Kansas City Royals v Boston Red Sox

Far too often in the early days of the season, you can head over to your favorite baseball blogsite and read the fateful words “small sample size but” in many different forms. It isn’t exactly high treason to base a blogpost on less than stable information but, especially among true stat folks (read: not me) it goes against the entire nature of the beast.

In the early days of the season, it is usually more telling and more informative to look for dynamic differences rather than statistical differences. Things that stand out as changes in process, rather than result.

Jeff Sullivan wrote a very interesting post on Ryan Dempster’s early season strikeout swell for Fangraphs earlier this week. It is Sullivan-ian in its quality and depth of research, keying on many dynamic differences in what Ryan Dempster‘s done since joining the Red Sox.

Ryan Dempster is doing things slightly differently in 2013 but his results are vastly different from previous years. A result of this tinkering and adapting? Perhaps. The product of good fortune in key moments? Absolutely.

Before Sullivan wrote his post, I was wondering about the crucial pitch thrown in a 1-1 count. Noted scholar Lenny Dykstra once remarked on the real-life parallels between making business decisions and a 1-1 count in Ben McGrath’s essential New Yorker profile “Nails Never Fails.”

How big is the 1-1 count? In baseball terms, it means a lot. Getting to 2-1 swings the favor dramatically to the batter’s benefit, while falling behind with two strikes all but ends the plate appearances. As of yesterday, take a look at how the league hits in these different situations.

1-1 Count 724 2478 794 159 13 71 348 0 0 .330 .333 .495 .828
2-1 Count 659 1531 516 101 11 81 255 0 0 .343 .344 .586 .930
1-2 Count 755 4325 732 139 10 66 281 0 1915 .172 .181 .256 .437
After 1-1 756 11451 2410 471 43 279 1081 971 2844 .234 .305 .369 .675
After 2-1 756 5998 1210 240 26 180 613 1039 1187 .248 .381 .418 .800
After 1-2 756 8199 1376 265 25 136 553 439 3280 .180 .230 .274 .504
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/30/2013.

Rather striking. A difference of nearly 500 points of OPS between 1-2 and 2-1, and 300 points after those points. There is still time for a batter to salvage the at bat after falling behind 1-2 but the pendulum has swung decidedly in favor of the pitcher.

Which brings us back to Ryan Dempster. Here in the early stages of 2013, Ryan Dempster is experiencing success with the changes Sullivan outlines in his piece: a move on the rubber, an increase in splitter usage and a change in the way he attacks right-handed batters. You know what else helps a pitcher like Ryan Dempster post sky-high strikeout rates over a tiny sample? Getting the most called strikes on pitches thrown out of the strike zone.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Ryan Dempster has benefited from 34 pitches thrown outside the technical definition of the strike zone being called for strikes. That is a rate of 16% of the pitches he’s thrown outside the strike zone — by definition balls — going as called strikes. Compared to his track record coming into the season, when only 9% of his out of the zone pitches have been called his way.

That is a significant increase. Can he thank the framing skills of David Ross and Jarrod Saltalamacchia? That’s another GIF-based story for another day. For right now, Ryan Dempster is getting the love from the umps to his tremendous advantage. In particular, he’s getting a boost when he needs it most – in the 1-1 count.

Of the 34 out-of-zone pitches called in his favor, five were in 1-1 counts. Five times umps tipped the scales in Dempster’s favor as described above. Of the five plate appearances resulting in 1-1 called strikes, four ended in strikeouts for Dempster.

  1. Dempster struck out Desmond Jennings looking on the very next pitch, throwing a slider to nearly the same spot.
  2. He struck out James Loney swinging after a prolonged battle.
  3. After getting a call on the outside corner against Ichiro, he put the veteran Yankee (!) away with a splitter down and away in an early April outing.
  4. The Red Sox right-hander struck out Travis Hafner later in the same game with the same combination.
  5. Only Vernon Wells managed to put a ball in play after losing that 1-1 decision, though he grounded out. Wells was the very next batter Dempster faced after King Hafner.

Four strikeouts. Five pitches called by two umpires in two separate starts. Four of 43 on the season, so a hair over 9% of his strikeouts benefited from 1-1 gifts. A pitcher like Ryan Dempster is well-positioned to benefit from these bonus strikes as his swing-and-miss stuff makes two strike or pitcher’s counts extra punitive for batters. He is also a savvy veteran aware that he’s getting some leniency from an umpire so he’s well served to exploit it when he can.

But this is the nature of the early season beast – four extra strikeouts can turn strong numbers into superlative ones. These strikeouts are not mirages or somehow less-valid than if the umps had got the calls “right”, it simply showcases the volatility of early season results. Ryan Dempster is a good pitcher capitalizing on some good fortune in the early going. If he keeps getting these types of calls, awesome. If they slow down, he’ll still strike out plenty of batters, for all the reason Jeff outlines in his Fangraphs article. But every little bit counts, and in April those little bits count even more.