Friday, December 14, 2012

Going Dempster Diving

The Boston Red Sox have signed free agent starting pitcher Ryan Dempster to a 2 year, $26.5 million contract, marking the 4th contract this offseason they’ve given with an average annual value of approximately $13 million (if I was an insane person, like Dan Shaughnessy, I might try to connect this to some mystical curse, write a book about it and then go on every TV and radio show that will have me and present it as a fact). After dedicating their offseason shopping spree almost exclusively to the offense, Ben Cherington finally addressed a pitching staff that allowed the third most runs in the American League in 2012. Let's take a look at Dempster before we get to whether Cherington made a good deal or not (do you feel the suspense? That's how you keep people reading!).

Dempster has had a really interesting career. He was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the third round in 1995, but traded the next year to the Florida Marlins for old friend John Burkett (ironically, people are trying to compare Dempster to Burkett, who signed with the Sox when he was 36 as a softer throwing righty at the end of his career). In his first 6 seasons with the Marlins and Cincinnati Reds, Dempster was an ineffective starting pitcher. He had decent strike out numbers, but walked way too many batters and gave up a lot of home runs. The Reds released him after just a season and a half. At just 27 years old, it appeared Dempster’s career as a starter was over.

He latched on with the Chicago Cubs and transitioned to a bullpen role. His strikeouts remained steady and his walks actually ticked up, but he was able to cut his homeruns by 2/3 and was suddenly a very useful pitcher. After just one season, he became the Cubs closer, where he would remain until 2007. In that season, his home run problems started to come back and his ERA suffered. Heading into the 2008 season, former phenom Kerry Wood was finally healthy after years of injury issues and the Cubs decided to make him the new closer. With Dempster’s job no longer available, the Cubs decided to give him another shot in the rotation.

Because baseball is ultimately completely unpredictable, Dempster, now 31, responded by setting career bests in ERA (2.96), walk rate (3.31 per 9) and strike out to walk ratio (2.46 to 1). He basically became a completely new pitcher, focused on throwing strikes to keep runners off base. He stopped inducing as many ground balls as he was as a reliever and his home runs rate hovered around league average, but with less runners on base, the home runs did less damage. For the next 5 years, Dempster averaged more than 3 Wins Above Replacement (according to Baseball-Reference) and was one of the better starters in the National League. But with the Cubs out of contention in 2012, they traded him to the Texas Rangers for his first taste of American League action.

At the time of the trade, Dempster was among the NL leaders in ERA. So what does he do in his first 3 starts in Texas? Allow 16 earned runs (19 total runs) in 17 1/3 innings for a 8.31 ERA. It appeared like Dempster would fail where so many other NL pitchers have over the last decade making the transition from the NL to the much tougher AL. However, as he has done so many times before, he fought the perception and pitched really well in his last 9 starts posting his highest strike out rate (9.4 per 9 innings) of his career and a better than average 4.01 ERA. Because the Rangers shit the bed, he was unable to continue this success in the post season. Now, at 35 years old, Ryan Dempster will pitch a full season in the American League for the first time in his career.

So what did the Red Sox get with Dempster, a man who seemingly reinvents himself every 4 or 5 years?

Most importantly they got a durable pitcher. Since he returned to the rotation in 2008, Dempster has thrown more than 200 innings in every season but last, when he threw 173 innings. He had 2 separate unrelated DL stints last year, but neither were for serious injuries (strained quad and a strained shoulder). Now the caveat that he is an aging pitcher coming to a team with a questionable medical staff apply here, but his recent track record shows a pitcher who will take the ball every fifth day. More than anything, this is what the Red Sox have lacked the last two years. In 2011 and 2012 the Sox had just 1 pitcher pitch over 200 innings, and that was Jon Lester’s largely ineffective innings last season. Most playoff teams in 2012 had multiple pitchers throw 200 innings or more than 30 starts. The Reds had 5 starters make 30 plus starts and 4 starters throw at least 200 innings. If you want your team to win over 90 games, then you want at least your top 4 starters making about 75% of your teams starts. If the Sox can get 30 starts out of Dempster, Lester, Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront (or if they sign someone like Edwin Jackson) this season, they will win 90 games. That is a Sexy Guarantee.

Of course throwing 200 innings can only happen if they are quality innings. Luckily, at least for 2012, I would expect quality innings out of Dempster. I would predict that Dempster will be average or better this year because he has been so good ever since returning to the rotation. His strikeouts have remained steady over the last 5 years and his walk rate continue to be good, which limits the damage from his occasional homeritis. He also gets a healthy amount of groundballs, which will be great in front of an infield defense that features former Gold Glover Dustin Pedroia and the second coming of Ozzie Smith at short stop. 

The other great thing about this signing is that it is for only 2 years. At Dempsters age there is a decent chance that he either falls off a cliff in his abilities or injuries start to take a toll and he spends some time on the DL. The risk of this happening would only increase after 2 years. If Dempster can make it through 2013 reasonably healthy and effective, I think he will have satisfied the needs of the team. By 2014 I think the Sox will have another 1 or 2 young starters ready to join the rotation and if Dempster starts to slip then, the team will be covered. Also, he could head back to the bullpen and prove useful there as he has in the past.

Of course there are risks in signing any pitcher, let alone one towards the end of his career moving to a tougher league. Someone once said that once you’ve displayed the ability for a skill then you own the potential to repeat that. In Dempster’s case that can be a good thing as he has had many good seasons, but it could also mean that he reverts to the wild tendencies of his youth. If you combine his previous high walk rates with his high home run rates, you get a pretty bad pitcher. Dempster also has a fairly large platoon split in his career, giving up an .807 OPS against lefties compared to just .701 against righties (this split may be muted this year though as he pitches more in Fenway, a tougher place for lefties to hit, and he added a cut fastball in 2012 aimed at neutralizing left handed power). In Yankee Stadium with the short porch against guys like Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira, this is a scary proposition. He also continues to lose velocity on his fastball, from an average speed of 91.1 MPH in 2008 to just 89.7 MPH in 2012.

The final verdict is that this is another strong signing by the Red Sox. They haven’t landed any superstars this offseason, but they have filled some obvious holes on the roster with solid players. The offense has a mixture of power and speed and a handful of guys who can grind out at bats (though at present is very right heavy). The rotation now has a durable innings eater to join the upside of pitchers like Lester, Buchholz and Doubront along with some top pitching prospects in the high minors to provide depth should any of these guys get hurt. I would expect this closes the book on the major moves the Sox make for the rest of the offseason. I think they will continue to monitor the market for a Jacoby Ellsbury trade and there is probably a 10% chance they still sign Nick Swisher and a 25% chance they add another starter. More likely we will see them add another left handed hitter that can play outfield and first base and then make a trade to clear up the catching and reliever log jam. There is still too much offseason left to judge how my buddy Cherington did, but at this point he is heading for a solid B+/A-.

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