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 and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


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Bob
Guest
5 years 3 months ago

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

Eddie
Guest
Eddie
5 years 3 months ago

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.

mp
Guest
5 years 3 months ago

What’s wrong with…FanGraphs?

neuter_your_dogma
Guest
neuter_your_dogma
5 years 3 months ago

Stupid comments are what ails it.

Jesse
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Jesse
5 years 3 months ago

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

wobatus
Guest
wobatus
5 years 3 months ago

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.

Sox27
Guest
Sox27
5 years 3 months ago

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

ryan
Guest
ryan
5 years 3 months ago

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

Alex
Guest
Alex
5 years 3 months ago

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.

Ryan MF Braun
Guest
Ryan MF Braun
5 years 3 months ago

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

Alex
Guest
Alex
5 years 3 months ago

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.

JohnnyComeLately
Guest
JohnnyComeLately
5 years 3 months ago

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

Kyle H
Member
Kyle H
5 years 3 months ago

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!”

CJ
Guest
CJ
5 years 3 months ago

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.

Jonny
Guest
Jonny
5 years 3 months ago

You can send thank you cards to Bill Simmons.

jpg
Guest
jpg
5 years 3 months ago

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

Alex
Guest
Alex
5 years 3 months ago

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.

phoenix2042
Member
Member
phoenix2042
5 years 3 months ago

or the white sox! i know it’s worked for one struggling pitcher already!

MGL
Guest
MGL
5 years 3 months ago

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…

MGL
Guest
MGL
5 years 3 months ago

“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…

MGL
Guest
MGL
5 years 3 months ago

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)…

Sox27
Guest
Sox27
5 years 3 months ago

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.

Flag Frenzy
Guest
5 years 3 months ago

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!

Benjamin Miraski
Member
5 years 3 months ago

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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