At the end of last May, Phil Dumatrait announced his retirement from professional baseball. It was an announcement that went largely unnoticed — note the three retweets — and that makes sense, because Dumatrait hadn’t pitched in 2012, and for his career he threw just 151 major-league innings over parts of four seasons. Many of them were not good innings, and while there are the usual qualifiers about how Dumatrait was one of the very best pitchers in the entire world, relative to his big-league peer group, he was lacking a certain something. “Ability to have consistent success,” is what he was lacking.
Dumatrait, like all professional ballplayers, once had a lot of promise. Dumatrait, unlike all professional ballplayers, was selected as early as in the first round in 2000. In fairness, that wasn’t much of a round — the two guys selected before Dumatrait have been worth negative WAR, and the six guys selected after Dumatrait fell short of the bigs — but Dumatrait found his way to prospect lists. According to Baseball America, he was seventh in the Red Sox’s system before 2002. He was fifth in the same system the next year, and the year after that, he was sixth in the Reds’ system, one behind Joey Votto. Phil Dumatrait looked like he could be something, for a while. And, ultimately, he was a big-leaguer, if a relatively unsuccessful one.
But Dumatrait had problems. For one, he had Tommy John surgery, and also significant shoulder surgery. For two, you can just look at his 111 runs allowed in the 151 big-league innings. He finished with nearly as many walks as strikeouts, and his home runs were elevated, too. What those numbers suggest is that Dumatrait didn’t have good enough stuff. What other numbers suggest is the same thing.
Since 2008 — the dawn of the reliable PITCHf/x Era — 749 pitchers have thrown at least 50 innings, which seems like a reasonable minimum. This captures nearly all of Dumatrait’s major-league career, except for 18 catastrophic innings with Cincinnati in 2007. Put another way, this captures 86% of Dumatrait’s major-league pitches thrown. Over the last five years, here are the leaders in O-Swing%, or rate of swings at pitches out of the strike zone:
Jared Hughes, 39.3%
Koji Uehara, 38.1%
Mariano Rivera, 37.9%
Kameron Loe, 36.9%
Mark DiFelice, 36.9%
Kelvin Herrera, 36.9%
And here’s the bottom of the same leaderboard, also since 2008, also with a 50-inning minimum:
Phil Dumatrait, 18.2%
Mike MacDougal, 20.5%
Dan Runzler, 20.5%
Elmer Dessens, 21.2%
Brad Mills, 21.2%
Out of 749 major-league pitchers, Dumatrait induced the lowest rate of swings at balls. It’s important to generate swings at balls, because swings at strikes tend to be better for the people swinging. This isn’t the whole reason why Dumatrait was unsuccessful and is now retired, but this is indicative of the problems. Pitching, unless you’re blessed with an Aroldis Chapman arm, is about fooling your opponent. It’s not that Dumatrait was incapable of fooling people, but he was incapable of doing it enough.
I don’t know why, but here are .gifs of Phil Dumatrait throwing pitches in 2011:
Two of those show batters laying off close pitches, which batters did quite often against Dumatrait. One of those shows a batter swinging at a ball, even though he was in a 2-and-0 count. There probably aren’t a whole lot of .gifs out there of Phil Dumatrait getting a hitter to chase. Download this one and save it somewhere special. Consider creating a Phil Dumatrait folder on your desktop.
Interestingly, it’s not that Dumatrait was just never around the zone. Out of the 749 pitchers, Dumatrait’s O-Swing% ranked 749th. But his Zone% — his rate of pitches in the strike zone — ranked 374th, or right in the middle of the pack. Dumatrait was aware of the strike zone, and he’d work within it sometimes, but when he didn’t, the hitters wouldn’t help. Dumatrait didn’t have whatever it takes to make batters do what batters don’t want to do.
You can identify culprits. One, Dumatrait’s pitches weren’t very good. He was mostly a fastball/slider guy, with a mediocre changeup and an occasional curve. A lot of times you associate good stuff with bad swings, so in the absence of good stuff, there’ll be fewer bad swings. While we can’t objectively measure it, it doesn’t appear Dumatrait had much in the way of deception. And Dumatrait was too often pitching behind in the count. His rate of first-pitch strikes was below average, and he threw more pitches from behind in the count than usual. Correspondingly, he threw fewer pitches from ahead in the count than usual. When you’re ahead, you throw more offspeed stuff, and batters have to expand their zones. When you’re behind, the opposite happens, and long story short, you can end up like Phil Dumatrait did.
To think there was once such promise. From May 2008:
And yet, from the time Pirates general manager Neal Huntington claimed [Dumatrait] off waivers in late October, there was a palpable sense from front-office types that he would be a pivotal part of the team’s future, even though he was a 26-year-old rookie, even though he had major elbow surgery early in his career, even though his results in spring training were nothing special.
From June of the same year:
One team’s report on Dumatrait included the phrases “always aggressive” and “moves hitters’ feet” and “there’s some deception” in his delivery.
“As far as being a different pitcher, I think the biggest thing is that changeup,” he said. “I have another pitch, and I can go out there and don’t have to throw [just] my fastball and slider. I can really rely on the changeup. It has definitely made a difference.”
“A pivotal part of the team’s future.” The year before, in triple-A, Dumatrait had 76 strikeouts and 49 walks in 125 innings. Overall in triple-A, Dumatrait managed 1.4 strikeouts per walk. Overall in double-A, he managed 1.6 strikeouts per walk. Even in the upper minors, Dumatrait’s walks were up and his strikeouts were down. It’s not like it was just big-league hitters who Dumatrait couldn’t get to chase. The problems were readily evident in the International League. Generally, if you have a problem in triple-A, it’s not going to resolve itself upon a promotion. Generally, the opposite happens.
A pitcher wants to generate swings at balls. In order to get those, a pitcher needs decent stuff and an ability to pitch ahead in the count. I don’t want to be too critical of Dumatrait’s repertoire, but the statistical results are right there. I’m going to show you a table, of data from 2008-2012:
Against Phil Dumatrait, hitters had Jack Cust’s selectivity, with better-than-Jack-Cust’s ability to make contact. Which explains why, against Dumatrait, hitters posted a near-.400 OBP and a near-.500 SLG. Pitchers, in a way, need to be not unlike magicians. Dumatrait didn’t have tricks.
There are a lot of different things to evaluate in a pitching prospect, but among them is whether or not the pitcher in question is able to get hitters to swing at pitcher’s pitches. Dumatrait couldn’t do it in triple-A, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to not be able to do it in the majors. Nobody in the last few years, by this measure, has been so anti-deceptive. But if nothing else, at least Phil Dumatrait was the major-league leader in something.