Chicago Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster allowed seven earned runs for the second consecutive start on Thursday, recording just one out before being yanked. Along the way he walked four, hit a batter and yielded four hits, including a grand slam to Stephen Drew.

Through six starts, the usually reliable Dempster now sports an unsightly 9.58 ERA and 1.87 WHIP. Given his steady production over the last three seasons (3.49 ERA, 8.20 K/9, 3.28 BB/9), one can’t help but wonder: What’s wrong with Ryan Dempster?

Scouts noted Dempster’s dip in velocity Thursday night, clocking him in the 85 to 90 mph range. For the season, Dempster’s average fastball velocity is 90.3 mph, not far off of his 2010 mark of 91.0 mph.

Cubs manager Mike Quade recently had this to say about Dempster’s ineffectiveness:

“He’s just not executing his pitches. I think it’s that simple…That slider that’s so good for him (hasn’t been) on a regular basis.”

That slider has been Dempster’s bread-and-butter pitch ever since he made the switch from reliever to starter after the 2007 season. In fact, over the last three years, Dempster’s slider has been a combined 52.0 runs above average, ranking as the major’s third-best during that time.

This season, Dempster’s slider has been 4.9 runs below average.

This has led to a severe case of gopheritis, as the 33-year-old (he’ll turn 34 on Tuesday) has allowed nine bombs thus far in 31 innings, equating to a 2.61 HR/9, which is more than two-and-a-half times his career mark of 1.00.

Despite his early-season struggles, there are reasons for optimism.

Throughout his nightmarish April, Dempster has maintained his high strikeout rate (8.42). His batted ball rates are comparable to his 2010 totals, and his BABIP (.344) and LOB rate (53.9) are likely to regress to the mean.

Dempster’s alarming home run rate should stabilize, as his 4.26 xFIP suggests.

His contact rate (79.8 percent), while still below the major league average of 80.6, is as high as its ever been (career 75.1 percent). Yet he’s still throwing strikes (50.9 percent of his pitches have been in the zone, MLB average is 47.3), perhaps they’re just catching too much of the plate.

Bottom line: Dempster shouldn’t be trusted at this point, but he’s still worth holding onto. Monitor his next two starts (home against St. Louis and San Francisco) and go from there. Assuming he can lower his near-double-digit ERA (or at the very least, turn in what would be his first quality start of the season), Dempster may finally be worth starting very soon.

But whatever you do, don’t drop him. His sub-4.00 ERA and suburb strikeout potential from here on out make him a valuable fantasy commodity. In fact, if you have the audacity to believe in him, Dempster is a good buy-low candidate.


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