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Unbreak My De Fratus

With injuries striking the Mariners bullpen early, Justin De Fratus has a chance to wash his 2015 right out of his hair

SWM, 28, Catholic. ISO team to recognize my value. Must love righties.
SWM, 28, Catholic. ISO team to recognize my value. Must love righties.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Lady Gaga may have glamorized being caught in a Bad Romance, but the truth is, being in a bad relationship sucks. Even if it’s the other person who’s terrible—and it almost always is—you find your own sparkle dulled by association with this albatross. Things get ugly, and you get uglier; you find reserves of ugliness you didn’t even know you had, and it both thrills and terrifies you, that you’ve carried this capability for darkness for so long, a secret crystalline network of evil in the rough geode of your heart. In fact, the only thing that’s worse than being in a bad romance is being fresh out of one, provided that it was the other person who did the dumping. Because if something that terrible rejected you, what unpleasant truth does it suggest about yourself?

In 2015, Justin De Fratus got dumped hard by the Philadelphia Phillies, a universally recognized Bad Team. Looking at his numbers, it would be tempting to declare De Fratus an equally Bad Pitcher. But was he? Or was the fault in the way the Phillies used him? The best relationships—be they romantic, creative, or working ones—are mutually fulfilling, ones where each side marshals their talents to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. In truly great relationships, you’re the funniest, kindest, smartest, best version of yourself. This could have been the relationship Justin De Fratus had with the 2015 Philadelphia Phillies. It was not.

Coming off a strong 2014 in which he posted a 2.39 ERA over 52.2 innings with a 4.08 K/BB ratio, expectations were high for De Fratus in 2015. By the time the season was over, he would find himself dumped unceremoniously on Broad Street with a SEPTA token and nary a backwards glance, saddled with  a 5.51 ERA over 80 innings pitched. If you’re thinking to yourself that 80 innings seems like a lot, it is—in fact, that’s the second-most innings pitched by a reliever in 2015, just short of Yankees setup man Dellin Betances. De Fratus also had the second-highest number of average outs per game, at 3.9 (he recorded more than 3 outs 25 times, fourth-most among relievers), fifth-highest number of games where he pitched multiple innings (26), and threw the second-highest number of average pitches per game (24). In fact, last year De Fratus threw more pitches than any other reliever in baseball: 1,414.

But for all this use, De Fratus has nothing to show for it. Working as a long reliever or mop-up man, he accrued no saves and two losses in his relief appearances. Partly thanks to the Phillies playing like a group of drunken meerkats armed with cartoon umbrellas, De Fratus’s average leverage index when entering games was .438, good for fourth-lowest among 168 qualified relievers. Of the 61 games he played in, 47 times he entered the game with his team behind—second overall, behind only Neal Cotts—and 48 of those games would end up as losses. Sassy magazine, the greatest magazine of not just the 90's but probably of all time, used a review system for books and music where number of stars represented people you might date. Five stars meant "supportive but manly." Two stars was "chips away at your self-esteem." Poor Justin De Fratus was in a two-star relationship, headed towards one star ("Booger Eater").

Things started off poorly for De Fratus in 2015, and got worse. Each of the thirteen times De Fratus was called into the game in April, it was to clean up someone else’s mess. The average run deficit in games he entered in April was -3.5. Each time he pitched that month, no matter how poorly or how well, the game ended in a loss. With an ERA of 3.55 for the month, De Fratus only gave up one dinger and nine walks while striking out 11 across his 12.2 innings of work in April. But as one brick in a quickly crumbling wall, De Fratus wasn’t perfect, and the Phillies didn’t offer him much help on either side of the ball. That’s the thing about systematic failure—it swallows you up like the sea, dilutes your essence until you are absorbed in it and it in you. Like a reverse time-lapse sequence, a mighty oak shrinks down into an acorn, a flower unblooms, a pearl returns to a grain of sand scratching along the ocean floor.

By August, De Fratus’s nightmare was full steam ahead, in full-on, hi-def, digitally remastered, director’s commentary form. His ERA sat at 8.62 with a FIP of 5.11 and his strikeout numbers had plummeted; as Brendan elucidated here, De Fratus was broken. He ground through 15.2 innings in August, entering games with an average run deficit of -3.8, including the 12-run deficit Brendan wrote about (which wasn’t even his first 12-run deficit of the season, as he’d already pitched in such an affair back in June). Unsurprisingly, as De Fratus’s miserable 2015 marched on, his velocity dropped. In May, his fastball averaged about 93 mph; by October he struggled to break 90. He compensated by throwing his sinker more as the season wore on, but that too suffered an almost identical decline in velocity. Worst of all, his slider lost five ticks by the end of the season. In August, batters hit .346 against his fourseam, .300 against his sinker, and a whopping .444 against his slider. In contrast, in May batters had only managed .208 against his fourseam and .182 against his slider.

Lost in all of this is that, when used correctly, De Fratus can be effective. When brought into games with runners on base, he performs especially poorly, allowing 48 runs in 160 batters faced. However, when the bases were empty, in 157 batters faced De Fratus allowed only 4 runs to score. In 2014, De Fratus often pitched in both high and low leverage situations, and although he gave up two homers, he generally performed well in high-leverage situations, holding batters to a .185 batting average with a 5.00 K/BB ratio. Philadelphia didn't have many close contests in 2015, but opted to use De Fratus in more than his share of blowouts. He took his transition to long relief man in stride, and the Phillies rewarded him by having him pitch in hopeless contests, often back-to-back (and sometimes back-to-back-to-back).

Like most pitchers, De Fratus pitches less effectively on no rest, but also with too much rest; in 2015, his strikeout numbers jumped when he had one or two days of rest, then fell off sharply with each additional day of rest. In May, De Fratus pitched in three consecutive games on two separate occasions, and ended the month pitching back-to-back games; in September, perhaps in a fit of conscience, the Phillies only called on his services four times. By that point, however, it must have felt more like a punishment than a vacation. Perhaps the Phillies were trying to preserve De Fratus’s quickly deteriorating ERA in the hopes of trading him, but by that point it was too late, and in October De Fratus was given his walking papers.

Ironically, the worst thing about bad relationships is that they end. Sometimes ceremoniously, sometimes not, but at the end of it one of you is holding a box of your stuff and wondering what the hell happened. If you end the bad relationship, you will always be left with that scrap of doubt: what could I have done differently? Could this have been successful if I just tried harder, looked better, was better? If you’re the dumped one, even if you know you were the far superior partner, that shred of doubt will niggle at you, nibble at the edges of your self-confidence, until you find yourself in a situation where you can again prove yourself worthy of love and happiness. With a spate of injuries taking an early toll on the bullpen, Justin De Fratus has such an opportunity with Seattle, to be treated as a pitcher of value and not cannon fodder. He’s been used sparsely so far in spring training, because Jerry knows that a broken heart (and a frayed right arm) must be treated gently. Here’s hoping his 2016 is less of a Lost Cause and a little more of a Switch. Go on, Justin, and do as Left Eye commands: Erase. Replace. Embrace, a new face.