Some Thoughts On Ryan Dempster

ryandempsterRyan Dempster‘s April was just horrible. In his first start he allowed 6 runs and then in two others he allowed 7 runs. Dempster took over the role that Carlos Zambrano had for several years in which he was the opening day starter and had a bad April. In 31 April innings he allowed 42 hits, walked 16, hit 1 batter and 1 reached on an error. That’s 60 baserunners. 34 of them scored. His BABIP was only .351, but that was in large part thanks to the 9 home runs he allowed. This month was so bad that we knew entering May that Dempster was unlikely to bring his ERA below 4 by season’s end. It was so bad it made the typical Zambrano April look more like a Greg Maddux Cy Young season.

Toward the end of April I wrote that there was nothing wrong with Ryan Dempster. I wrote that just two days before the shortest start of Dempster’s career on April 28th. I took some shit for that as I should have, but nothing changed. There was still nothing wrong with him. And in May, Dempster turned it around. He threw 38 innings, allowed 36 hits, walked 9, and struckout 33. He allowed only 13.

Since the first of May, Dempster has thrown 165.2 innings, allowed 161 hits, walked 62 and struckout 155. He’s also given up 12 home runs, which was 3 more than in April and he’s thrown more than 130 innings more. His ERA since then is 3.59, which is more in line with previous years when you factor in the league average.

What has been interesting to me has been all the complaints about Ryan Dempster. Some of which have absolutely nothing to do with his performance. I’ve made it very clear over the years that the only thing I care about is performance. I don’t care if the guy is an asshole or an all-time meanie. I don’t care what he says and I sure as hell don’t care what the Chicago sportswriters have to say. I don’t care if he’s a genius or illiterate. I don’t care if he’s heterosexual or homosexual. I don’t care if he’s turned on by 75 year olds or 25 year olds. I don’t care if he likes humans or cats as his sexual partner. I don’t care if he’s the best looking guy on the planet or so damn ugly I can barely stand to look at him. I don’t care if he’s the most well-mannered individual or someone who picks his nose and wipes his ass with fingers in plain view.

I don’t like these guys for what they say or don’t say. I don’t like them for how they dress or in all honesty how they even behave away from the field. I don’t know them, I will never know them and I’m pretty sure of the 25 guys on an active MLB roster, 24 of them are people I would wish I had never met. I don’t care if they’re the most clean person around or if they piss on their hands.

I’m not saying that you should be like that. Like whatever you want. Dislike whatever you want. I don’t really care about that either. What I do care about and what is the only important thing when it comes to evaluating the performance is the actual performance. That’s it. If you want to say Carlos Zambrano is an asshole and delusional, go for it. If you think Zambrano is batshit insane, say it. Or don’t. Doesn’t matter. Just don’t tell me that he sucks at baseball because of these things. None of those things has a damn thing to do with his performance and I’m pretty sure every baseball fan knows it.

I think this has happened to Ryan Dempster to some degree. His willingness or even eagerness to stand in front of a microphone has left a sour taste the mouths of many. It’s a legitimate complaint, though I think the complaint is more with the media than with Dempster. When Ryan Theriot stood in front of the microphone you couldn’t help but notice it was one of the worst players on the team that was often representing them. That doesn’t affect Theriot’s performance, but it was frustrating. With Ryan Dempster though, he’s been one of the best players on the team for several years now. Is there anything all that strange about one of the better players on the team often talking to the media? Maybe he says dumb things and isn’t funny and so on and so forth. I won’t argue with that because I couldn’t care less.

The problem is when those opinions affect the way we view the performance of that player. I’ve not seen anyone around here make this mistake, but I have seen it plenty of other places. We saw the same thing happen with Zambrano. When he was a really good pitcher there weren’t all that many complaints. When he clearly began to decline, people started highlighting his personal issues on an hourly basis. These issues were then used as examples of why the Cubs needed to get rid of him. For many of these people, that was all that mattered and the performance was secondary. We’re starting to see it with Dempster though the personal issues aren’t really personal issues. I’ve never heard anybody question Dempster’s leadership or likability.

Dempster has struggled this year and we’ve heard a lot more about how not funny he is. This has become supporting evidence to Dempster’s down season. Except it’s not supporting evidence. It’s not evidence of anything other than Dempster not being funny. It’s not evidence of him being unlikable. It’s not evidence of him not being a team leader. It’s not evidence of his ability to parent, drive a car, make a sandwich or take a dump either. His funniness is not like throwing strikes. One of them will have a direct impact on his performance while the other has none whatsoever.

Although Dempster has struggled when we look at the runs he’s allowed, many stats show he’s pitched about the same as he has in recent years. Runs allowed is influenced by the defense, sequencing and luck. When we look at single season stats we mostly care about the results. rWAR looks at runs allowed and then gives credit to the pitcher for team defense. fWAR ignores sequencing, BABIP and some of the luck. rWAR has Dempster with 1.4 while fWAR has him with 3.0.

Defense is obviously important in run prevention. The same pitcher could allow many more or fewer runs with a different defense behind him. This has to be accounted for and is by bother WAR methods. Sequencing is also important. Imagine two pitchers who allowed in one inning 2 hits (double and a single), a walk, a stolen base, struckout two and a flyout. Say it goes something like this for each pitcher:

Pitcher A: K, FO, 2B, BB, 1B, SB, K
Pitcher B: 1B, BB, 2B, SB, FO, K, K

The two pitchers had identical innings. The only difference was the sequence of those events. Pitcher A would have allowed 1 run and stranded 2 runners. Pitcher B would have allowed 3 runs and stranded no runners. The FO would have been a sac fly for Pitcher B whereas it was just any other out for Pitcher A. Two identical events here resulting in two entirely different results. That’s sequencing. Over time there’s no reason to think sequencing will have as big an impact as it had in that one inning. It mostly becomes meaningless in large samples.

To get an idea how big an impact sequencing can make in a single season, take a look at Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Batters hit .240/.255/.363 against Lee and they hit .245/.271/.373 vs Halladay. Lee allowed 3.56 runs per 9 innings. Halladay allowed 2.66 runs per 9. Although Lee had a slight edge when it came to how the batters performed against him at the plate compared to Halladay, he allowed nearly 1 full run per 9 innings. The difference is sequencing. With runner in scoring position, Halladay allowed only a .483 OPS. Lee allowed a .662 OPS. With men on base Halladay allowed a .564 OPS while it was .722 for Lee. When Halladay got runners on base, he pitched much better than Lee did. The result was 1 run per 9 inning difference. There’s not much skill in pitching with runners on base or the bases empty so there’s no reason to expect the huge difference to continue.

rWAR doesn’t really care about this. Halladay had 7.0 rWAR while Lee had 4.3 rWAR. fWAR ignores sequencing so it’s not surprising to find that Lee has 7.1 fWAR compared to Halladay’s 6.6.

Dempster has allowed an .873 OPS with RISP, which is 100 points higher than his overall average this year. That largely explains the difference between Dempster’s rWAR and fWAR right there. Much of pitching independent stats have been right in line with what he’s done in recent years and about what expected from him, but because he’s pitched so poorly with RISP, the results have been much worse. In 2008 when Dempster allowed fewer runs than expected, it can also be explained by sequencing. With RISP that year he allowed only a .409 OPS and a .440 OPS with men on.

Overall, Dempster has pitched a bit worse than previous years, but he’s in his 30s so who didn’t see that coming? The biggest issue has been sequencing. In 2011 it has killed him and in 2008 it helped him significantly. He’s much the same pitcher he was then, with a little age-related regression of course, but defense and sequencing have resulted in many more runs allowed.