What’s with the Ryan Dempster Love?

I don’t have much to say here except that I can’t believe all the talk I’m reading about Ryan Dempster. Sure, he’s a valuable major-league pitcher who had a good season in 2008. Are teams really thinking this guy is a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starter worth $13 million a season for the next four years?

I won’t attempt to value Dempster, because he spent 2006 and 2007 as a reliever—a reliever who couldn’t keep his K/BB > 2—so it’s difficult to predict his future from the recent past. He’ll be 32 in May, so it’s not like he’s finally getting his act together. 2008 screams “fluke!” While I believe he may be more valuable as a starter than as a reliever, I wouldn’t recommend devoting more than $10 million/year—if that—to a player with his track record. And before someone mentions “the supply of pitchers,” teams should not be willing to pay a player more than his marginal revenue product. They might pay him less, but not more.

17 Responses “What’s with the Ryan Dempster Love?”

  1. Shake says:

    If last year was his actual talent level though it would be a solid deal right?

    /irrational cubs fan hope

  2. Chad McEvoy says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you JC, but I’ve given up trying to win that debate here in the middle of Illinois surrounded by Cubs fans.

  3. JC says:

    If last year was his actual talent level though it would be a solid deal right?

    Yes. IF!

  4. Victor says:

    If Dempster can maintain last year’s performance, then THT’s xFIP says he’s a 3.9 ERA guy.

    I think the reason Dempster got so much was because Silva got 48M over 4 years and Lohse got 41M over 4 years.  Contracts like that are what set the bar for guys like Dempster to make 52M over 4.

  5. Millsy says:

    I understand your argument about comparing pitchers’ current salaries with those that are signed in the off season in free agency…the players are of increasing value.  However, to argue that both Mark Ellis and Kyle Lohse are worth such a significant amount more in the same offseason than Dempster makes me wonder what’s being used as an evaluation measure for these players.  No, I don’t think Ryan Dempster is a front of the rotation stud, but neither is Kyle Loshe…not even close.  You had Lohse valued at $48 million over…4 years?  He got $41.  Dempster absolutely HAS to use this as leverage, especially in a market like Chicago, which I’m pretty sure is fairly significantly larger than St. Louis.  I think it’s completely reasonable to compare player salaries within the same year and your extreme displeasure for Ryan Dempster and Kyle Lohse being paid similar salaries (holding constant the market size) is curious.

  6. JC says:

    Kyle Lohse has been a consistent average starter who throws a significant number of innings. Dempster is an OK reliever, who came out of nowhere to have one excellent season.  I think Lohse will continue to pitch as he has, but I’m not so confident for Dempster.  If Dempster had a track record of performing like he did in 2008, he’d be worth that contract.

  7. Jack says:

    I’m not quite sure why you believe last year was such a fluke … can you provide some evidence for this belief? It seems the main reason people think that is because his career track has been unusual. That in itself though isn’t reason to discredit last year. His Ks were up and his walks were down, which won’t be easy to duplicate but it’s not like it’s impossible. His BABIP was pretty normal and his fielding independant numbers were really solid so it’s not like he benefited from great defense or anything. He’s 32, sure, but plenty of guys have had success at that age. His flyball and HR rates were pretty similar last year to his previous couple seasons as an RP (obivously a different ballgame but still). What factual evidence is there to support your dismissive attitudes? I’d be interested to hear it.

  8. JC says:

    It seems the main reason people think that is because his career track has been unusual. That in itself though isn’t reason to discredit last year.

    I disagree. Dempster is a career mediocre reliever who had one good year as a starter that differs substantially from his past performance. I think he’ll pitch more like the pre-2008 Dempter. I’m not sure what more needs to be said.

  9. Jack says:

    Well how about, like, a fact to support that belief? His pre-2008 numbers really aren’t bad at all. You seem to be dismissive just because you think he’s not good, what needs to be said is something that shows it. His last three seasons K% were 22, 19.5 and 19.5. Last year he was at 22. His walk numbers were 12.2%, 10.5 and 10.6. He was at 8.9 last year (this is where I think it might be hard to repeat, but far from impossible as you’d make it seem). In two of the three previous seasons he had a fielding independent ERA under 4. Last year his FIP was at 3.39. His groundball and flyball numbers were pretty similar to what they’d been the previous three seasons. His BABIP was very close to league average last year (after being higher in two of the previous three seasons, which points to bad luck). Aside from the fact that 2008 Dempster pitched in the rotation and not in the pen, pre-2008 Dempster is largely the same as 2008 Dempster. If you think he won’t repeat what he did last year I’m all ears, but I’m asking for a reason beyond “I think” … or is this not that kind of blog?

  10. JC says:

    Let’s cut the attitude; it’s not appropriate. I am never one to shy away from facts, and I think I’ve got a strong track-record of listening evidence.

    From your sample, his K-rate went up by 7%, is walks fell by 20%, and his homers fell by 7%.  I mentioned his strange change in K/BB in the post; perhaps you missed it.  In addition, he went from being a reliever (when he doesn’t have to conserve energy) to a starter, which normally always results in worse per-batter numbers (see my book for a discussion).  This is a significant and odd deviation from his previous performance.  I will be stunned if he repeats his 2008 performance, but it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility (definitely more likely than the Gwinnett Braves landing a $1 million naming-rights deal).  I’m sorry if you disagree.

  11. Jack says:

    I don’t necessarily disagree, he’s probably bound for a decline of some sorts, but I think that in that Division even with pre-2008 numbers (which weren’t really THAT different) he can still be a fairly similar pitcher. And I’m positive that if he were to pitch like that again he’d earn way more than 13mm/year on the open market.

    One thing to consider when wondering where all the Dempster love comes from: have you considered the glove flippy thing? It’s kinda compelling …

  12. Gabor says:

    Feel free to call me crazy but this seems very wrong:

    “And before someone mentions “the supply of pitchers,” teams should not be willing to pay a player more than his marginal revenue product. They might pay him less, but not more.”

    What if, for example you believed that you, the Cubs, are a 90-win team, the Brewers are a 92-win team, Dempster is a 3 win pitcher, and is the only remaining starter on the market. You overpay for that like whoa.

  13. Millsy says:

    Gabor, I don’t think so.  If you believe Dempster is the way to get ahead of the Brewers in that sense, then you still have to look at what those extra 3 wins will provide in revenue for the team.  If it significantly increases revenue to the point that it’s worth signing Dempter for lots of money for some extra wins (apparently 3 over what would be in his place), then Dempster is playing for his MRP, not more.  If you sign him for more than what you expect that playoff birth to induce in revenues, you’re just back to being in the red.  Then you’re back BELOW where you were when you had a lower payroll and didn’t make the playoffs.

    This, of course, is based on the idea that the owner would be a profit maximizer. There are some owners that are not necessarily under this model (Mark Cuban, maybe) and use their teams as toys. In that case you’d be right…but horribly wrong from an economic standpoint…which I’m guessing is the assumption behind the posts on a blog called ‘Sabernomics’.

  14. Red Sox Talk says:

    The problem with your post, J.C. is that $13M is not front-line starter money, not for a club like Chicago. These days it’s more like $15-20M.

    I do agree he’s a bit overpaid, but it’s not by as much as you might think. I have a post up about it.

  15. Gabor says:

    Millsy, I completely agree with you. I just think that the MRP for a playoff birth is considerably more than anything resembling a fair value for Dempster. For most teams, MRP is a very real consideration. But, for a team like the Cubs that can realistically be seen as a fringe playoff team (we’ll say anyone with a 30-70% chance), they have to take into account the huge jump in team value from making the playoffs. The probabilistic value of three wins is MASSIVE for a team like the Cubs, certainly more than for a team like the Nationals who probably need 15 or so wins to compete.

    (And yes, I know they could get three wins elsewhere. But, let’s pretend.)

  16. Millsy says:

    All that means is that MRP is not perfectly linear (especially at the point where ‘playoff birth’ is specified).  JC actually has a plot of this in his book (I think), in that the value of wins rises slowly, steepens, then flattens out with diminishing returns to extra wins.  It doesn’t mean that they overpay, it just means that their MRP is different from those in the market around them for Dempster (or, generally, a pitcher).  The Cubs, as a fringe team, are at a different point on the average MRP line on that plot.  Dempster could go elsewhere, but you also have to remember that the other teams in the market for him may not have the same ‘jump’ in their revenue by signing Dempster.  This would result in the Cubs still getting him for less than their own MRP (assuming they are the top bidding team).

    If the Cubs really believe that Dempster is worth a little extra than they absolutely have to pay him (maybe other teams have some intangibles that the Cubs do not), their offer is still going to be less than MRP, but maybe a little higher than the other team to make up for being in his ‘hometown’, having ‘friends’ on the team, etc.  In this context, they are possibly ‘overpaying’, but still not more than their expected MRP when you take into account the probability of making the playoffs with and without Dempster.

  17. maynardgilmour says:

    I’m not one to give neither economists nor the holier than thou number-crunching, saber geeks the benefit of the doubt on anything. After all, the numbers are only a byproduct of the living, breathing, flesh and blood reality of things and not the other way around.

    Still, I’m very surprised an economist and a stat cruncher would be simplistic enough to dismiss something like an entire season as a ‘fluke’.

    A fluke is when an outfielder miffs a catch, bobbles the ball midair, and another outfielder makes the catch. A fluke is when a batter grounds a ball between the pitchers legs and just out of the reach of the both the middle infielder’s gloves.

    A fluke is not a 30 start, 200 inning, 500 batters faced season where you face the same lineup 2, 3, 4 times a game and your division rivals three or four games a season. A fluke is not a season that spans a time period of 162 games where the league has an opportunity to study the pitcher.

    If a pitcher goes an entire season and allows just under three runs per nine innings against the best hitters on Earth, he is doing something very right.
    So if you have a player who has had a mostly mediocre career and suddenly he has a great season you have to assume the pitcher figured something out or something changed.

    In Ryan Dempster’s case, the change was probably that he lost a lot of weight during the ’07-’08 off-season and because there was some thought that he was tipping his pitches, he added a glove shake to his delivery and held the ball in the split-finger grip before his motion to the plate.