Hard trying to predict Dempster's future

November, 18, 2008
For Ryan Dempster, it's been a long, strange road to his new $52 million contract. Dempster is 31 and has pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title in only four seasons:

Ryan Dempster
2001 226 30 8.3 2.2 3.66
2002 211 21 7.3 1.5 4.94
2003 209 28 6.7 1.7 5.38
2008 207 14 8.1 2.5 2.96

I'm not sure whether any other pitcher has made exactly this progression, from good starter to terrible starter to reliever to great starter. What's more, after a fine bullpen season in 2005, Dempster wasn't particularly effective as a reliever in 2006 or 2007 (if he had been, the Cubs might not have shifted him back to the rotation).

Again, Dempster turns 32 this spring, and his career record for consecutive good seasons as a starting pitcher is one. He's got two such streaks, seven years apart.

Searching for an explanation for Dempster's success in 2008, I found this Jack Curry column from this past June:

    Dempster is 9-2 with a 2.63 earned run average and has been the premier starter on the best team in the major leagues. He is especially formidable at cozy Wrigley Field, where he is 9-0 with a 2.71. Manager Lou Piniella linked some of Dempster's success to his offseason preparation.

    "I tell you what, he came to camp ready to fight De La Hoya for 15 rounds," said Piniella, referring to Oscar De La Hoya, the boxer. "I mean, he was in shape and he was on a mission and he's gotten off to a great start."

    Since Dempster had to train his right arm to be ready to throw 100 or more pitches an outing again (he had been a starter earlier in his career), he said it was imperative to be as fit as a Navy [SEAL].

    "For me, I just didn't want to come back and be a five-inning guy," Dempster said. "Not only did I come back in good shape, I did a lot of stuff with my arm. I did a lot of shoulder maintenance, stuff like that."

    As a reliever, Dempster said he was constantly trying to record strikeouts. But, as a starter, he has had to remind himself that is OK if batters put the ball in play because that reduces his pitch count. Dempster said he now prefers starting because "you can pitch a little." He throws a fastball, a slider and a split-finger fastball.

Whatever Dempster has been reminding himself, the fact is that his strikeout rate this season was significantly higher than last season and his highest since 2005. And Dempster has worked hard before. "The Scouting Notebook 2002" refers to Dempster's "second straight winter of intense workouts" leading to mid-90s fastballs in 2001.

The only real difference I can find between now and then is Dempster's third pitch. According to multiple sources, early in his career he complemented his fastball and slider with a straight changeup. Now he's apparently throwing a splitter. Also, according to data from Bill James Online, Dempster significantly upped his percentage of fastballs thrown, from 45 percent in 2007 to 55 percent in 2008.

What does all of it mean? Ask a scout. But there's one number that gives one pause: 14.

Dempster gave up only 14 home runs in 2008. I don't believe that number is sustainable. Dempster's ground-ball and fly-ball rates have not changed significantly, and I see no reason to think he's the second coming of Derek Lowe or Brandon Webb. My guess is that in 2009 and beyond, Dempster will give up 20 to 30 home runs per season, which will leave him somewhere in the middle of the continuum that extends from Cy Young candidate to Innings Eater. Is that worth $13 million per season in this market? Yes, if Dempster is healthy enough to give the Cubs 750 innings over the life of the contract.



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