What’s Wrong With Ryan Dempster?

Chicago Cubs’ pitcher Ryan Dempster might have thrown seven innings of one-run baseball last night, but some uncomfortable questions still linger for the former 17-game winner and staff ace.

With his latest outing — his first quality start this season — Dempster has an unimpressive 8.05 ERA and 1-3 record. These being the end-all statistics for most Cubs fans, it’s easy for Cubs fans to see what’s wrong with Dempster: He’s terrible.

Kidding. In truth, a little investa-magation helps us understand what’s really happening to the Cubs’ resident jokester.

This year, Dempster has been using his four-seem fastball (think: fast and straight) less often and his two-seamer (think: a little bendy but also fast) much more. The effect has been, eh… kinda the same.

But his main pitch, the slider that’s been his bread-n-buttah in the past four seasons, has been less effective. He’s throwing it a ton (~34%) — more than any other pitch, in fact — but so far gotten some poor results (5.7 runs below average). A look at his Pitch F/x data informs us that his slider, if anything, is sliding even more than last season (which, I;m incline to think, should be a good thing).

So, then, what ails Mr. Dempster? Frankly, the answers are easy: Ol’ fashioned bad luck. Yeah, this “What’s Wrong With [player x]” series often reduces down to this same assertion, but it’s for good reason. We humans are fickle creatures,  prone to emotional reaction and quick frustration. We’re ready to call a player kaput after 60 plate appearances, when in fact flukes and bad luck can extend 10-times that length.

Consider the Great Roberto Clemente. In 1962, Clemente hit a mere 10 home runs and was about 12% above league average with the bat (according to wRC+), despite his career average of 29% above the ruffians. If a Hall-o-Famer can dip 17% from his norm while in his prime, then a great or good or terrible player can do the same — or even more.

But I digress. Returning to Dempster, we find him a ship tossed in the maelstrom of bad luck. CHARTS!


With the exception of his 54 innings in 1998, Dempster has never had a BABIP so high as this season’s (.336). Batting average on balls in play (or BABIP) is a pretty solid estimator of luck. Like with anything, there are lots of wrinkles and exceptions, but being .032 ticks above your career norm (.302) is clearly unlucky.

And before you tarts say, “Oh, it’s just the Cubs ter’ble defense, poo-poo-poo!” please know the Cubs own the third lowest BABIP among NL teams since 2008. (I know, right?)


Again, we see Dempster hitting a career-worst on yet another luck metric. Left on base percentage (LOB%) typically hovers around 72% (for Demp, his career LOB% is 71.7%). This year, he’s sportin’ a 58.8%. That’s a straight kick in the groin from Ms. Luck.


Home runs per nine innings (HR/9) is not a luck metric, but I’m using it as a proxy for HR/FB (we do not yet have a HR/FB graph). Home runs per fly ball (HR/FB) is another — though hotly contested — metric for luck. We can see from the above chart that Dempster has gone all Bill Murray from Stripes on HR/9, taking the metric for a cruise through the German mountainsides.

Despite his a normal career HR/FB (at 10.8%, he’s pretty much textbook), this year he’s allowed 22.5% of fly balls to land in the hands of some bleacher bum. Detractors will say, “He’s just getting hit harder,” and, “Raising Hope isn’t that funny,” but both are absurd claims.

Dempster’s Pitch F/x data looks too similar to last year (similar velocities, possibly better movement) to say he’s lost a grip or some of his speed. Moreover, his strikeouts and walks are not out-of-whack, so basically everything has been held constant except his luck. His ERA is awful (8.05 ERA) but his FIP shows underlying success (5.75 FIP) and his xFIP wards off the luck beasts and shows the Ryan Dempster we know and love (3.92 xFIP).

Demp is fine, and last night was merely a portent of his play.




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Bradley writes for FanGraphs, The Hardball Times, Cubs Stats, DRaysBay and Homebody Abroad. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

53 Responses to “What’s Wrong With Ryan Dempster?”

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  1. Bob says:

    Thanks for telling me all this two days AFTER I dropped Dempster from my fantasy team

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    • Sorry Bob! I wanted to write this earlier — and probably could have — except I’m slotted for Wednesdays and wanted to see his next start.

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      • lester bangs says:

        This stuff has more utility when you don’t wait for the struggling guy to rally some.

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      • phoenix2042 says:

        he did just say that he was slotted for wednesday, so it’s not like he could have submitted it earlier in order to beat dempster’s start. that would just be stupid… besides it’s only factored into two sentences!

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  2. Eddie says:

    Brad -
    I’ve watched Demp pitch the last couple of times out, and it seems to me his control over his offspeed stuff has been nonexistent. I don’t know if pitchfx backs this up, and I’m going from my own (flawed) observations, but he left a ton of pitches over the heart of the plate in his most recent implosions, which partially explains why so many balls were going over the wall. Last night, he seemed to control his splitter a lot better, and he was able to keep it down and out of the hitter’s happy zone. I’m not saying luck didn’t play a big role here, but he sure looked more effective last night than he had previously.

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    • Good points, Eddie. In truth, a quick look at his Pitch F/x does reveal he’s left a number of meaty sliders over the middle of the plate. However, because all his other peripherals are in place, we must assume any missed locations are just random variation.

      Consider this: I like surfing — I’m not very good, but I like it. One of the keys to surfing is, you guessed it, catching waves. However, sometimes when a big, rolling wave comes my way, I turn and paddle with all my heart and just slide lazily over the crest wave. Maybe I’m not digging deep enough with my hands, maybe my timing is off a little, or maybe a burrito is not sitting well in my tummy.

      Anyway, my results may be off, but the process is there. In the same way, Dempster may be missing his locations a little here and there, but players are constantly making little adjustments or undergoing sometimes funky results.

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      • Eddie says:

        I’m just glad he’ll be able to rebuild some confidence after last night. There may be nothing wrong with his peripherals, but repeatedly failing when one is used to succeeding could cause problems above the neck, if you catch my meaning.

        Also, I traded for Ryan last week, so I’m doubly excited that he seems to be on the right track.

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      • Eddie says:

        Also – GEO!

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      • Eddie says:

        PENA!

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      • @Eddie: I dunno. The psychological argument always seems iffy to me. Once these guys get to the majors, I should expect they’ve undergone most of the worst stretches they will have encountered in their pro career. By the time you make it to the majors, you should already have learned to perform despite your performances.

        Especially when we consider how life outside of baseball can offer much greater tragedy and frustration, it seems sometimes petty to assume their million-dollar occupation could rattle them.

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      • Pa-tu-ri-ku says:

        @Bradley, you’re right, they SHOULD already have learned to perform despite their performances. The thing is, that a few exceptions may apply. I’m sure there are some players who will always have that mental issue holding them back. I can’t find any other way to explain Rick Ankiel….

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  3. mp says:

    What’s wrong with…FanGraphs?

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    • Pfft, that one’s easy! We all live in our collective mothers’ basements and make jokes about our readers on a secret, underground online forum!

      BOOM, ROASTED.

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      • mp says:

        Silly me, here I was thinking that it was recycling the exact same premise/headline multiple times a week.

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      • Ricky says:

        mp: If you have such a huge issue with the titles of the articles that precludes you from enjoying the insight and information, then that’s a shame…since there’s absolutely NO way that you can avoid coming to this site and reading the articles.

        Oh wait…

        /s

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      • mp says:

        @Ricky: Yes, that’s right, you’re only choices are to agree 100% with what a site is doing or leave and never come back.

        Sure, it was a snarky original comment, but, more relevantly, I don’t see why writing statistically oriented pieces means throwing creativity out the window.

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      • phoenix2042 says:

        first of all, mp, it’s “your* only choices.” second, the “what’s wrong with…” thing is a series. it’s not just that they can’t come up with something better. it’s part of a longer body of work that they tie together with a similar title. oh, and if YOUR only complaint is about the titles, then i would say that they’re doing a pretty damn fine job!

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  4. neuter_your_dogma says:

    Stupid comments are what ails it.

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  5. Jesse says:

    I assume the Bill Murray from the 1917 senators which Fangraphs links isnt the same Bill Murray you are referring to?

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  6. wobatus says:

    This was pretty much what i thought even before last night. I benched him before his real bomb of a start 2 starts ago. And last night he started off by walking 2 on 8 pitches. After that he righted himself. I replaced him with another era/xfip bad luck case, Derek Holland, but it’s nice to have Dempster on my bench ready to be slotted back in if injuries or ineffectiveness occurs.

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    • That’s a pretty smart move. In general, I no longer drop a vet-with-success until a good two months of suck. I dropped David Ortiz once during one of his early-season cold streaks. Scars remain still.

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  7. Sox27 says:

    What’s Wrong With Ryan Dempster? The answer is simple…he hasn’t faced the White Sox yet.

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  8. ryan says:

    i got a new delivery, i no longer flip my glove… if u would watch me pitch you would catch it, instead of just looking at the number crunching

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    • Wrong. Sorry Ryan, but as of Tuesday night, you were still flipping your glove. Try watching some footage of yourself when there aren’t runners on base.

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      • phoenix2042 says:

        see, i knew you guys watched games! all those people who are all “you just look at numbers. watch a game once in a while” can shove it! haha yea, no, but i think the glove flip is funny. adds character!

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  9. Alex says:

    You are not looking at the full range of Dempster’s pitches this year.

    He is throwing a career low (his SP caree) O-Swing at 25.1% vs 32, 28, 28 the past three years. Batters are also making more contact with his bad pitches – O-Contact at 60.9%, by far the worst of his SP years, vs. 55, 48, 50 the past 3 years.
    AND his SwStr % is lowest of his SP years – 8% vs. 11, 11, 11 the past 3 years.

    In summary, Dempster is not getting hitters to swing at bad pitches as frequently, when hitters do swing at bad pitches they are making much more contact, AND he is generally not getting hitters to swing and miss as much.

    That batted ball data explains why his BB% is quite high. There are less hitters swinging at bad pitches, so the bad pitches result in BB and good hitters counts. Some of the extra hits he gives up are unlucky but some are due to hitters getting better than avg looks at hitter’s count pitches. It’s not surprising then that his LOB% is worse (it shouldn’t be as low as it is, surely, but it should not be his career avg either), as more of the guys who are being put on base (higher bb%) are getting driven in (from better hitters counts).

    I agree Dempster’s outcome metrics like ERA are certainly due for regression, but this batted ball data tells a deeper story of a guy who’s not fooling as many hitters as he has in the past and is learning to cope with the results.

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    • Hmm… Excellent points Alex. However, like I said in a comment somewhere above here, pitchers and hitters are constantly making adjustments and trying to fix this or that. Dempster is having enough success to lead us to believe he will recover from this, no problem.

      Moreover, those differences in PA numbers are pretty small. One or two really terrible starts (something Dempsters already had) can throw those way out of whack. For him to be only 3-4% off while his ERA and FIP go bananas tells me he should be fine.

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  10. Ryan MF Braun says:

    While Bradley was writing this article I hit a 3 run homer off Ryan Dempster.

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  11. Alex says:

    I realize I am making an assumption here that higher BABIPS are correlated with better Hitter’s counts. I haven’t researched that but it seems logical enough to me. 2-0 or 3-1, hitters see fastballs much more frequently than other pitches. When they know the pitch coming they have an easier time squaring up to it. Hitters have MUCH better averages in better hitters counts and it would be silly to attribute that all to luck. They can hit the ball harder and farther when the count is in their favor.

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  12. JohnnyComeLately says:

    Great article Brad. You’re a very entertaining writer. Keep up the good work.

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  13. Kyle says:

    I keep trying to tell my gf (misplaced cubs fan) that he isn’t as terrible as it looks. She won’t hear it. “He’s horrible!”

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    • I forbid my wife to make independent thoughts about baseball. She must submit her opinions to me before approval. It’s just better for her and better for me that way.

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      • phoenix2042 says:

        i’m the same way! actually no, my gf just doesn’t care about baseball lol. it’s probably better that way because lord knows i think about baseball too much already…

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  14. CJ says:

    Agree on the entertaining writing. Good job, Brad.

    Better than lots of the awkward writing here. I know FanGraphs isn’t the New Yorker, but some of the writers here could stand to write a little more fluid.

    Always lots of pop culture references, though. It’s like staff policy to reference a couple rando movies every article. Not that I mind.

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    • Jonny says:

      You can send thank you cards to Bill Simmons.

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    • Aww, come now CJ! I love my coworkers! Sure they may not write with the same flair or subliminal messages that I do, but they were largely responsible for me coming to understand and love this great sport! For that, they get a free pass on anything.

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  15. jpg says:

    Good article Brad but you failed to mention the obvious. The guy has been in steady decline for a few years now.

    2008- 2.96 ERA 3.41 FIP 3.69 xFIP
    2009- 3.65 ERA 3.85 FIP 3.74 xFIP
    2010- 3.85 ERA 3.99 FIP 3.76 xFIP

    To be fair his K/9 and BB/9 have been pretty stable. He will obviously pitch better but an ERA, FIP and xFIP north of 4 wouldn’t be surprising based on thre trend

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    • Eh, his numbers have gotten worse, but not so terribly worse that I can comfortably say: “Here’s a man on the express trolley to retirement.” I think those changes could easily be just fluctuation.

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  16. Alex says:

    Good article, thanks. I had the fortune of starting him for every start except his most recent victory. If anyone wants their struggling pitchers to turn it around, just let me know and I’ll drop them from my team. They’ll no hit the yanks.

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  17. MGL says:

    Here are my 2 cents:

    He was a terrible starter before he became a reliever and then was a very good starter after he was converted back from a reliever. Overall, he is OK and he is not getting younger. Almost all pitchers, regardless of age, get worse each year (principally because they velocity declines). If you are not young, you almost universally get (a lot) worse with age (yes, I realize there are lots of exceptions, as there are with everything that we refer to collectively or “on the average”).

    I watched Dempster for the first time against ARI when he allowed his 7 runs in 1/3 of an inning. He looked awful to me because he seemed to be just putting his head down and throwing every pitch as hard as he could seemingly with no idea where it was going. Now, all pitchers probably look bad when they are having a terrible day results-wise, and we can usually find a way to criticize their delivery or approach when they are having a terrible day, so take that observation with a grain of salt.

    Plus, even if that observation were true, I would have to watch another outing from, say, last year or the year before, and if it looks the same, then I would have to throw out that whole theory…

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    • Is this the real MGL?! If so: I’m honored. If not, well, hey, nice to meet you.

      One of the key differences between Old SP Dempster and New SP Dempster is the glove flip and the repertoire. The reason he does the flip is because he was tipping his pitches — namely his sinker, which he added and improved in his time with the Cubs.

      That’s one of the chief reasons (so think I) he’s blossomed into an above average SP.

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  18. MGL says:

    “I watched Dempster for the first time against ARI…”

    This year that is. I’ve watched him many times in past years, but I don’t remember that aspect of his delivery. As I said, maybe he always looks that way. Sort of like Carmona…

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  19. MGL says:

    And the exact opposite of Maddux, who always looked to me like he was walking up to the plate and placing the ball in the catcher’s glove (any where he wanted to)…

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  20. Sox27 says:

    Unrelated to the post but Bradley will you be authoring the “What’s Wrong With John Danks” article? I mean he’s now 0-5.

    All sarcasm aside, nice article.

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  21. Flag Frenzy says:

    Awesome article. It’s great how you break down these stats, with helpful graphs, so that the novice can follow easily along. Reminds me of Nate Silver or Paul Krugman’s pieces and how they expertly use graphs as well, kudos.

    Hope Demp gets better luck, we sure need it!

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  22. Not to be picky, but the Cubs actually have a .307 BABIP against them this season, next to last in the majors (only Houston is worse).

    Dempster’s FIP is probably the better stat to use right now also, because of the home runs he is giving up. Just because xFIP seems to indicate things are going better, you can’t dismiss how often he is being taken yard as a fluke right now.

    There is definitely something not right if he is giving up this many home runs. Either he is tiring earlier (since some of his home runs have come late in his starts), or maybe his overall velocity range is compressed (making it easier to time his pitches).

    But to dismiss his HR rate doesn’t seem appropriate right now (especially since it is a big reason his LOB numbers are down).

    As for his start in LA, well, it is one of the parks where Dempster has had a great deal of success in his career. Plus it is a great pitcher’s park, even if the Cubs managed to finally find some power there.

    Dempster is a pitcher to avoid until he consistently proves he can do what he did on Tuesday.

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    • Yeah, but this year’s Cubs defense is only more rangey (Castro, Barney) than in years past. Logically, we’d think this year’s BABIP would be lower, not higher. My point is merely defense and BABIP don’t correlate. Take that for what you will.

      “…you can’t dismiss how often he is being taken yard as a fluke right now.”

      No, I can. How many cuh-RUSHED! balls have you seen go for outs or hard singles? How about weakly hit fly balls that creep over an outfield wall? These things happen all the time. It would be straight foolish of me to throw out the wealth of his career data (which unanimously says 10.8% HR/FB) just for a handful — yes, a handful — of bad starts.

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