Ryan Dempster has never been a flamethrower. Nor has he been an ace. What he’s been is Old Mr. Reliable, consistently logging innings and double-digit win totals. The 35-year-old right-hander comes into the current season — his first with the Red Sox — with a career mark of 124-124 and a league-average ERA-. Originally with the Marlins, he had his best seasons with the Cubs and has also pitched for the Reds and Rangers.
Dempster talked about the evolution of his repertoire, and the importance of command, last week in Fort Myers.
David Laurila: How much have you evolved over the course of your career?
Ryan Dempster: As you go along, you make adjustments. When you’re younger, you think you can just throw everything by a hitter. You try throwing the ball harder. When you get older, you realize the value of changing speeds and putting the ball where you need to put it. From an approach standpoint, that’s probably what has changed the most.
DL: How hard did you throw when you first signed?
RD: Not much harder than I throw now. I threw a little harder when I was closing, but as a starter I’ve always been kind of around the same.
DL; How much has your repertoire changed over the years?
RD: Now I throw a split-finger fastball. I didn’t throw that until 2005ish, and didn’t really start throwing it a lot until 2008. It’s a different kind of split. It’s not a traditional forkball, but rather more of a split-type changeup. Fergie Jenkins showed it to me. I threw it in the bullpen in the back fields of HoHoKam Park and it ended up working for me. It’s been a good pitch.
DL: How would you describe the grip?
RD: It’s like a split-finger grip, but with no fingers underneath the ball. I have my thumb touching my index finger like a circle change and my other two fingers up touching my middle finger. So, kind of on top of the ball and a little bit different.
DL: Did it replace your changeup?
RD: No. I never really had a changeup. Not a good one, anyway. It was always there, but it wasn’t something I considered a plus pitch. On the days my split is good, it’s a plus pitch.
DL: What is your full repertoire right now?
RD: Fastball, slider, split, cut fastball. My fastball is both a two- and a four-seam. I’ve always thrown both. I think it’s important to throw that four-seam fastball and elevate it, maybe spot it up a little more than a two-seam fastball.
I like to believe that a single fastball — one four-seam fastball — can be made into four pitches. That’s by throwing it down and away, up and away, up and in, and down and in. I like to be able to make the ball move or stay straight — as straight as I can make it — when I need that.
DL; When did you start throwing a cutter?
RD: Last year. I basically bought in. There are enough articles about guys throwing cutters that I thought maybe I should try it. It seems to be the pitch of current times.
Kerry Wood helped me a little bit. He threw a really good cutter. I kind of tinkered around with it. It’s not something I live and die by, but I’ll throw it when I need it.
DL: Some pitching coaches aren’t big fans of the cutter, especially for younger pitchers.
RD: What happens is that you fall in love with it and forget what your true strength is, which is your fastball and throwing your fastball where you need to. It’s one of those things where if you throw it too much it takes away from your other pitches.
DL: You had your best year in 2008 [17-6, 2.96, with the Cubs]. What was the key to that season?
RD: I think it was fastball command. Being able to throw my fastball where I wanted it. If I was going in with it, it got inside. Pitches weren’t leaking over the middle. Any time you have good command of your fastball, whether it’s for a game, a week, or a season, you’re going to have good results. Fastball command allows you play with your other pitches.
DL: Control and command are two different things.
RD: Absolutely. Control is being able to throw strikes. Command is being able to put it where you want to put it. There are people who can do both, and commanding a baseball is the most important thing you can do as a starting pitcher. If you can keep it down at the knees and on the corners, you’re generally going to get good results. If you’re commanding your fastball, a lot of times your other pitches don’t even have to be strikes.
DL: What is the biggest adjustment you’ve made in your career?
RD: It’s probably the willingness to make adjustments. If you’re getting hit around, you have to look in the mirror and ask why you’re getting hit around. If you’re struggling, why are struggling? The adjustment might be something mechanical, or it might be something mental. I don’t think it’s one particular adjustment, but rather a series of adjustments.
DL; Has your use of video and data changed?
RD: No. I’ve always been a big video guy. I try to get as much information as I can and attack from there. I look at where I want to throw the ball against hitters. I base that on scouting reports, but not so much the actual results. If a guy is two-for-three against me, that’s not very telling. A guy might be 0-for-four against me with four screaming line drives right at somebody. But if there is a large sample size and you can see tendencies, maybe you can try to exploit them. At the same time, you have to stick to your strengths. If one of those strengths is good command, you’re usually in good shape.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.