Sunday, February 22, 2009

Player Profile 5: Zach Duke

This is part 5 of roughly 38 that will cover the different players who I think could potentially make the Bucs' Opening Day Roster and what kind of season I expect from them at the major league level. Today we will be covering our first starting pitcher in this random process, Zach Duke. If you want to check out past editions, click here and enjoy. Let's get to it:
Player: Zach Duke
Position: Starting Pitcher
Once upon a time, Zach Duke was viewed as a downright dangerous young lefty and a future anchor of the rotation. That was back in 05 when he had that amazing 8-2 run in the first 14 starts of his big-league career. He also posted a 1.81 ERA and a WHIP of 1.205. It was a spectacular start and we thought we had ourselves a future ace.

Unfortunately it has been downhill ever since. Duke has been hit very, very hard the past three seasons. He gave up the most hits in the NL in 06 and the second most last season. What is encouraging is that, unlike numerous other young Pirate pitchers, Duke has shown the ability to be a workhorse, even if he too often gets hammered, at least he appears healthy and capable of throwing lots of innings and pitches.

Many still see significant upside in Duke. Obviously he is no longer viewed by most as having top-of-the-rotation type stuff. But if he just develop some consistency to his game it would be a big step toward righting his big-league career. It will be very interesting to see how Joe Kerrigan does with Duke this season. Kerrigan has had a lot of success as a pitching coach over his long career, but the enigmatic Duke figures to be a tough test even for someone like Kerrigan. I think this is a big year for Duke. If he continues to get hit more than just about anyone, its likely the Pirates will lose interest in keeping him around any longer given the increased salary.

However, what is encouraging is that for the last 3 years, Duke's BABIP (Opposing Hitters batting average on Balls Hit In Play) has been higher than average. Typically, I think a pitcher is expected to have a BABIP of around .300 or maybe a shade higher. The idea behind this stat is that pitchers typically have little control over their BABIP, so if a pitcher has a high BABIP it means his numbers (like ERA and WHIP) are probably worse than they should be, or if he has an especially low BABIP it means his other numbers should be better. Duke's has been .336, .374 (!), and .324 the last three seasons. Ideally, this would mean that Duke should be expected to regress back toward the expected mean one of these years, which could mean several less hits over the course of a season and then several less runs as well. However, its also unusual to see a pitcher with 3 straight seasons like that, so maybe it really is just that Duke is typically going to be an aberration because he tends to give up some very, very hard-hit balls.

Lastly it's been strange to see the decline in Duke's K numbers the past couple years. We knew he was never going to be Randy Johnson or anything, but as a rookie he had 6.17 K/9 IP and followed that up with a somewhat predictable decline to 4.89 K/9 IP. That's obviously a pretty damn low number, but it surprisingly has gone even further downhill since. It was an almost embarassing 3.44 K/9 IP in 07 and was just 4.23 K/9 IP last year. Those numbers are really, really low. Only one pitcher in the NL last year threw as many pitches as Duke and had a lower K/9 IP ratio. Although, that pitcher was Aaron Cook, who did have an excellent season, so I guess it isn't the end of the world to see such low numbers. Still, you'd prefer they were at least a touch higher.

Duke appears to have somehow been all but assured a spot somewhere in the Opening Day Rotation despite there being a supposed competition for all the spots except Paul Maholm's ace role. I'm not sure I'd have made that assurance, but he at least can eat innings for you if nothing else.

Predicted 2009 Stats: 28 GS 7-12 Record 168 IP 4.66 ERA 1.494 WHIP 83 K
Assuming Full Health, Chance of Being On The Opening Day Roster: 95%
Assuming Full Health, Chance of Being In The Opening Day Lineup: 0%
On Deck: Sean Burnett

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