Don’t Blame Duke

Now a full fifty games under .500, the Pittsburgh Pirates hold, by far, the worst record in the majors. The Bucs have “earned” that sordid status, and then some. The club has been outscored by 287 runs this season, giving them a Pythagorean record of 42-104 instead of their actual 48-98 mark. There are signs of progress — Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker form a quartet of talented position players, and the organization’s pitching depth has increased. But Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia aren’t walking into the PNC Park clubhouse any time soon, and while prospects like Bryan Morris, Brad Lincoln, Rudy Owens and Jeff Locke offer promise, none are considered top-tier talents. There’s help on the way, but there are no guarantees. And James McDonald aside, the current rotation is getting trounced.

Zach Duke has become the poster boy for Pittsburgh’s pitching struggles. The lefty has been a fixture in the team’s rotation since 2005, but a disastrous stretch since the beginning of August (44.1 innings pitched, 38 runs allowed) had the Pirates considering banishing him from the starting five. In 141.2 IP this season, Duke has a 5.78 ERA. That’s the highest figure among starters who have tossed 140+ innings — most guys who get crushed like that get hooked off the stage. Some Pirates fans are ready to make Duke walk the plank, advocating that the team get rid of him instead of tendering him a contract for his last season of arbitration eligibility in 2011. But I’m left wondering, is he really pitching that much differently than in years past?

Duke has both struck out and walked more batters per nine frames in 2010, but we’re speaking in relative terms. Pittsburgh’s 20th-round selection in the ’01 draft has 5.65 K/9 (4.73 K/9 career) and 2.92 BB/9 (2.45 BB/9 career). His 47.8% ground ball rate is close to his career 48.9 GB%. Duke’s expected fielding independent ERA (xFIP), based on his K’s, walks and a normalized home run per fly ball rate, is 4.41. His career xFIP? 4.38.

Like his rotation mates, Duke is a pitcher who often puts the ball in play. Unfortunately, the guys behind him have done a terrible job of converting those balls put in play into outs. The Pirates’ lineup has transformed drastically over the course of the season, but on the whole, the team has been about 48 runs worse than average, according to Ultimate Zone Rating. Only the Indians have been more inept with the leather. Per Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive Efficiency rating, Pittsburgh has converted the lowest percentage of balls put in play into outs (67.5%) of any big league team. Duke has a whopping .351 BABIP, highest among all MLB starters. While his career BABIP is elevated (.325), in part due to other lumbering Pirates teams, he has especially been the victim of a combination of poor luck and lousy defense in 2010.

He’s also finding fly balls that died at the warning track in past seasons are reaching the cheap seats this year. Duke has surrendered 23 home runs, or 1.46 HR/9. His home run per fly ball rate has jumped to 14.6%, compared to the 10-11% MLB average and his career 10.1% career mark. According to Dan Turkenkopf of The Hardball Times, PNC Park decreased homers per fly ball hit by six percent over the 2006-2009 seasons. If Duke had coughed up a homer about 10.3 percent of the time a fly ball was hit at home (the average HR/FB rate, multiplied by .94) and 11 percent on the road, he would have given up 18 HR, or 1.14 HR/9.

Despite the macabre ERA, Zach Duke is basically the same starter he has always been –ZiPS projects that he’s a 4.37 FIP pitcher moving forward. Duke is making $4.3 million this season, and even with ugly surface stats, he would likely get a modest salary bump in arbitration. Pittsburgh could non-tender him and move on, or they could try to bring him back at a lower rate. I think that he’s worth bringing back and is a serviceable starter in a vacuum. But the Pirates haven’t done Duke, Paul Maholm and other low-K arms any favors by so often failing to get to those grounders and cover the gaps. Collectively, Pirates starters have a 4.78 xFIP. That’s bad, worst in the NL in fact. Even so, that looks sparkling next to the team’s actual 5.44 ERA.

The club has to hope that Alvarez, Walker, Tabata et al take to their positions well, because starters who don’t miss bats and fielders with limited range go together like oil and water.




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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


8 Responses to “Don’t Blame Duke”

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  1. Bill says:

    I think Walker and Alvarez likely have a lot to do with it. If they can hit like the team hopes, it might make a lot of sense for Pittsburgh to move Alvarez to first and Walker to third then see if you can fill 2B from outside. I just don’t see either guy having the range to fill his current position adequately.

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  2. Temo says:

    I totally thought this would be a piece about the Duke vs. Alabama this weekend.

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  3. Nick says:

    Would Dennis Green say that Duke is who you thought he was?

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  4. Mike says:

    Bill, good thought, but what do you do with the corner infield logjam after the Pirates draft Anthony Rendon next year? If you advocate moving Walker to a corner and Alvarez to first, which I don’t disagree is a good idea, you’d have 3 players for 2 positions.

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  5. MarkInDallas says:

    Mike, Walker can also play the outfield if it comes to that. He could also be that super utility guy who plays every day in some position.

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  6. Shutdown says:

    Zach Duke?

    The man who gave up 255 hits in one season?

    One stat matters with the Duke

    1147/947

    1147 Hits in 947 innings
    Why is this guy still pitching in the ML?
    You could dig up a large group of journeyman AAA starting pitchers and I am fairly sure AT WORST they could perform at Duke’s current level at what 10% of the cost?

    I know the Pirates are to defense as Rob Deer was to contact, but at some point you need to be able to miss a bat every now and then.

    Pull the plug on this clown.

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  7. AMusingFool says:

    …starters who don’t miss bats and fielders with limited range go together like oil and water fire and gasoline.

    FTFY.

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