A Tardy Farewell to the Anti-Deceiver

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:

And here’s the bottom of the same leaderboard, also since 2008, also with a 50-inning minimum:

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:

Player O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Zone%
Phil Dumatrait 18.2% 58.3% 38.1% 49.7%
Jack Cust 17.2% 61.4% 39.2% 49.8%

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.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

42 Responses to “A Tardy Farewell to the Anti-Deceiver”

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  1. Steve says:

    Hi Jeff. :-)

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  2. Wally says:

    This article makes me wonder if Jeff lost a bet somewhere. But I guess it is January, after all.

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    • Oh, it can get worse. You’ll see it get worse.

      +22 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Samuel Deduno says:

        By worse, you must mean an analysis of Jeff Ridgway’s historic 2007 season with the Devil Rays.

        +10 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • I don’t not mean that

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      • steex says:

        How about an analysis of Stan Ridgway’s historic 1982 season with Wall of Voodoo?

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      • Wally says:

        Bring it on, Jeff, I’ll read anything right now that isn’t Adam Laroche and the push me/pull me contract. How about a comparison of today’s Nats to the legendary team of 2008? Paul Loduca, Johnny Estrada, Kory Casto, Jason Bergmann…ah, the good old days.

        What do we have, 80 days to pitchers & catchers? It is going to be a close call.

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      • walt526 says:

        Seems plausible, although honestly I would rather read a post by Jeff on pretty much any topic–say, evaluating impact of different brands of beans on wind currents within various stadia–than pretty much anything by Remington even if the topic has enormous potential to be interesting.

        No offense, Alex. You’re just the Phil Dumatrait of Fangrahs.

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      • Baltar says:

        Alex Remington is my favorite FanGraphs author, but Jeff Sullivan is the most prolific.

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  3. Scott Clarkson says:

    If you were Phil Dumatrait and stumbled upon this article: would you be more furious about the scathing review of your career or happy to be written up at all?

    Follow up: would you be able to finish it and bear through all the gruesome details of how historically ineffective you were?

    FYI all: 5.2% swSTR career….so not much better if “swing and miss stuff” = deception either…..

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    • steex says:

      I assume Phil’s reaction will be a single tear running down his cheek, much the same as when an entirely uneaten lunch was thrown at the feet of that Native American fellow walking down the freeway in stereotypical regalia.

      I assume Phil will find this while googling his own name and read through to the very end. Hi, Phil!

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    • James says:

      I dunno how mad he could be. There have been much more mean-spirited things written about him in the past, without a doubt.

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  4. Scott Clarkson says:

    I personally would like to see a Bob Zupcic career retrospective next: peaking in your first MLB PA: grand slam to irrelevance.

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  5. thecodygriffin says:

    I love the fact that the final GIF is of Hosmer swinging on a pitch high and tight.

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  6. attgig says:

    wow. Is this what goes on in fangraphs’ lair on Friday nights?

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  7. vivalajeter says:

    Does anybody get “comment is awaiting moderation” messages, or is it just me? Whenever I post from work now, I get that comment.

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    • johng says:

      Since the Royals have the greatest farm system ever, it’s unfair showing this guy facing hitters who have been drafted and trained to humiliate the middling players on other teams.

      Royals’ hitters don’t need to tell balls from strikes. They can see into the future, but also into alternate futures and can predict what the umpire will do if they don’t swing. Their super-computer brains work out the odds of swinging at a pitch the umpire will call a strike, and take their chances with their well-honed swings.

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    • Baltar says:

      Do you also get bizarre replies like the one from johng?

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  8. Keith says:

    I’d love to know whether there’s any validity to the notion that players do better than usual in walk years. And are there any metrics to gauge managerial performance? Not that this wasn’t a good story or didn’t beat the hell out of NCAA hoops analysis.

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    • BurleighGrimes says:

      I’m pretty sure than studies have been done on the first thing, and that there is no validity to the claim.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I believe the research shows that the performance level is about the same, but there was a difference in playing time.

      In other words, during a contract year, players are little less likely to sit out with a nagging injury.

      But, in general , players don;t “crank up the talent” or “try really hard” during their contract year as compared to other years.

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  9. steex says:

    Just out of question, is there any way for us to tell just how often he threw to various catchers? He spent most of those innings in Pittsburgh while the primary backstop was the notoriously terrible pitch framer Ryan Doumit. He should’ve been throwing to some combination of Mauer, Butera, and Rivera in 2011 (Mauer rates out well, the other two don’t seem to have enough of a sample to be in Fast’s research and I’m not especially familiar with them).

    The difference wouldn’t turn him into Venters (maybe not even into Runzler, frankly), but being a borderline Quad-A pitcher with questionable control throwing to a catcher who can’t frame seems like it would really magnify the problem.

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    • blahblahblah says:

      Baseball-ref has it in the splits section.

      Doumit did catch him the most, at 37.2 of his 151 IP (roughly 25%). Next were Raul Chavez (29.1), Drew Butera (22.2), Ronny Paulino (20.2) and Joe Mauer (12.2)

      Of those top 5, ironically, he was actually at his worst with Mauer back there. Specifically
      .364/.422/.600/1.022 – Mauer
      .321/.418/.506/.925 – Doumit
      .259/.325/.402/.651 – Chavez
      .214/.330/.321/.651 – Buetra
      .194/.310/.333/.644 – Paulino

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  10. Detroit Michael says:

    I enjoyed this article quite a bit. I read the snide comments above, but maybe it’s a matter of not being able to please all the audience all the time.

    Seems to me that a benefit of getting a lot of swings at pitchers outside of the strike zone ought to be weak contact, reflected in better than league average BABIP. Maybe so, but of the 6 leaders (one of whom is Mariano Rivera), only 4 out of 6 have lower than typical career BABIP. Still, it’s fascinating to me.

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  11. George says:

    What if his perceived deception was, in fact, his greatest deception? Meta-deception! Congratulations Neal Huntington, you got Dumatraited.

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  12. elninoheroe says:

    It sounds like Dumatrait stole Jeff’s lover. I think it woulda been hilarious if Dumatrait woulda actually written this. But he didn’t, so thus, it’s not as hilarious. Maybe you can make a FanGraphs stat with that equation.

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  13. matt w says:

    When you read those comments about Dumatrait’s bright future with the Pirates, keep in mind that he was competing for a roster spot with Matt Morris, John van Benschoten, and Bryan Bullington.

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  14. Dirck says:

    I found the article interesting .I enjoy things which make me look at things in a different way .I think that is the key to true learning .

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  15. Ken says:

    Once Dumatrait dropped the umlaut, it was all downhill.

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  16. Franco says:

    Just curious why anyone thought he had potential? His numbers even in the minors were bad to mediocre. Did he throw in the upper 90s when he was drafted? Otherwise being left handed seems to be the point of interest.

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  17. Pat says:

    no thanks Jeff lol

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  18. Pat says:

    this was a fun article

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  19. Phil Dumatrait says:

    You’re the best, Jeff. Love you.

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  20. Dirck says:

    Dumatrait appears to be a French name . No umlaut in French .

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    • Llewdor says:

      They’re not called umlauts, but don’t ë and ï appear from time to time?

      Or is that just for English spellings of French words?

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  21. Dave Silverwood says:

    My support of the Reds goes back to 1950 Dumatrait was a real strong prospect for a system which has done pretty well over the time he spent with the Reds–THE Twins never saw him for a total season they missed a thrill.

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  22. Matt says:

    Just looking at those .gifs . . . anyone know if that Dairy Queen special is still on?

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  23. Mac says:

    That O-Swing bottom 5 is not all that truly awful. Dessens and MacDougal each have 400+ MLB appearances to their names. That’s not all-time worst material there.

    Also, to all that haters, I find the analyses of unsuccessful players equally if not more fascinating that the successful ones. I learn more about baseball skill from these articles than from the articles explaining freakish aberrations of success.

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  24. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Amusing and interesting, thumbs up.

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