Last night, the KT Wiz of the KBO League entrusted Odrisamer Despaigne with taking the bump for Opening Day. Despaigne is one of 20 foreign-born pitchers in the league, having made the move from MLB to the KBO this past offseason. His 2019 campaign, uh, wasn’t great. He made three starts for the White Sox, giving up 14 runs in 13 1/3 innings while walking as many batters as he struck out.
It was a forgettable end to a lackluster MLB career. Between 2014 and 2019, Despaigne made 50 starts and 59 appearances out of the bullpen. In that time, Despaigne pitched to a 5.11 ERA and 133 ERA- in 363 innings. If he never pitches in the majors again, he’ll end his MLB career with just 0.8 WARP.
Despaigne was never a prospect. There was no public scouting report on him prior to his entering affiliated ball. He wasn’t included in the 2014 BP Annual. He spent eight years pitching in Cuba’s Serie Nacional before defecting in 2013. He tried out for MLB teams in February of 2014, but remained unsigned. Eventually, the Padres picked him up for $1 million. He made two starts in Double-A before moving up to Triple-A where he got knocked-around in five starts.
It’s important to remember that anyone who can stick around the majors for the long-haul—irrespective of results—is insanely talented. Players like Despaigne are just less insanely talented than the likes of a Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw. There was a reason so many teams were willing to give him a chance, and there’s a reason he’s the Opening Day starter for the KT Wiz.
Back in 2014, Jeff Sullivan wrote about Despaigne’s unique changeup.
I’m calling it: Despaigne’s changeup is unlike any other thrown by a starting pitcher on recent record. Part of that is the movement, and a bigger part of that is the huge separation in velocity between Despaigne’s changeup and his fastball. We’ve observed a gap of more than 16mph. The next-closest starter is probably Dallas Braden, with a gap of a little over 14mph. And Braden’s changeup had more relative sink.
That article included the caveat that unique doesn’t necessarily equal good. Despaigne didn’t have the command to thrive at the major league level even with a unique changeup, but he could, at times, dominate.
I saw him pitch three games in his rookie season—all against the Giants—and in those three games, Despaigne gave up one run in 20 innings while only allowing 13 baserunners. I think fans from every base joke that their team can’t hit some random rookie, but with Despaigne, the Giants really didn’t hit him.
By tOPS+, which measures a player’s performance in a split relative to their overall performance, Despaigne’s 2014 was the 16th best season against the Giants since 1904 (min. three starts). Because tOPS+ is based off a player’s baseline, it’s easier for worse players to post an extreme tOPS+ especially in a small sample. A .200 hitter batting .270 in one split is going to have a better tOPS+ than a .300 hitter batting .310 in that split. For a handful of games, though, Despaigne looked like he belonged.
Despaigne’s a reminder that our eyes can deceive us and so can stat lines. If you only watched those three games Despaigne pitched against the Giants, you’d think he was an ace. If you only ever looked at his xFIP, you wouldn’t think it possible that he could ever look like an ace.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.