Chicago Cubs right-hander Ryan Dempster enters Monday leading the major leagues with a 1.02 ERA, his WHIP is an outstanding 0.85, and he's fanned 36 hitters in 35 1/3 innings. Still, you somehow won't find his name among the top 40 pitchers on ESPN's Player Rater. OK, how is that possible? Oh yeah, Dempster somehow remains winless on the season.
Blame the Cubs' offense and sketchy relief corps, as Dempster has allowed only six runs in his five starts -- he missed two starts with a disabled list stint for a right quad injury -- but brings a 0-1 record into Monday night's game on ESPN at the St. Louis Cardinals. Tampa Bay Rays right-hander James Shields is 6-1 despite a 3.52 ERA. Tommy Milone of the Oakland Athletics has a 3.92 ERA and is 5-2, and Boston Red Sox enigma Clay Buchholz is 4-1 despite a brutal 8.31 ERA and 1.97 WHIP plus more walks than strikeouts this season. Dempster's ERA is nearly half of Buchholz's WHIP, yet he's the one without a victory.
Sometimes life isn't fair, but fantasy owners shouldn't be leery of owning or trading for Dempster just because his terrific start hasn't been rewarded with wins. If there's anything fantasy owners should know by now, it's that wins aren't predictive. In 2010, Dempster won 15 games despite a pedestrian 3.85 ERA and 1.31 WHIP. The ERA and WHIP didn't hurt fantasy owners too much, but they sure didn't help, either. That's been the rub on Dempster for years even while he was closing games for the Cubs, that the ERA and WHIP just weren't worth it. Well, they are because of his strikeouts.
Last season, the only number Dempster delivered that helped statistically were the 191 strikeouts, as his ERA and WHIP were sky-high. In fact, of the 20 pitchers who registered more whiffs than Dempster in 2011, nobody had a higher ERA or WHIP. Only one other pitcher even had an ERA above 4 (Max Scherzer). Dempster was not a popular fantasy option despite the strikeouts and finished as the No. 115 starting pitcher on the ESPN Player Rater. That's not good. Still, thanks to the strikeouts, Dempster was the No. 62 choice on average in ESPN live drafts this spring, a 22nd-round pick. He is 100 percent owned.
Dempster's current numbers -- other than the unlucky wins total -- actually appear somewhat legitimate, which is why despite his low ERA, it's tough to call him an obvious sell-high choice. The Cubs, on the other hand, aren't playing for a fantasy title in 2012 and really should consider moving an expensive, 35-year-old pitcher (hello, Red Sox!), but that's another matter. For fantasy purposes, of course Dempster's ERA and WHIP will rise; Dempster's ERA and WHIP have steadily done so since 2008, but his strikeout rate has increased in that span. Dempster is thriving in part because of an unsustainable hit rate (a .164 batting average against; last season, Justin Verlander led the bigs at .192) and BABIP (.221), and those figures will normalize, perhaps quite a bit. But even when Dempster allows runs in some form of bunches, the strikeout rate makes him unique. Since the start of the 2008 season, he's 12th in the majors in strikeouts but with an ERA (3.70) that looks nothing like those of the 11 fellows ahead of him (next-worst is Dan Haren with a 3.43 ERA). Still, he's fanned more hitters in those four-plus seasons than Clayton Kershaw, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Cain and Yovani Gallardo.
The strikeouts are why Dempster has been worth owning the past few seasons and why even when his current numbers regress -- and they unfortunately have a lot of room to do precisely that -- he'll remain an attractive fantasy option. The strikeout rate isn't fluky. Some might argue his walk rate is, though; Dempster has really controlled the free passes with a career-low walk rate of 2.5 per nine innings so far. Dempster is going to keep missing bats, but if he can keep avoiding walks as his hit rate rises -- and Monday's opponent, the Cardinals, are second in the majors in hits and batting average -- we could be looking at a repeat of 2008, when Dempster allowed a .227 batting average against and posted a 2.96 ERA. Dempster won 17 games that season, which seems unlikely with his current crew of Cubbies, but everywhere else he looks like a deserving top-40 starting pitcher, even if the Player Rater doesn't show it.