The best thing you can say about the performance of 25-year-old Justin De Fratus in 2013 was that he didn’t give Phillies fans any reason to write him off. That is hardly high praise, but in a season where the bullpen was an absolute disaster it makes De Fratus one of the few (semi) bright spots.
We detailed the failure of the Phillies bullpen in our player review for Jake Diekman. While it was also a problematic unit in 2012, fans entered last season with some hope after the Phils inked Mike Adams and added Chad Durbin to go with a young stable of what they thought were high-upside bullpen arms.
So much for that.
Durbin was released by May, Adams was surgery-bound by July and the majority of the up-and-coming arms, outside of the emerging Diekman, flamed out and forced the team to use 21 relievers in 2013. As of right now, De Fratus is certainly behind Diekman but also well ahead of the group that fell apart. After being called up from the minors in mid-May, the hard-throwing righty tossed 46.2 big league innings and emerged with a respectable 3.86 ERA and an excellent shot at a job in the team’s bullpen next season.
Granted, De Fratus’ statistical performance leaves much to be desired, which we’ll get to. But he also exhibited some of the things that had the Phillies excited about him headed into the season. Predominantly a fastball-slider guy, De Fratus’ average velocity was over 93 miles per hour on his fastball and over 83 miles per hour on his slider. He clearly has a big arm, at times touching 95, and showed a decent ability to miss bats with a K/9 ratio of 8.10, a number that has room for improvement if you buy into his gaudy minor league strikeout numbers. He is, after all, only 25 years old and was coming off a 2012 that was filled with elbow problems.
But most important, De Fratus was called up in May and survived until the end of the year, showing improvement while doing so. If you look at his full-month numbers, his ERA dropped each month from June through September – 6.52 to 5.00 to 4.26 to 1.00. He gave up four runs in an already-decided blowout loss to the Mets on August 29, torpedoing his ERA in what was otherwise a good month. Consider this: in De Fratus’ final 28 appearances of 2013, the righthander gave up runs in only four of them. His ERA over that span was 2.42. If you remove the August 29 disaster in New York, his ERA dips to 1.08… in a time period over two months long.
So yes, there is reason to hope that De Fratus will be part of this bullpen’s future and all indications are that he should start next season with the big club. But there is also plenty to be concerned about. De Fratus simply has to begin to allow fewer baserunners. Despite his respectable ERA, De Fratus finished 2013 with a WHIP of 1.50. His walk percentage of 12% in 2013 at the major league level will not cut it unless he becomes significantly less hittable (think Antonio Bastardo, pre-PEDs at least).
While De Fratus did induce an impressive amount of ground balls for a hard-throwing righthander – 43.6 percent, about league average – he also was tagged for a line drive rate of 26.3 percent, which is significantly above the major league average. He tallied a FIP of 4.01 (average) and an xFIP of 4.35 (below average). If he doesn’t find a way to turn those line drives into groundballs or fly outs, his walk rate is inevitably going to cost him in the ERA department. The easier solution is to get the walks under control, and based on his minor league walk rate of about six percent, he has shown potential to do just that. Now all he has to do is execute that type of control at the major league level.
Grade: C+. For me, De Fratus passed the eye test in 2013. He throws hard and showed the ability to be an effective pitcher in a major league bullpen, and I see the potential for more punch-outs. With that said, the advanced statistics show the 25-year-old has a long way to go. I didn’t really mention his injury history, but there should always be a level of concern with a guy that throws as hard as De Fratus does with a history of elbow problems. If his arm can hold up, De Fratus could be a cheap and useful piece for the middle of the Phils pen for a few years. If he can fix his control issues, maybe he can be more. Ultimately, he simply kept his name on my radar in 2013, which is more than most Phillies’ relievers can say.