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Justin Duchscherer Should Help O’s

Over his last 169.2 innings pitched, Justin Duchscherer’s ERA+ is 160, which ain’t too shabby, as the kids say (Note: Kids don’t say this at all). Looking at other pitchers with similar innings pitched totals, we see that Scott Baker’s ERA+ was 92, Wade Davis’ was 97 and Phil Hughes’ was 102. The difference of course, is that these three pitchers accumulated those innings in 2010, whereas you have to go back to 2008 for Duchscherer’s innings count that high. Additionally, a lot of things have gone his way when he has been healthy. Expecting those results to continue may be a bit optimistic, but with such a low base, the Orioles made a nice calculated gamble when they signed him for 2011 this past weekend.

The deal pays him $700,000, and $1.1 million if he makes the active roster. Thanks to all of his various injuries, there have certainly been years where he has been worth around that figure or less. However, since 2005, when he has been healthy, he has been worth a great deal more. The contract does take this into effect, as there are incentives that make his contract worth as much as $4.5 million if he makes 30 starts. This is a win-win for the Orioles. Duchscherer’s career high in starts, 22 in 2008, and during that season he was worth $13 million, so it’s a decent bet that if he stays healthy he will be worth the money.

Looking again at the last three years, we can see that of all starters with at least 160 innings pitched, Duchscherer’s 3.84 FIP ranks 41st overall, slightly behind Matt Cain and Jason Hammel, and slightly ahead of Brandon Morrow and David Price. He is an interesting case, as he is the rare right-handed pitcher that is effective without any sort of velocity. For his career, his average fastball is under 86 MPH. As you might imagine, he doesn’t throw his fastball very often, just a tick over 43 percent of the time from 2008-2010. This percentage ranked tenth lowest overall, and eighth lowest for all non-knuckleballers.

Since he does lack that dominating velocity, when the Duke does throw his fastball, he has to be sure to locate it on the fringes of the strike zone, particularly against lefties, as you can see below in this Heat Maps:

Keeping the ball on the fringes like that means you need to know how to pitch, and Duke’s ratios paint him positively in that regard. Back in 2008, his 2.79 K/BB mark ranked 31st in the Majors, and his 2.16 BB/9 ranked 29th (min. 140 IP). In addition, his K/BB mark has twice been over 4 while in a relief capacity, so he controls the ball well. But as time has passed, he has been less able to keep hitters off balance. From 2004-2007, he posted swinging strike percentages of at least eight percent each season, culminating at 9.6 percent in a shortened 2007 season. But that number dipped to 7.1 percent in 2008 and 4.3 percent in 2010. A low SwStr% isn’t necessarily the end of the world. The 13 qualified pitchers last season who clocked in at 6 percent or lower had an average FIP of 4.43, which while below average, did include pitchers who had good seasons like Doug Fister and Trevor Cahill. But while it isn’t necessarily a death blow, Duchscherer has also been rather fortunate in his time in another regard.

Duchscherer’s BABIP has been well above average throughout his career. In four of his six seasons, his BABIP was .280 or lower, and in his stellar 2008 season, it was .235, which was the lowest in the Majors for anyone with at least 140 innings pitched. Perhaps not coincidentally, the A’s had a fantastic defense that season, as they ranked fifth in team UZR at 33.7. And with a total of 38.9, they were once again fifth last year. The Orioles, not so much. Their -22.9 team UZR total ranked 22nd in 2010, and that defense doesn’t figure to improve dramatically in 2011.

The combination of low velocity, a decrease in SwStr% and the likelihood that his BABIP could rise behind a more porous defense, not to mention the ever-present injury concerns, temper expectations for Duchscherer heading into 2011. But given his past success, craftiness and reasonable contract, he’s an interesting gamble for the Orioles.