July 21, 2014
Very Important Player We Missed: Odrisamer Despaigne
Roughly 2,100 players got a write-up in Baseball Prospectus 2014, which is enough to cover every player on every team’s 40-man roster, plus every team’s top 10 prospects, plus 700 or so spare names (depending on 40-man/top-10 overlap)—in other words, every player you could possibly want to know about, plus an entire shadow league of players, big enough to staff 20 or 25 more teams’ active rosters. And yet, it’s not quite enough to cover everybody who will play in the big leagues this season.
So when we notice a player contributing to the 2014 major-league season in a significant way, we figure we owe you a write-up. Today: Odrisamer Despaigne.
Who he is: Odrisamer (oh-DRI-suh-mare) Despaigne is a right-handed starter for the San Diego Padres. He defected from Cuba last year and joined the Padres’ big-league rotation in June, at the age of 27. After carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning Sunday, he now has thrown 34 innings in five starts with a 1.31 ERA. Why, he’s even better than Clayton Kershaw, I guess!
Where he was when we were picking players to write up: Spain, or maybe Mexico. Despaigne didn’t try out for big-league teams until February, and even then he wouldn’t have demanded our attention--the Padres signed him for just a million bucks in a minor-league deal.
What we might have noted: In an eight-year career pitching in Havana, he had the statistical profile of a junkballer: 684 strikeouts, and 394 walks, in nearly 1,000 innings. He had the scouting reports of a non-entity, which is to say, there were no public scouting reports on him. (No, I mean that literally.) His two best seasons had been in 2012 and 2013, and he was at an age where he was neither stale and used up nor much of a project, but otherwise there wasn’t much to suggest an impact major leaguer (or, necessarily, a major leaguer at all).
What we’ll note now, instead: I haven’t seen much of Despaigne yet, who sits around 92 and can go as slow as 65 with his curveball. I have seen him nearly throw a no-hitter, so if I were going to miss you’d think I’d miss to the optimistic side. Keep that in mind when I say this next thing:
He’s not very good. In his near no-hitter, he got just nine swinging strikes, which means he has crossed double digits in that category just once. His contact rate before that start was snug between those of Chris Young and Joe Saunders. His contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone is higher than all but three of 510 qualifying pitchers, i.e. he’s less likely to get batters to chase than pretty much everybody, including Kevin Correia. (He has thrown 45 breaking balls so far and induced one swinging strike.) He also doesn’t throw many strikes; at 61 percent, only 11 of 132 qualifying starters throw fewer.
So how has he survived so far, beyond the obvious (and accurate) “his ERA is absurdly low relative to his mediocre FIP and terrible xFIP” explanation? Well, he throws six pitches at least 8 percent of the time apiece, and he throws them from various angles, which has helped his stuff in the zone play a bit better than we’d expect. His whiff rate in the zone, for instance, is around league average. He also induces a fair number of foul balls; if batters are mis-hitting all those foul balls, maybe it’s not a huge stretch to say they’re mis-hitting some of the balls they’re putting in play. His line drive rate, if he qualified, would be the second lowest in baseball; same goes for his HR/9 rate.
How else but deception and confusion to explain a guy getting away with so many apparent mistakes? Here’s all the changeups he threw Sunday:
A third were up and in the strike zone; clearly hittable pitches. Another third were down but in the strike zone; quite probably hittable pitches. Of those 10, batters put four in play, all for outs; whiffed on a pair; took two for strikes; and fouled two helplessly away.
"It's unique to have so many pitches and arm angles. Right away, I could see it was going to be difficult for the opposition to study 12 different types of pitches," Balsley said. "His fastball command has been very good.
Miscellaneous: Josh Byrnes' second-to-last signing as a GM. The last: Chris Nelson. From a recounting of Despaigne's minor-league performances: “He often shook off the catcher—more than 30 times in a start—and his tempo was slow.” He has allowed 24 fly balls as a big leaguer, and all 24 turned into outs. Here’s his one swinging strike on a breaking ball; it’s cute: