2015 Phillies Report Card: Justin DeFratus
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Clearly it’s the egg, because that’s where chickens come from, and the egg’s parents were some sort of freak chicken-like thing that somehow made the first chicken. I know, I know, but where did the freak chicken-like thing come from? An egg. Simple. Anyway, in the forthcoming analogy, Ryne Sandberg and his staff are assumed to be the freak chicken-like thing.
It seems the 2015 Phillies and manager Ryne “Cluck U” Sandberg were going to use Justin DeFratus in a multi-inning relief role, no question. Former Blue Jay Dustin McGowan was at the bottom of the depth chart, but waiver pickup Jeanmar Gomez and unproven pitcher-turned-barber-turned-reclamation project Luis Garcia managed to be ahead of DeFratus coming out of camp. In a three-appearance span between April 23 and April 30, DeFratus threw 126 total pitches, and this (adjusts tie) pecking order became obvious to all who were paying any attention.
There was never a public declaration that DeFratus had been relegated to long man, nor a private declaration from Sandberg or pitching coach Bob “Fried Chicken” McClure to the player. About three months into the season, Sandberg was out as manager, and “Petey Pollo” Mackanin finally sat down with Justin DeFratus to talk about his role. Jake Kaplan quoted DeFratus at the time saying that Mack told him not to consider his long-relief role a demotion, but rather that the club needed him in that role going forward – the only multi-inning man left, as it were. DeFratus accepted the role, but his mental preparation and changes in his workout, (in Kaplan’s piece he mentions cutting down on the intensity of his long-tossing), didn’t help.
DeFratus had been a real back-end bullpen prospect years earlier, though the hopes for him had faded some after he battled injury and ineffectiveness. After an early demotion to AAA and a return in May of 2014, DeFratus began to settle in to a seventh inning type of role with effective use of his slider and sinker.
But as 2015 kicked off, those same pitches were met with poor results. The righthander managed around a 4.30 when averaging ERA retrodictors, which is not terrible, and shows he was probably better than his 5.51 ERA. But compared to 2014, his Ks were off by about 3.5% and his walks were up by nearly the same, leaving him with a year-over-year K%-BB% variance of -7%. That’s…see that’s just not good. Fangraphs put him at -0.1 WAR for the year, BRef at -0.5.
You can see on the first chart from Brooks Baseball that the BAA on his slider spikes in June and only recovers in a small September sample, when he was given significant downtime after rosters expanded. The sinker also suffers from poor results, after being, at times, a relatively effective pitch in 2014.
The difference, as far as I can tell, is a pretty significant variance in release point from prior year, in addition to changes in vertical movement shown on the two lower charts here. In fact, all of DeFratus’ pitches were suffering from the same release point change YOY, and the results bore out a significantly more hittable pitcher than the one that looked so good at the end of 2014.
I asked Matt Winkelman from Phillies Minor Thoughts about this, and he agrees the change in release point could be a significant factor. Matt also saw a change in shape of the slider as the year wore on, saying he “add(ed) more break to the point where it was going past slurve to being more like a dying curveball.” Not usually a good sign when your pitch is described as “dying”.
Add to that, a decrease in the vertical movement of his sinker, which either led to or was caused by less usage of that successful pitch from 2014 and heavier reliance on the 4-seam fastball, and it spells trouble for a reliever without plus velocity.
I will note the “uprighting” of his release in September and the associated improvement in movement on his sinker and results (BAA) with his slider. I wonder if this period where he was able to rest more after call-ups were added to the pen gave him a little breather with which perhaps he would have righted the ship. Alas, the sample size in September is too small to draw a conclusion.
Clearly the player’s weapons of choice from 2014 failed him from the jump. If the club saw that and didn’t try to fix it, shame on them. If they saw something they couldn’t identify and failed to use tools that anyone can access to try to diagnose the problem, (namely www.brooksbaseball.net/search.php?name=justin+defratus and
@Matt_Winkelman), shame on them again.
Obvious by my initial metaphor, my biggest concern coming in to writing this was figuring out if I should blame Sandberg for misuse or blame the man throwing the ball. I think as I’ve gone through it, Sandberg gets less blame, (it really does sting to admit that). He still mismanaged the player by not giving him the expectation of long relief, but the trouble seems to have been there from the start.
An MLB short relief role seems unlikely in DeFratus’ near-term future, so perhaps a minor league deal where he can find his stuff and mechanics again, (or just be given back-end rest and usage again), will lead back to a late-inning big league role. Perhaps all the horses and the men of some other franchise can put this broken egg back together. His outright and subsequent election of free agency this October means that none of that will happen in Philadelphia.
In the end, DeFratus gets points for his role not being accurately described to him until mid year, and for the possibility that he was misused overall, as evidenced by his better numbers in a small, more rested September sample. He loses points because he was, when all is said and done, quite bad.