2017 wasn’t a good season for Marlins pitching. I’m pretty sure we’ve touched on that before. I’m an optimist though — I prefer to find the bright spots on the team. Odrisamer Despaigne was a bright spot in 2017. To be clear, against the infinite and vast backdrop of space, Odrisamer was more like a dwarf star, rather than a supernova. But he was still a bright spot, nonetheless.
If you hadn’t heard of Despaigne when before made his debut in May against the Mets, you’re not alone. For even the most astute followers of prospects and minor league baseball, if you didn’t know about Despaigne’s path to the Marlins, you likely would have been surprised to see him waiting in the wings at Triple-A to start the season.
A native of Cuba, Despaigne began his baseball career in Cuba at the age of 18 in 2005. Although in his first five seasons, he was predominantly a reliever, he started in every game of his last four years of Cuban baseball. After the 2013 season, Despaigne defected from Cuba and had his first professional season in Mexican Winter League.
Despaigne made his rookie debut as a 27 year-old for the San Diego Padres in 2014. Making the jump to the bigs after just seven games in the minors, Despaigne enjoyed his best season yet, accruing a 1.0 fWAR over 16 starts and 96.1 innings pitched.
From there, a very bumpy road eventually lead Despaigne to Miami, when the Marlins snatched the recently DFA’d 29 year-old off the Baltimore Orioles’ waiver wire. Just before the season started, having inherited control over Despaigne’s young MLB career, the Marlins inked the righty into the Triple-A roster for $535,000.
Despaigne saw his first action of the year in May, before he disappeared until July. On May 5th, he was called on to make a spot start after Edinson Volquez and Wei-Yin Chen hit the DL with blisters and dead-arm, respectively. He allowed three runs over 4.2 and took the loss before being sent down the very next day. After Junichi Tazawa went down later in the month, Despaigne filled the vacancy with a spot relief appearance, in which he remarkably allowed four walks and two earned runs in just an inning of work against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Although he was quickly dispatched to Triple-A afterwards, the season would only get better for Despaigne from there.
To make a long story short, according to Fangraphs, out of the 24 Marlins hurlers to touch the rock this year, Despaigne was the third most valuable on the team, with an fWAR of 0.7. That’s no small feat, considering that his name sits below two starters with up to 30 more innings pitched than him, and above names such as AJ Ramos, Brad Ziegler, Junichi Tazawa, and David Phelps, all who made millions more than him.
When he was called upon to join the team at the end of July, Despaigne was sent directly to the bullpen. Thank goodness, because as a reliever, Despaigne really came into his own. Over his first seven relief appearances, Despaigne let up runs in just two spots — one in a 3.2 inning mop up against the Nationals, and then three in a tire fire against the Mets. Over said relief appearances, Despaigne held opposing batters to a .306 OBP.
In late August, the Marlins traded fan-favorite Tom Koehler to the Toronto Blue Jays, leaving open a vacancy in the rotation. Despaigne was chosen to take up his mantle in the rotation. He experienced continued success over the next seven starts, again letting up only two home runs, limiting baserunners to the sound of a .360 OBP, and becoming a father during the decade’s worst hurricane.
Outside of just having a positive WAR, many metrics seem to support the conclusion that Despaigne was an extra-serviceable pitcher in the late goings of the season. To start, according to Baseball-Reference.com, amongst Marlins pitchers with enough innings pitched to qualify for rate stats, Odrisamer Despaigne had the lowest HR/9 on the team. The key for Despaigne was that he was able to keep hitters off balance; compared to the rest of Marlins arms, Despaigne forced the 4th highest percentage of soft contact, and the 6th lowest rate of hard contact. This is all comes despite the fact that he coaxes almost an equal amount of ground balls to fly balls.
So what’s the secret? It’s probably the fact Despaigne’s pitch repertoire is Pandora’s Box.
What a mess. The people over at Pitch Info give Despaigne credit for throwing six different pitches. The only caviat you could insert is that a “CU” and a “CS” stand for a “curveball” and a “slow curveball,” two pitches you are free to combine into one if you’d like. With that being said, a batter really don’t know what’s coming out of Despaigne’s hand at any given count. He throws both his cutter and his fastball at around 30%. So while technically he only throws off-speed for less than half of his pitches, his equally proportionate use of both fastballs is enough to keep square contact at bay.
Compare this with Brian Ellington’s chart. Despite the fact that Ellington and Despaigne took on comparable workloads, Ellington let up considerably more hard contact than Despaigne; about eight percent.
Woof. That’s a lot of blue. We know that Ellington’s bread-and-butter is a rocket of a fastball. But talk about predictable. If I’m a right-handed batter, I’m spitting on off-speed to get ahead in the count, and then waiting for the perfect fastball to tattoo into the stands. Ultimately, although Despaigne pitched 12 more innings than Ellington, he allowed four fewer home runs.
Despaigne was one of only four Marlins pitchers to keep an ERA- and FIP- under 100. Thanks to his aforementioned knack for limiting dingers, Despaigne crushed his xFIP by more than 1.6 points.
What’s the moral of the story here? What can future Marlins pitchers learn from Odrisamer Despaigne’s year? Pitch within your means. Despaigne doesn’t have any incredible swing-and-miss pitches. Instead, he has 5-6 aggressively average pitches. Did Despaigne take his stuff and shove it over the plate, challenging batters to hit it? Apparently he didn’t; quite the contrary, Despaigne forced a contact rate of 77% on pitches outside of the zone. That was good enough for thirdd best on the team, behind Justin Nicolino and 21 innings of Javy Guerra.
Also, Marlins Park is huge, and Despaigne pitched in front of two 2017 Gold Glove nominees and one previous Gold Glove winner. Let the batters hit fly balls. Despaigne was neither a bona fide ground-ball or fly-ball pitcher, but he did allow more fly-balls than ground-balls. Even so, he let up fewer home runs than almost every pitcher on the Marlins. There’s a fine line in there somewhere between letting batters elevate, and getting outs on fly balls; I’m not sure if Despaigne discovered it, or tripped over it in 2017, but the strategy seemed to work out in his favor.
Either way, Despaigne finding his groove in 2017 adds to a laundry list of other reasons why he is one of the few players with increased job security coming into 2018. Easily the most remarkable fact about Despaigne is that he will be 31 in his final pre-arbitration season next year, so if The Brass wants to bring him back for pennies, they certainly can. Even Despaigne’s diminutive fWAR of .7 was worth about $6.3 million, meaning that the Marlins got about $5.77 million surplus out of him. Still, despite the efficiency in his 2017 performance, he has yet to pitch a full season at the Major League level. Until he does so, he won’t command a seven-figure salary.
However, if the new owners were tuned in last year, they are more than aware that Despaigne could serve an important role at a low cost with this year’s rebuilding club. Although 2018 will be just his fifth year in the MLB, Despaigne has technically been playing “pro” ball for 13 years. He has experience in spades as both a spot-starter and a reliever. That experience certainly showed in 2017. Should the Marlins push in all their chips on the guy, and name him something like “proven closer?” Probably not; as mentioned a couple times, Despaigne’s lack of experience lends to an aura of unpredictability. While there may be a high ceiling, there is probably a lower floor. Nevertheless, I think it would be more than fair - based on his 2017 efforts - for the 2018 Fish to give Despaigne an earnest chance at making the club out of the gate. He could provide a lot value for the club down the line.
Contract info courtesy of Spotrac.com