Riding the Wind: How Ryan Dempster Got Lucky

Kerry Wood’s performance wasn’t the only problem with Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Washington Nationals.

No, another problem lurked below the surface, one that you wouldn’t necessarily notice because of the results.

That cryptic explanation points to Ryan Dempster’s performance.

The veteran pitcher struck out 10 Nats on Thursday. He threw 108 pitches and his arm didn’t fall off. He even retired 15 in a row at one point.

The ugly truth is that he got lucky, in ways that he wasn’t so lucky last season.

Ryan Dempster began the 2011 season by allowing nine home runs in his first six starts, three of which were at home, and three on the road. It was disconcerting. Here was the bedrock of the Cubs’ rotation, and he was failing. He wasn’t providing the steady outings that the Cubs needed as the back end of the rotation fell apart around them.

His 2012 season could have started with much the same flavor, except for the wind.

In the first inning, Dempster put the first two men on base — one by hit and one by walk — before facing Ryan Zimmerman.

With a 0-2 count on the Nats’ third basement, Dempster let loose a low-90s fastball that was up in the zone. Zimmerman got a hold of it, until the wind took its turn playing with the ball’s physics, sending it back into the park and right into Marlon Byrd’s glove.

Dempster avoided disaster in the form of a three-run home run all because of a timely gust off of Lake Michigan.

If he loses that one into the seats, we aren’t talking about the bullpen at all. We are talking about Dempster and his inability to avoid the long ball.

Dempster’s margin for error has decreased over the past few seasons. As his velocity drops, he needs to be more and more precise to get the same results as in the past.

That includes not making mistake pitches like the one he served up to Zimmerman in that first inning.

On a 0-2 count, if a pitcher is wasting a pitch, he needs to put it where the batter has an low probability of hurting him. For Zimmerman, that would be low and outside, preferably in the dirt where he can’t possibly reach it.

Instead, the third pitch was up and close to the middle of the plate.

ZimmermanDempster1.png

Before thinking that this is possibly an OK waste pitch, here are two facts about Zimmerman.

1. Over the past three seasons, he has a weighted on base average of .287 when chasing pitches out of the strike zone. That is good enough for fourth in the league over that time.

2. Zimmerman loves the high fastball. He chases more pitches out of the zone up and over the plate than in any other zone.

In other words, Dempster put a ball in a location that was hard for Zimmerman to resist. And he is among the worst players to try and get to chase a ball, especially in that location.

If this is Friday, that ball is in the upper portion of the bleachers in centerfield. If this is last year, it most definitely targeted for a return trip to the outfield grass care of some beer-drinking bleacher bum.

The wind saved Dempster on Thursday.

He didn’t make any more mistakes throughout the game. You can look at every result pitch and see that. He stayed within that slim margin that he holds at his age. He even handled every other at bat by Zimmerman by avoiding that zone.

Dempster1-4512.jpg

But that first inning pitch to Zimmerman should be painted bright red for the danger that it posed to his otherwise steady performance for Chicago in game one.

PitchFX graphs generated at Brooks Baseball

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  • http://twitter.com/Golfnut70Bob OttawaBob

    Maybe he knew the weather conditions (cold and windy) and pitched accordingly………………is that possible Ben??

    • Zach

      Exactly, i bet if the wind was blowing out, he would have pitched just as well, because he would have kept the ball down.

      • CJ

        Demp specifically said after the game that he took advantage of the wind with some of his pitches.  Maybe he was justifying what he’d done, but I’m inclined to believe that he’s been in Chicago long enough to recognize what the wind that day would do to an attempt at a long ball.

  • Aaron

    Great research! Love it…

    I was saying the same thing yesterday….that he was just lucky. By my count, he should have given up 3 home runs (2 to Zimmerman and 1 to Werth), which would have been on par with his 2011 early season performance. 

    I love the guy, but his time has passed. He is not an above average starter anymore…that much is clear. Instead of sitting in the 93-94 mph range with his fastball, as he was in 2008, his last truly great year, he’s now in the 87-89 mph range, topping out at 90 mph with his fastball. That’s NOT to say you can’t be successful in that range, but when you are throwing that many pitches, and consistently up in the zone, you’re playing with fire, and it’s only a matter of time before they catch up to what you’re doing.

    • http://twitter.com/Golfnut70Bob OttawaBob

      Great research?? thats a stretch, Aaron. Give me all the variables, not just the ones that fit your side of the debate.  What was the wind speed and direction at the time of these pitches?  Does Ben know that, Do you know that ? I’ll bet Dempster did. He was there ..on the mound.   Bottom line…. the ball stayed in the ball park—-3 times. Maybe Dempster knew with a 30 mle an hour wind blowing in you don’t nibble at the corners.

      • Aaron

        What?!? 

        Were you even watching that game? Have you ever pitched in your life?

        I’ve pitched in those conditions before (actually worse), and there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell I consciously left pitches up in the zone, knowing the wind would knock it down.

        Do you even realize how ridiculous you just made yourself sound?

        So…using your logic, you’re saying that Lidge intended to leave the pitch up for Stewart to hammer against the wall for a triple.

        You just proved that you have NO idea what you’re talking about 

        • http://twitter.com/Golfnut70Bob OttawaBob

          Aaron its know skin off my ass if you think you are superior to me,  I’m nobody!  But when come on here and act like you know more than a 10 year plus major league pitcher, a pitcher who has pitched  at a pretty high level, I take issue with that. Working as a college level pitching coach I’m afraid is light years from stepping on the mound and pitching at Wrigley.  In answer to your question NO I have never pitched at the major league level.. I would venture to guess  that 99.99999% of the members here at CCO haven’t either. And if you haven’t then this debate is over. We’ll agree to disagree and leave it at that.

        • http://twitter.com/Golfnut70Bob OttawaBob

          Aaron, I don’t get you using Stewart’s triple off Lidge as a support of you and Ben’s arguement. That ball didn’t leave the yard either. And isn’t that what this is all about, The ball LEAVING the ball park??

  • Ripsnorter1

    Barry Zito….ESPN reports that the scouts’ comments about his ST performance was that Zito was “throwing batting practice.” He’s awful, and he’s got $45 million dollars left on that awful contract.

    The Giants have no alternative to him on their roster. They would like to find a starting pitcher somewhere to take his place.

    • Zonk

      How about Soriano for Zito?  We can throw in Wells

      • Zonk

        I am kind of joking, but I guess only half……Giants need offense, we need a LH.  Guess it depends on how much Zito has left.

        • John_CC

           Zito isn’t worth a bag of shag balls!  I am about as fond of Soriano as the rest of us, but come on, .260/25/80 is a very real possibility from Soriano hitting 4 or 5 this year. Zito is done. He hasn’t been as good as Randy Wells for two years.  I’d much rather put Travis Wood in the rotation is you think a LH is that important. 

      • Ripsnorter1

        If Brett Jackson, Vitters, Rizzo, LaHair, Ridling, or any prospect in our system could do what Soriano did last year, the CCO would be full of dancing, shouting for joy and intense jubilation. 

        In other words, no.  

        And Zito is really bad now. I think he’s finished. 

  • Zonk

    Great analysis!  Did Dempster pitch to flyball contact, or was he just lucky?  Probably a bit of both

    • Scapogro

      Aaron: Research technically, needs are far greater sample size to accurately determine whether the demp was throwing to field condtions or just made a mistake and was bailed out by those field condtions.  I have a feeling that he knew the conditions and was a bit less focused on pinpoint control and more so just throwing strikes.  Also, perhaps he knows that the wind was blowing in, the bullpen not the strengh it was in years past and figured that it would take a mighty poewrful blast to send it out of the park on this day. He leaves the ball up it’s a fly ball, knocked down by our friend on this day the wind, a little lower and it’s in the bleachers via the line drive.

  • RMercer

    Neil…love this site, BUT I can’t believe I wasted my time reading such amateurism in this post this morn. Who approves the subjects of what you guys post. I can’t believe Ben or anybody else can’t think of something else to write about. I’ve watched pitchers in Wrigley pitch to the conditions for years.

    Next, maybe Ben can write about a lucky 4 hit day by one of the Cubs where one of the hits was a bloop, one of the hits was just out of the reach by a fielder, one of the hits was through the vacated middle on a hit and run, and finally the 4th hit was a home run that might not have gotten out if the wind was blowing in.

    Like I said, I love this site. I read it because it’s the best and most knowledgable, but this was ridiculous and a complete waste of time.

    • John_CC

       I tend to agree with you RMercer, but it is only a different way to read the game.  I don’t think you should be so harsh on Ben.  He is only trying to give a different perspective, and a lot of fans enjoy the new “lucky / unlucky” stats. 

      I think that a smart veteran like Dempster knew exactly what he was doing by pounding the zone and taking full advantage of the home field advantage.  That’s what we want, right?

  • cubs1967

    watching the iowa cubs last nite on milb.tv; it was stated rod lopez was taken off the AAA roster pending an assignment………..no other info.

    perhaps Blake is gone??

    • Tom U

      cubs1967, glad to see you’ve joined up and are watching the minors. Enjoy the ride!

  • Scott

    I remember watching a game 10 years ago where Juan Cruz faced Jose Rijo of the Reds.  I’m from Ohio and I work with some obnoxious Reds fans, so these games are always important to me.  Anyway, this was at the end of Rijo’s career and he had nothing left.  But the wind was blowing in at Wrigley that day about 30 mph and Rijo and the rest of the Reds just threw the ball up in the zone and begged the Cubs to try and hit it as far as they could.  The Cubs ended up with about 20 different 370 foot fly ball outs that day and Rijo got the win because he was smart enough to know how to pitch in those conditions.

    I just hope that Dempster has more in the tank than Rijo did at that point in his career.  But it does show that a crafty veteran can use the conditions to their advantage as well.

  • Texcubnut

    Ben, were the 10 strikeouts and 2 hits allowed in 7+ innings lucky,also? And Aaron was the radar gun working correctly because a lot of the readings they were showing had Dempster in the 91 to 93 range to go with some pretty nasty split fingers and good movement on his other pitches.   Lucky or encouraging?

    • RMercer

      Exactly!

    • http://www.mrisports.com/ Benjamin Miraski

      My point was that 2 hits could have been a lot more, and a lot more damaging if the wind hadn’t saved Dempster on some of his pitches. You may pitch with the conditions, but leaving a low 90s fastball up to the most dangerous hitter in the Nationals lineup isn’t doing that.

      According to PitchFX, Dempster had 12 pitches over 91 miles per hour, none more than 92.  On the day, his fastball averaged somewhere between 88 and 89, and his splitter was 81.

      I would like to think that Dempster is more of the pitcher he was over the latter part of 2011, as opposed to the April disaster. But missing on the Zimmerman pitch, plus some of the Werth outs aren’t as encouraging.

      Maybe “lucky” isn’t the best word, but he got away with some pitches Thursday that would have killed him last year. And the result would have been the same for Chicago: a loss.

  • SuzyS

    I note that the ICubs used Scott Maine as their closer…does he have potential to take over for Marmol???

    • http://chicagocubsonline.com/ Neil

      Suzy, Maine has a very good arm with that said, his problem is his control. He simply does not throw enough strikes. At the minor league level he can get away with it but he cannot pitch from behind on a consistent basis in the majors. I hope he can put it together, there is a lot of talent there.

      • SuzyS

        Thanks Neil…I guess he just bears watching…I believe
        the Cubs will need another closer going forward….and that Marmol might be traded this year…IF he can put it together and bring value back in a trade…His contract however, will be a hindrance IF he has another season like last year’s.
        Either way, I believe the 2013 Cubs will start the year with another closer….If Marmol fails this year…and we are stuck with him…then I think he will be moved into a set-up role…contract notwithstanding.

        • http://chicagocubsonline.com/ Neil

          He does bear watching, no doubt. I agree the Cubs could use a different closer. A top paid closer is a luxury for a team building past this year. Let’s hope Marmol can pitch well and they can move him … there is a team in the Bronx with a pitching coach that knows him.

          For what its worth, I like Dolis at the major league level. Lot of talent there. Keeps the ball down, lots of movement. There is concern about his delivery.

          There are a few arms in the minors that have a possibility of closing at the big leagues.

      • John_CC

        Since when have the Cubs cared about control from their closer?  ;)

        • http://chicagocubsonline.com/ Neil

          Well played …

    • paulcatanese

      Suzy, In my opinion, Marmol is very close to being shut down as the closer. Last year he was overweight and for reasons unknown simply did not do the job.
      This year, based on some of his performances in ST, while decent, but not up to his standards.
      Then the very first game, the same thing happens.
      I think(in my opinion) the leash is a lot shorter this year and thus Lopez is brought in ( actually, I think(in my opinion) for the long man or even some starts.
      Maine throws hard, and they need someone to groom for closer (in my opinion) but just don’t know if he has the final finish(polished) in his arsenal.

  • Djrizzo1

    People, how about some common sense? With runners on first and second and nobody out, do you really think Demp throws a hittable pitch because the wind is blowing in? Like a double in the gap wouldn’t hurt.
    You’re welcome.

    • cubtex

      Well said. Some on here think that a pitcher will just throw a meat ball and have the hitter hit it just because the wind is blowing in. It is amazing how some people don’t understand the game. Dempster thinking to himself….OK, I have 1st and 2nd and no out. I am down 3-1 to Ryan Zimmerman……think Ryan think. Hey????? The wind is blowing in 30 MPH….I will just lay a 85MPH fastball belt high and let him try and hit one as hard as he can and it won’t go out. Good thinking Ryan! OK……here you go Zimmerman. lol

  • cubtex

    For all you sensitive people who are All Positive Cubs All the Time. Dempster did give up 23 HR’s last year. 23 times someone got lucky last year. The year before that 25 times someone got lucky. Dempster is very unlucky. Yesterday he got a little luck :)

  • Bill

    No offense, but this discussion is silly.  Did Dempster get away with some bad pitches?  Yes.  Does every pitcher in every game?  Yes!  Geez, if pitchers made perfect pitches all the time there’d be few runs scored.  Demp pitched to the conditions.  I love it.  Wish Woody would have done the same thing.  Throw strikes, even down the middle of the plate rather then walk guys when the wind is blowing in at 30 mph. 

    You don’t get lucky to K 10 guys and give up only 2 hits.  He pitched an excellent game.  If anything he got unlucky because Baker doesn’t field a routine ground ball and Woody can’t throw strikes.  The title of the piece should have been, “How once again Dempster gets unlucky”. 

  • Brian

    I understand some of the backlash, but all Ben was trying to do was provide an alternate opinion and analysis of the game.  Sure, maybe Demp pitched to the wind, but at the same time, based on last year, he gave up plenty of long balls. 

    Here at the CCO, we welcome all opinions and analysis.  Attack the point, attack the analysis, but don’t attack the person, especially when he put in a good amount of his free time to write and thought-provoking post. 

    We will all never agree on everything, but based on the posts, as many enjoyed the post as thought it was pointless.  Please keep that in mind, and as I always say …

    Stay Classy Cubs Fans!