Despaigne dazzles with variety and deception
Hitters rarely see same pitch twice from Cuban righty, who mixes up arm angles
SAN DIEGO -- Odrisamer Despaigne's reputation preceded him the day he walked through the doors of the visiting clubhouse at AT&T Park in San Francisco last month.
The problem was, the reputation was entirely wrong.
"I guess that I was expecting more of a nibbler from what I had heard," said Padres third baseman Chase Headley. "But that's not what we got. He came out that first day and he attacked.
"This isn't a guy who is up here trying to fool guys."
Despaigne, a 27-year-old Cuban who signed a Minor League deal in May, threw seven scoreless innings against the Giants in his big league debut on June 23. Six days later, he allowed one run in 6 2/3 innings in a win over the D-backs.
Yes, the sample size is small, but Despaigne -- no ordinary rookie based on his international resume -- has found success with a dizzying array of pitches, grips and arm angles. He's offering teammates, coaches and fans a look not often found around the game.
"He's so unique," said Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley of Despaigne, who has patterned a lot of what he does after idol and fellow countryman Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez.
It certainly has been a dazzling start to a career for Despaigne, who a year ago was still sorting though a different set of emotions, starting that June day in Paris when he walked away from the Cuban national team when the squad changed planes on the way to a tournament.
Today, he's in the big leagues, pitching every fifth day.
"This has all been a big change," Despaigne said last week, through an interpreter.
Here's a closer look at Despaigne -- the person and the pitcher -- as he prepares to make his third start on Saturday at Petco Park against the Giants.
It all started in … Peoria? It was Feb. 13, still early in Spring Training, when Despaigne and infielder and fellow countryman Aledmys Diaz walked onto Field 1 at the Padres' practice facility in Arizona for an open workout in front of 50 or so scouts.
Despaigne, as he has done so far in the big leagues, threw everything -- fastballs, curveballs, sliders and a handful of changeups. No two pitches looked alike. The arm angles were different. The movement on the ball was notable. He made an impression. That's not to say there weren't questions.
"Workouts are dangerous," said Padres assistant general manager A.J. Hinch, who watched Despaigne that day. "It's such a small sample size of what a guy can do."
The Padres liked Despaigne and eventually began negotiations with him. The two sides agreed to a contract in April -- a Minor League deal with a $1 million bonus -- but he had to pass a physical and obtain his work visa before starting his professional career in the United States.
Bored with the Minor Leagues?: Despaigne started his professional career in May with Double-A San Antonio, posting a 1.17 ERA in two games before earning a promotion to Triple-A El Paso.
He pitched well at times and appeared to coast at others. In a June 13 outing against Round Rock, Despaigne got off to a good start but was done in during a four-run inning by poor pitch selection. He often shook off the catcher -- more than 30 times in a start -- and his tempo was slow.
"From our reports and listening to our Minor League people and our front-office [representatives who] went in to see him pitch, there were stretches of really good pitching," said Padres manager Bud Black. "Whether it was an inning, two innings or an at-bat, he couldn't put together a complete Minor League game for whatever reason."
Could it be Despaigne was bored?
Despaigne had, after all, not only pitched in the World Baseball Classic for Cuba, but he logged a lot of work for the Havana Industriales, the most storied club in Cuba, where he pitched in front of sold-out crowds routinely. Not that pitching in Des Moines, Iowa, isn't exciting, but …
"Not that he wasn't challenged in Double-A or Triple-A, but maybe he needed that bigger stage to totally focus," Black said.
So many pitches, grips and angles: How does Despaigne get hitters out? How much time do you have?
"It's unique to have so many pitches and arm angles. Right away, I could see it was going to be difficult for the opposition to study 12 different types of pitches," Balsley said. "His fastball command has been very good.
"There's basically two variations of each pitch from … different arm angles -- a high, three-quarter, sidearm and a low three-quarter. He has a good feel for all of them. It's very instinctive for him.
Yasmani Grandal, who has caught both of Despaigne's starts, loves the challenge of being behind the plate for Despaigne.
"I just like the fact that every pitch that I call can be different," Grandal said. "I never have to double-up on a pitch. He has two different types of curveballs from two different types of angles. He has a changeup and also a cutter. I like the fact that the ball is always moving.
"I think the hardest thing for me is when I call for a fastball and not knowing if he's going to cut it, sink it or come straight with it. I know it's going to have so much movement. It's fun, because he always seems to keep it in the strike zone."
What does all this mean? It's far too soon to know, as Despaigne has made his first two starts in pitching-friendly ballparks and has only faced two teams. The Padres have asked him not to shake off the catcher as much and to work quicker.
So far, it's all working.
"When you think about where he's been and the opportunity he's getting … when you peel back the layers, it's a pretty cool story," Hinch said.