Because the Orioles just don't have enough fringe pitching, they added another arm to their staff yesterday. Odrisamer Despaigne, who came from the Padres in exchange for Aberdeen's Jean Cosme, doesn't have much on his resume. With a career RA of 5.11 and DRA of 4.89 — both of which have primarily come in a park that favors pitchers — he hasn't accomplished anything yet at the major-league level. Nevertheless, a few facets of his profile warrant a deeper look, so we'll put him under the microscope.
He has a lot of pitches, none of which really stand out.
I mean, just look at this list:
Over his two seasons of major-league playing time, Despaigne has used seven different pitches. Three fastballs, two curveballs, plus a changeup and a slider
In theory, at least. In practice, well, those pitches don't amount to much. Using the PITCHf/x leaderboards on Baseball Prospectus, I found the average whiff rates for six of Despaigne's seven offerings (annoyingly, there's no ranking for slow curves). By this metric, he trails the major-league mean in every regard:
|Pitch||Despaigne Whiff%||MLB Whiff%|
The absence of swinging strikes has kept Despaigne from racking up strikeouts, which he's inflicted upon only 14.1 percent of opponents. That, in turn, is the largest reason why he's posted such mediocre results.
So why haven't these pitches deceived opponents? Two factors seem to be behind it. First and foremost, we should note Despaigne's location tendencies:
As a pitcher who focuses on getting ground balls — and successfully, to the tune of a 51.1 percent lifetime grounder rate — Despaigne has consistently placed the ball down in the zone. Like many hurlers, he's fooled the opposition when he targets them higher; the fact that he's strayed from that approach hasn't helped his case.
Location doesn't account for everything, though. The absence of whiffs has ultimately stemmed from Despaigne's repertoire, which just isn't up to snuff — or, rather, up to stuff. He possesses average-ish velocity, but his movement lags behind. Looking at the three hard offerings, we see a lot of straight pitches:
|Pitch Type||Despaigne Velo||MLB Velo||Despaigne HMov||MLB HMov||Despaigne VMov||MLB VMov|
To differing extents, Despaigne can throw a hard four-seamer, sinker, and cutter. He just can't make them dance, and that seems to have held him back.
His main offspeed pitch only compounds this problem. You may have heard that Despaigne has a weird changeup. Its velocity (76.7 MPH) falls more than seven ticks below the major-league average of 84.0 MPH. At the same time, it pairs a little less horizontal movement (4.2 inches, compared to the MLB average of 7.8) with a little more vertical movement (6.4 inches, compared to the MLB average of 4.6) than expected. All in all, it should be a pretty effective pitch.
Yet it isn't — in fact, it's really struggled. We know that a large fastball-changeup velocity gap helps the pitcher, so the power isn't the problem. The issue arises from, unsurprisingly, the pitch's movement:
In terms of bite, Despaigne's changeup resembles his hard pitches, which doesn't seem to bode well. Usually, a pitcher wants to keep the hitters on their toes, by bombarding them with pitches that move in unique directions. Because Despaigne lacks that variety (aside from his curveballs), he hasn't been able to net many swinging strikes.
Most pitchers will carry three or four arrows in their quiver, which makes Despaigne stand out. But all the quantity in the world doesn't count for anything without quality. Despaigne will have to change his strategy or add some distinct movement to his pitches if he wants to take the next step.
He's done an excellent job of limiting strong contact.
Despaigne does have some positives — if he didn't, the Orioles wouldn't have bothered with him in the first place. His biggest strength has to do with those ground balls, which have generally turned into outs. A career BABIP of .285 has allowed him to survive without those strikeouts, and if he can keep that up in Baltimore, he may find himself in a regular role.
His peripherals add some credibility to his case. Batters have hit the ball hard 26.3 percent of the time against Despaigne — nearly three percentage points below the average rate. He's paired that with an above-average soft contact rate of 19.9 percent to keep opponents off the board, to a degree. Nor has he received much assistance from his fielders, who rank 15th in DRS over the past two seasons. In front of a hopefully strong Orioles defense, Despaigne could see his BABIP fall even further.
A glance toward his PITCHf/x profile helps us understand how he's attained these results. During 2014 and 2015, major-league hitters made contact on 62.9 percent of their swings outside the zone and 87.3 percent of their swings inside the zone. Despaigne, meanwhile, had an O-Contact rate of 74.4 percent and a Z-Contact rate of 89.8 percent. Balls outside the zone that enter into play will usually become outs, which explains why this combination — lots of contact on bad pitches, without a lot of contact on good ones — has worked in Despaigne's favor.
To a certain degree, this element of Despaigne's performance goes against the grain. Research suggests that ground ball pitchers can't manage contact that well, meaning we'd expect them to run higher BABIPs. Indeed, of the 23 pitchers with 1,000 career innings and a ground ball rate above 50 percent, 15 have BABIPs above .290, with an average of .296. With that said, the pitchers who have avoided hits — the Tim Hudsons and Mike Leakes of the world — have done so with a low-strikeout, low-walk combination, as Despaigne has.
All in all, it's safe to bet on some regression for Despaigne's BABIP, simply because of that metric's volatility. If you have to pick an over/under, though, take the latter. The approach he takes and the tools he uses could help him sustain this
He's really struggled with runners on base, but that probably won't continue.
Across the past two seasons, 134 pitchers have worked at least 200 innings. With the exception of Clay Buchholz, no one has left fewer runners on base than Despaigne has. He's done a fairly good job of holding runners in place: During that span, opponents have tried to steal 20 times in 331 opportunities, which is around the major-league average. Instead, a complete meltdown at the plate — his .292 wOBA with the bases empty has risen to .365 with runners on — has caused that hardship.
As we'd predict, Despaigne has struck out fewer batters and walked more batters under pressure. Neither of these, however, have prevented him from escaping trouble. A greater BABIP and more home runs bears the blame for that.
This means Despaigne has allowed more solid contact with runners on, right? Actually, he hasn't — his hard-hit rate after someone has reached is 26.0 percent, below his overall mark. He's also netted just as many weak hits in those scenarios, with a 20.1 percent soft-hit rate. Based on his situational heatmap, this makes sense:
For better or for worse, Despaigne has expanded the zone in important situations. This should, theoretically, have granted him a reduced BABIP and home run rate (or at least equal ones). He just seems to have had bad luck, which will presumably regress to normal in 2016 and beyond.
Simply leaving runners on base won't turn Despaigne into a competent starter. With that said, it's definitely a solid first step. If he can combine it with his BABIP tendencies, he could become another Baltimore overperformer (in the style of, say, Miguel Gonzalez). A higher strand rate can work wonders for a pitcher; let's hope Despaigne gets to witness that firsthand.
Despaigne will not be a good pitcher for the Orioles; he'll probably struggle to stay afloat. His pitch variety notwithstanding, the lack of movement could doom him to irrelevance. But he has some things going for him — if he can maintain his low BABIP and begin to strand some more runners, he may survive. As with many areas of the coming season, we'll have to hope for the best.