitters in the AL West than he was in the AL Central, then you would expect his BABIP to go up (unless you actually believe that all balls in play are random and a grounder to second is no different than a double off the wall).

    In reality, BABIP is a combination of randomness and skill (both the pitcher’s and the hitter’s). Pretending BABIP is all random might be convenient for calculating a simple metric like FIP, but it is not reality, and you shouldn’t treat it as such in discussion.

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    • Jason H says:

      To test how random Dempster’s Rangers BABIP was, you could take his Cub’s career, and bootstrap it, drawing a sample equivalent to his time with the Ranger’s. Then compare Dempster’s time with the Rangers to the bootstrap distribution and see if it is an outlier.

      …and it should be noted that you really shouldn’t be using BABIP here. BABIP is a terrible stat for the same reason that batting average is. There is no reason to flatten singles, doubles and triples here. Doubles and triples are a pretty good indicator of getting hit hard, for example.

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    • B N says:

      It’s true, you’d think he’d at least throw in the xBABIP in there. For the record, looking at his batted ball profile he actually REDUCED his LD% in Texas but he lost some of his infield fly % (almost all of it, in fact). Basically, nobody popped up on him but people weren’t squaring up on him a ton either. His xFIP barely changed, so it seems more like bad luck on HR and LOB than much else. Though, as always, we shall see if he’s any good. At least the deal is short.

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  8. Alex A says:

    Dammit Jim I’m a general manager not a doctor.

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  9. Michael Scarn says:

    It seems as if I’m in the minority here, but I think the Red Sox’s signings this offseason have been very good, this included. I think mid-tier free agents have become very undervalued in recent years for whatever reason. Dempster’s has had a FIP below 4 each of the past 5 seasons, and has been between 3.3-5.2 WAR for 4 of those years, and yet people are going to criticize him getting $26 million over 2 years?

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    • Brendan says:

      as a red sox fan, what I’m critical of is the team focusing on winning in 2012 and not on rebuilding. I think they did the right thing last year by trading gonzalez – not because of the payroll it freed up, but because it showed that the team realized they weren’t competitive right now, and needed to rebuild.

      to me, one of the most undervalued things in the AL right now is the simple act of NOT trying to win in 2012. think about all the teams that are pushing hard to make a run next year, in many cases sacrificing their future to do it (maybe it’s not that different from other years, but it does seem like it):

      Boston
      New York
      Toronto
      Baltimore
      Tampa Bay
      Detroit
      Kansas City
      Chicago
      Texas
      Oakland
      LA

      that’s 11 of 15 teams – and maybe you could even throw seattle in there. one of them is going to see the world series

      I think – especially considering I just listed boston’s entire division – they could benefit greatly from trading some veteran pieces and giving some playing time to younger guys. the fact is they have basically no chance of accomplishing anything meaningful next year. it seems like because there are so few teams in the AL that are truly rebuilding, that boston could get higher than normal value for their win-now players and they could’ve easily gotten a wil myers without giving up much

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      • Brendan says:

        sorry make that 2013!

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      • Baltar says:

        Tampa sacrificing their future for a run this year?
        How do you draw that conclusion from their only significant trade: two good MLB pitchers for four prospects?
        I don’t know much about the other teams you listed, but I suspect that you are equally wrong on some of them.

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    • jim says:

      i don’t know that “very good” is quite correct, but yeah, outside of victorino, they’ve all seemed pretty solid

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  10. Kent Bonham says:

    Ripping off Dave’s post on Dickey vs. Price from a few days ago…

    Ryan Dempster vs. Anibal Sanchez, last three seasons:

    http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=pit&lg=all&qual=0&type=1&season=2012&month=0&season1=2010&ind=1&team=0&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=3284,517&sort=1,d

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  11. Spit Ball says:

    Clearly this team has gone “dempster diving.”

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  12. Larry says:

    Is anyone else disappointed as a red sox fan that no one is talking about Kalish? He was the one that made reddick obsolete. If he can stay healthy he’s going to be an awesome left fielder against RHP.

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  13. chief00 says:

    I’m open to the premise, but find myself unconvinced that Dempster won’t struggle. Certainly we need to ‘wait and see’, but all that’s proven here is that the statement ‘every pitcher who comes to the AL East from another division struggles’ is false. I didn’t subscribe to it. Besides, it seems like a straw man.

    How about looking at pitchers/players who DID struggle when they made the move, just to offer balance? Or is the opposing premise described in the opening paragraph a baseless one? What do we have when we evaluate all the pieces of evidence? Do they support one conclusion strongly or weakly, thereby refuting the other strongly or weakly?

    Shoot, maybe I need to do my own research…

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  14. B says:

    So the sox rotation is Lester, Dempster, Buchholz, uhhh Doubront and ???

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  15. BullChip says:

    If the season goes to hell in a handbasket by the trade deadline, my hope is that these mid-level guys are potentially easier to move along with Ellsbury. The future of the Red Sox may begin as early as the All-Star break.

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  16. Jack Burton says:

    Dempster’s BABIP this year was so weird. Extremely low with the Cubs, then extremely high with the Rangers, but if you look at the batted ball components you expect to influence BABIP, they are totally the opposite of what is expected:

    LD%: Cubs: 24.4%, Rangers: 15.5%
    IFFB%: Cubs: 6%, Rangers: 9%
    IFH%: Cubs: 6.3%, Rangers: 1.1%
    BUH%: Cubs: 57.1%, Rangers: 0%

    All the good luck seems to point to his Rangers days, but that’s not what his BABIP shows. There is not much to learn from this, other than what we already know: “BABIP is weird.” I just found it interesting. This data does make me disregard any belief that BABIP skill came into play in either of Dempster’s partial seasons. To me, it all just screams fluke in opposite directions.

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