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Deep Digging: Happy Birthday, Ryan Dempster

Today is Ryan Dempster's birthday. He's 34. He's slated to pitch for the Cubs against the Dodgers tonight, and he's about one more godawful outing from pushing his ERA for the season past TEN. Seriously. Coming off three straight sub-4 ERA seasons it's about the last thing anyone expected from the glove flippy guy.

So what the H is his deal, anyway? Is he bound to return to his 2008-2010 levels? Or is this the beginning of the end? More after the jump:

First, let's recap the lowlights from Dempster's foregettable 2011 season today:

April 1, vs. Pittsburgh: 6.2 IP, 6 ER, 7K, 2 BB. Started on Opening Day for the Cubbies, and allowed home runs to Neil Walker and Andrew McCutcheon in the loss.

April 6, vs. Arizona: 7 IP, 4 ER, 6 K, 0 BB. His best game to date, by a wide margin. Good control, missed some bats, probably deserve better than the 4 ER.

April 11, at Houston: 6.1 IP, 4 ER, 9 K, 3 BB. Gave up another two homers in Houston, this time to BILL HALL and ANGEL SANCHEZ. Yech.

April 17, at Colorado: 5 IP, 5 ER, 4 K, 2 BB. Got tagged by Seth Smith for a two-run homer, but otherwise was decentish.

April 23, vs. Los Angeles: 5.2 IP, 7 ER, 3 K, 3 BB. Add another three home runs, courtesy Casey Blake, Matt Kemp and Rod Barajas.

April 28, at Arizona: 0.1 IP, 7 ER, 0 K, 4 BB. Walking four times as many guys as you get out is generally not a successful day.

It's still early (I'm just going to say this in every article until the All-Star break, fyi) but his lack of success has been present in every outing this year. Obviously the cherry on top was his last effort, where he walked four dudes and gave up seven runs without even getting two guys out. Dempster says he's not hurt, and the Cubs say they don't see anything different about his mechanics. His PitchFx data supports this. His velocity is around 90 miles per hour, as it's been for the last couple of years. He's throwing about the same percentage of pitches he always threw, and generally in the same places he's always thrown them. In short, there just is not a smoking gun in his PitchFx data.

So why does he have a 9.58 ERA? Well, it's kind of the perfect storm of bad luck coupled with some natural aging. First, the luck. His batting average on balls in play stands at .344, his strand rate is a woeful 53.9% and his home run per fly ball rate is a putrid 23.7%. His three-year averages? .292 BABIP, 73.64% strand rate and 10% HR/FB% (although his two previous season were both over 11%). In other words, unless he's hurt (which he says he's not) and unless he's suddenly forgotten how to pitch since 2011 began (unlikely) he's experiencing some extreme early season luck that's bound to turn around. Tonight in Los Angeles might be the game that starts that trend.

However, there are some concerns here. Namely, the home runs and walks. His BB/9 is up to a its highest level since 2005 and the home run rate is the highest it's ever been. Given the fact that he's facing extra batters as a result of the low BABIP, and the fact that we're talking about 16 walks over six starts of one season, I'm inclined to give him a pass on the control issues for now. His PitchFx data shows his pitches are still hitting the same general spots they always have. He is, however, generating fewer swings on pitches outside of the zone (25.1%, down from 32.2% last year), giving up more contact on those pitches outside the zone (60.9% up from 55.7% last year) and generating fewer swinging strikes (8.4%, down from 10.9% last year and his first mark below 10% since 2003). If increased home run or walk rates become long term trends, his days as an above average starting pitcher might be coming to an end. Time will tell.

Advice: If you can buy low, do it. At the very least you'll ride his regression back to a more normal ERA. Just don't expect the glove flippy guy to be quite the same pitcher he has been for the past few seasons. He'll still be average or better, but he is 34 (today, in fact) and he's bound to drop off at some point.