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.

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.

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

Follow ChicagoCubsOnline on Twitter: @TheCCO

Quote of the Day

"When you play, play hard; when you work, don’t play at all." – Theodore Roosevelt