Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Can Duke keep this up?

In 2005, the Pirates called up a 22-year old starter who had put up dazzling numbers in the minors. In his minor league career up to that point, he was 43-17 with a 2.38 ERA. That player was Zach Duke, who was selected in the 20th round of the 2001 draft.

When the Bucs called him up from AA-Altoona in July of 2005, he was in the midst of a dazzling season with the Curve where he was 12-3 with a 2.92 ERA. What followed his call-up was even more astounding than what one could expect from those minor league stats.

His major league debut went ok as he gave up 3 ER in 7 innings against Milwaukee as he didn't factor into the decision. However, he followed that up with 4 straight starts without giving up an ER. By the end of the season he had made 14 starts and finished with an 8-2 record and miniscule 1.81 ERA. The Bucs had finally found their ace.

Or did they? The next season, Duke was not nearly as effective as his rookie season. He finished 10-15 with a 4.47 ERA. Not a bad season, but not what the Bucs were hoping for. The next year was worse as he was 3-8 and his ERA had ballooned to 5.53. He was also injured and missed about 2 months of the season. After getting healthy again in 2008 he won only 5 of his 31 starts and finished with a 4.82 ERA.

At this point after the '08 season, it seemed like we would never see anything that would come close to Duke's 2005 season from him again. Duke had basically established himself as a below average major league starter and what seemed like a fourth or fifth starter on an average team.

Pirates' GM Neal Huntington made it known at the beginning of spring training that Duke was among one of the Pirates' pitchers whose spot in the rotation was not yet solidified. Duke pitched well enough in spring training to be named the team's #3 starter. His 3.86 ERA in the spring really didn't represent how well Duke actually pitched. That ERA is only that high due to one really bad start.

With that being said, Pirates fans really were not expecting anything spectacular from Duke this season. I was hoping he would be able to post better numbers than last season, but if I had to project his stats for the season, I would have said something like 8 wins and an ERA of 4.50 or so.

This season, Duke has shown a total resurgence. He has made 7 starts and has not allowed more than one run in 5 of those starts. His record stands at 4-3. His win total this year matches his total from 2008 and is one better than 2007. He's pitched into the 6th inning of every single start, which is huge considering how awful the bullpen is. So what's different about Duke this year from his past few?

First and foremost, he is walking fewer batters. He is currently walking 1.98 batters per 9 innings, which is the best number he's posted in his career.

He's also striking out more batters. That number stands at 5.04 K/9. That's the highest number he's had since his 2005 season. 5.04 still isn't very good, the major league average is 6.89. But is is still a significant improvement from his previous 3 seasons.

The reason why Duke's strikeout numbers are so critical to his success is that throughout his career, hitters are batting .325 against him when they put the ball in play. The average pitcher's BABIP is usually around .305 or so. Basically, for Duke, the less balls players can make contact on, the better. In 2005, Duke's BABIP was .296...which is better than average. This season, that number is at .261...which is great.

Another stat that looks to be significantly improved for Duke is his HR/9. Currently he gives up .54 HR/9, which is his lowest since 2005. He's also sporting his lowest WHIP ([walks+hits]/IP) of his career at 1.08.

So...back to the original question. Can Duke keep this up? What jumps out to me right now is that Duke's BABIP is currently at .261 when his career average is .325. Is it possible he can keep it that low? Yes. But it's not likely. I expect that to move back towards the mean a little.

Even though I see Duke's BABIP going up, I think he can continue to avoid walks, continue to strike out hitters at his current pace, and avoid giving up the long ball. If he keeps doing what he's doing in those areas, he will put together a solid season.

His ERA is currently sitting at 2.52. Expect that to ultimately make its way into the mid 3 range. And if Duke can pitch an entire season with an ERA around 3.50, the fans, the team, and myself will be extremely happy.

Duke is still just 26 years old, which means he's entering the prime of his career as a starting pitcher. Hopefully we are starting to see the beginning of a nice stretch from Duke. Who knows...maybe he'll be a main piece of the rotation by the time the team's "window" will be open.

[Stats taken from Fangraphs and Baseball Reference] [photo: Pittsburgh Sports Report]
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