I began my preview of the starting rotation over two weeks ago with one meaningful question regarding Garza and Samardzija. This is the second in a three part series.
In my post about Maholm a few months ago I mentioned my concern with his declining swinging strike rate, and the subsequent increase in his contact rates. Higher contact rates will result in a greater number of balls in play, and will make Maholm's results even more dependent on his defense.
In that same post, I posted a comment comparing Pittsburgh's defense versus our defense looking forward. I've modified that comment to make it more salient.
Let's look at the UZRs of the Pirates 2011 infield versus the projected UZRs of the Cubs 2012 infield. I focus on the infield because of Maholm's high GB%.
1B: LaHair 1.5 UZR | Pirates -7.5 UZR
2B: Barney 6.1 UZR | Pirates -3.4 UZR
SS: Castro -7.7 UZR | Pirates -0.4 UZR
3B: Stewart 0.2 UZR | Pirates 7.7 UZR
Based on last year’s UZRs, (for Barney and Castro), and career average UZRs, (for LaHair at 1B and Stewart at 3B), the potential 2012 Cubs infield would post a 0.1 UZR, which would be significantly better than the 2011 Cubs, who posted a -15.9 UZR, and slightly better than the 2011 Pirates, who posted a -3.6 UZR.
However, the fact that Pena and the other Cubs 2011 first baseman only compiled a 0.9 UZR last year makes me question my projection for LaHair. Based on what many here on this site have mentioned about how LaHair has fielded first base this spring, I would feel much more comfortable projecting LaHair at a UZR much lower than his career average. Furthermore, LaHair's fielding issues could negatively affect the rest of the defense. Based on these adjustments, I could see the best case scenario being a UZR closer to the -3.6 UZR of the 2011 Pirates.
If the 2012 Cubs infield defense is on par with the 2011 Pirates infield defense, Maholm's ERA will be near 4.00, which I would gladly take from our fifth starter.
Ryan Dempster | Was 2011 the beginning of the end for Dempster?
In his four years as a starter for the Cubs, Dempster had his worst ERA in 2011. His 4.80 ERA was almost a full run above his previous high of 3.85. However, as we can see below, his FIP and xFIP were essentially in line with his 2008-2010 average.
When pitcher's have ERAs that are higher than their FIPs and xFIPs that usually means that one of their "luck" statistics were out of whack. Sure enough, Dempster had a .324 BABIP, well above his the .292 BABIP that he posted between 2008 and 2010.
While I was tempted to chalk up Dempster's struggles to him being unlucky, I wouldn't have been doing my due diligence if I had ended here. This is because BABIP is driven by much more than just luck, in fact it's driven by four factors: team defense, pitcher's talent level, pitcher's skill set, and luck. Let's quickly examine a couple of these factors and how they relate to Dempster's 2011.
If we look at the following chart, we can see that Dempster benefitted from the Cubs' 2008 defense, and has been hurt in more recent years by the Cubs' poor defense.
However, as bad as the Cubs 2011 defense was, it was only slightly worse than the 2010 defense by UZR standards, but Dempster's BABIP was still 30 points above his previous year BABIP, and over 20 points above the Cubs team average BABIP. While defense has played a part in Dempster's BABIPs between 2008 and 2011, it doesn't explain Dempster's .324 BABIP too well.
Pitcher's Talent Level
When we're evaluating major league pitcher's, the most important variable for this factor is health. Aside from some minor hip and back issues that kept him from making an early July start, Dempster was healthy.
Pitcher's Skill Set
It has been discovered that pitchers with high strikeout rates tend to generate weaker contact, and thus allow fewer hits on balls in play. Thus, we would expect pitcher's with higher than average strikeout rates to have lower than average BABIPs. If we look at the past four years, we can see that Dempster's strikeout rates have remained relatively high. At 8.5 K/9 last year, Dempster's strikeout rate was well above the league average of 7.1 K/9, which would suggest that Dempster should have had a below average BABIP.
After evaluating the above factors, we're left with luck, and in this situation luck likely played a large role in Dempster's .324 BABIP. He didn't experience any major changes in his team's defense or his skill set that could have explained the BABIP change, and unless Dempster was suffering from an undisclosed injury, Dempster likely just suffered from bad luck.
Assuming that I looked over everything correctly, this is really the best answer that we could have hoped for; based on this, I would expect Dempster's ERA to bounce back below 4.00 this year.
As always, let me know what you guys think. I'll get to Part III within the next few days. If you have any suggestions for questions you'd like me to answer about the rest of our rotation or bullpen, then please let me know in the comments.