One of the amazing surprises of the year for me has been the success of Zach Duke. After all, for so many years as a starter in the early part of this millennium, Duke came to symbolize everything that was wrong with the (then) perennial losing Pittsburgh Pirates. After a successful rookie season, he quickly sank into a slot of one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball. And here he is reinvented as one of the most solid relief pitchers in baseball.
Let’s look at Duke’s amazing numbers this season. He has vultured four wins in relief against no losses. He has a 1.94 ERA with a 2.24 FIP and 2.10 xFIP. His ground ball rate is the highest of his career at 55.7% and he is striking out 11.65 batters per nine innings.
That last statistic is the most amazing of all. If you prefer strikeout percentage, he is sitting at 32.3%. His career average is 12.7%. His career K/9 rate is 4.97. His strikeout to walk rate is 4.29 compared to a career average of 2.02. Who is this guy and what have you done with the real Zach Duke!?
Here is a guy who has pitched for four different organizations in the past four seasons and during that time was released twice. This is the same guy who came into this season with a 50-76 career record with a 1.470 WHIP. His average game score as a starter was 46 when fifty was average. Of all his starts, only 50% were quality starts. What happened here?
The Reds have to be given credit in 2013 for turning Duke permanently into a relief pitcher. The Nationals had him earlier than that and used him as a starter in the minors and then gave him a few relief appearances in the Majors. But the Reds, once they acquired him, put him in the bullpen permanently. And it has made all the difference.
Also different is how Duke pitches. He has completely ditched the four-seam fastball that was a staple of his repertoire. He only throws fastballs 50% of the time and most of those are two-seamers. Almost 49% of his pitches are a combination of curves and sliders and he has a positive value on the two-seam, slider and curve this season. His fastball has picked up a mile per hour over his past seasons. Significant but still only an 89.4 MPH heater.
What has really helped Duke is that 61.3% of his first pitches are strikes. Getting ahead in the count has really helped and his swinging strike rate has gone up to the highest rate of his career.
Sure, he is sort of a LOOGY. He has pitched 45.1 innings in 55 outings. But he has actually pitched to more right-handed batters (103) than he has lefty swingers (83). And his success rate against either is terrific. Right-handed batters have only a .581 OPS against him and lefty swingers, .552.
Zach Duke has gone from a pitcher of derision to someone that manager, Ron Roenicke, has 100% confidence in. Duke’s resurgence as a relief pitcher after a bumpy career as a starter has been one of the really fun stories of 2014 and is one of those little reasons why we love this game so much.