On most nights in 2012, the performance of Boston Red Sox starting pitchers could best be described as brief and brutal. Sox starters taxed the bullpen by ranking 10th in the American League in innings pitched and taxed fans' patience by besting just the Indians and Twins in ERA. The Dropkick Murphys gave way to Murphy's Law: Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz regressed, Daniel Bard lost the strike zone, Josh Beckett lost his fastball, and John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka made a combined $25 million to compare Tommy John scars.
Seeking stability, Boston recently signed Ryan Dempster to a two-year, $26.5 million contract. The move might not placate anxious Sox fans, however. Dempster served DL stints last year for quadriceps and shoulder injuries and then got thumped on the mound after changing leagues, posting a 5.09 ERA with the Texas Rangers. As a Chicago Cub in the non-DH league, Dempster had a 2.25 ERA.
While injuries are a concern for a hurler entering his age-36 season, talk about Dempster's five-plus ERA in Texas is overblown. The veteran right-hander proved last summer that his stuff plays in the American League. He didn't pound the zone as much, but he compensated by inducing more swings and misses and ground balls:
|Team||Pct. of Pitches Thrown in Strike Zone||Miss Pct.||Ground Ball Pct.|
|Dempster as a Cub||49.2||24.7||43.8|
|NL Avg. for SP||49||21||46.9|
|Dempster as a Ranger||47||26.5||46.5|
|AL Avg. for SP||49.3||20.9||45.9|
If Dempster got more whiffs and worm-burners, then why did his ERA balloon in the AL? It seems like he ran into some bad luck in Texas. Dempster's batting average on balls in play jumped from .244 with the Cubs to .335 with the Rangers (the average for starting pitchers in both leagues is about .295). And his home run per fly ball rate spiked from 10.4% to 13.5% (the NL average is 10.3%, and the AL average is 11.3%). While pitchers have considerable control in getting hitters to swing and miss or hit a chopper, they're mostly at the mercy of the Baseball Gods when it comes to seeing-eye singles or wall-scraping homers.
It's not like Dempster threw more hittable pitches in Texas, either. He actually tossed fewer belt-high pitches as a Ranger (26.4%) than he did as a Cub (28.3%), and his percentage of pitches thrown high in the zone was basically unchanged (about 31% in both cities). Dempster's batting average and homer spike in the AL looks like the product of bad bounces, not poor command.
After back-to-back nightmarish seasons, Sox fans might wonder if their club has been cursed anew. But with better luck, Dempster should be a solid sign for Boston.