View From The Bleachers

Talking Cubs Baseball Since 2003



October 2011



Rotation Rebounds?

Written by , Posted in General

The Cubs starting rotation finished dead last in ERA in 2011 thanks to a revolving door at the #5 spot and poor seasons by both Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells. Matt Garza figures to top the rotation heading into 2012, unless new President, GM, Emperor, or whatever other title Theo Epstein gets, decides to go into full rebuild mode and trade the Cubs most valuable pitcher. Both Dempster and Wells will likely join Garza leaving a couple question marks at the back end, but it’s the two veterans that need to rebound to give the Cubs a solid trio of pitchers. So, what are the chances Dempster and Wells get back to pre-2011 performance?

Ryan Dempster was converted from closer to starter four seasons ago and he’s pitched 200 innings in each of those seasons. That alone is a pretty telling number. A bad pitcher won’t be pitching 200 innings a season. Well, at least he shouldn’t be. I don’t think anyone could have seen how successful he would become as he was coming off two poor seasons in the bullpen where he combined for a 3-16 record, 4.76 ERA, and 12 blown saves.

But succeed he did by having the best season of his career. He would go 17-6 with a 2.96 ERA (with a 5.2 fWAR) and finished 6th in Cy Young voting. He wouldn’t have the same results in 2009 and 2010, but still put up over 200 innings in each with solid ERA’s and a combined 7.1 fWAR. If you believe in Fangraphs version of WAR, he was the 14th best pitcher in baseball from 2008-2010.

So what happened in 2011? At first glance, I was ready to chalk it up to bad defense and bad luck. Since Joe has an ESPN affiliated Cubs blog, we contributors have access to a great tool. Thanks to ESPN Stats & Information, I see that in 2011, left handed hitters crushed Dempster to the tune of 303/382/480 (.371 wOBA). In 2010, those numbers were 234/332/373 (.313 wOBA). I was ready to blame that entirely on the .391 BABIP, but a deeper look, and an excuse to use ESPN Stats & Information’s ‘Heat Map’, we can see a pretty clear picture of a cause to that high BABIP, and that is the location of the splitter:

2010, Splitter location

2011, Splitter location

Dempster simply caught too much of the plate, resulting in 14 more hits, including five that went for doubles. He had a similar problem with his fastball against left handers, leaving the ball belt high resulting in 12 more hits compared to his 2010 numbers. Altogether he gave up 24 more hits (2 fewer hits on his slider) in 346 at bats. If you knock his hits down to 2010 levels, his .303 AVG against drops to .234!

There are other numbers, however, that give me hope. His performance against right handed hitters and his overall strikeout percentage, walk percentage, home run percentage, and velocity are right in line with his 2008-2010 numbers. This information provides me with some optimism that he can bounce back and put up another 3.0 fWAR season with a sub-4.00 ERA in 200-plus innings. I feel it will come down to locating that splitter and fastball against left handers.

Randy Wells, I think, is a much easier case. Wells wasn’t much of a prospect coming up through the system and he wasn’t anything special in the minor leagues. But in 2009, he threw 165 innings with a 3.05 ERA, good for a 3.0 fWAR, surprising everyone. His 2010 wasn’t as good, adding well over a run to his ERA, but there were some good signs such as an increase in his strikeout rate while maintaining an above average walk rate and a healthy number of ground balls while putting up another fWAR over 3.0.

I was bullish on Wells going into 2011, thinking he could put up a third consecutive 3.0 fWAR season, but a forearm strain right out of the gate took him out of the rotation for nearly two months. It would be easy to blame that for his poor 2011, as his ERA rose to nearly 5.00, his strikeout rate dropped, walk rate increased, and his home run rate nearly doubled. But I’m not sure I can blame the forearm. I’m going to blame his loss of velocity that you can see on this chart, courtesy of Fangraphs:

Fastball Velocity, 2009-2011

Now, maybe his forearm was the cause of that loss of velocity, but note that first game in 2011; the velocity was low before the forearm injury. Maybe it was affecting him in that first game, but I don’t know that for sure. It does appear that the velocity was on a slow, but steady, incline, but I’ll stick to the problem being the loss of velocity (nearly 2 mph according to ESPN Stats & Information) for now and wait and see what 2012 brings. If the forearm is the cause of that velocity drop, the offseason of rest will hopefully be enough time to recover. But if he’s healthy and the velocity doesn’t come back to pre-2011 levels? I fear Wells’ best days may already be behind him.

What do you think? Do these pitchers rebound? Do you see something else that leads you to feel one way or the other?

  • Dusty Baylor

    Well I think Garza will top the staff, because I don’t see the Cubs spending on CJ Wilson, or Sabathia if he opts out.
    The rotation is going to be:
    I like Randy Wells, but he’s a 5th starter. I’ll have to wait for a better idea of what pitchers will be available in the off season.

  • Chuck

    I am cautiously optimistic that Dempster can bounce back. One thing he has going for him is that he was good in the past so there is hope that he can “regress to the mean” of being a good pitcher again. However, he is at the age where he will begin the slide into cruddiness. I think he can bounce bace to being an above-average pitcher, but I would not be surprised if he does not.
    Wells, on the other hand, is what he is. A below average innings-eater that is good for a #5 starter on a mediocre team. On a good team, he would not be in the rotation at all. Maybe he can be the next Sean Marshall. Couldn’t hack it as a starter, but great in small sample sizes.

  • Cash Money will be back in the mix. I would love to see a few new arms, and have Wells and Cashner battling for the 5-spot in Mesa.

  • Norm

    I think Cash is a year off from competing for a starting spot. Will probably want to build his arm strength for a year…or part of the year anyway.

    Wells was better than a #5 in both 2009 and 2010. I don’t think he gets back to that though. If he gets that velocity back, he’s got a better chance.

  • Buddy

    Great article. Very well done.

  • Noah

    I still don’t think I’ve heard an answer anywhere regarding Jay Jackson’s end of this past season in Iowa. He was much better than he had been previously, but I don’t know if that was his velocity returning or regression to the mean. If Jay Jackson’s velocity is back (and he isn’t sent to the Red Sox), I’d like to see him get a shot at a rotation spot next year. Aside from that, I’d prefer for the Cubs to just try and go after a couple of bargain guys to fill out the rotation. I won’t name them since, well, that would make the piece I’m writing for next Tuesday pretty pointless.

  • Doc Raker

    What, no Z? Pitty. I would say at this point we have Garza and 2 5th starters. Maybe Les Nessman can pitch?

  • Buddy

    Mr. Carlson pitched pretty well with Jennifer standing next to him.


    I’m hoping Dempster can rebound and establish some value before the trade deadline so we can get something for him. I know he has the 10-5 veto, but it would be nice

  • Dusty Baylor

    I wouldn’t be too sure on Cashner in the rotation. He’s never thrown more than 111 innings in a season, and after a lost season due to shoulder injuries, the Cubs might be better served to put him in the bullpen and let him prove his health first.
    Hmm…Z might be in the mix too….thanks Doc!

  • Doc Raker

    A rebound year from Dempster would be nice, and Soriano, and Soto, and Colvin, and Byrd, and Marmol, and Wells…………………………..

  • Buddy

    I’m with Dusty. If Cashner is healthy in 2012, stick him in the pen.

  • terencem

    Dempster is an excellent bounce-back candidate. He was covered pretty extensively on Fangraphs this season due to the fact that his ERA was not in line with his peripherals stats (FIP and xFIP liked him a lot more than ERA). Garza will be fine as long as he keeps the balls out of the bleachers like he did this season.

    Wells is in trouble. His velocity was down last season. This is a very bad sign. Hopefully it was just something to do with his injuries.