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Duke (Finally) Getting Some Defensive Love

As a pitch-to-contact starter playing in front of lead-gloved fielders, Zach Duke and the Pittsburgh Pirates went together about as well as oil and water.

Duke zoomed on to the scene back in 2005, posting a promising 2.52 strikeout-to-walk ratio as a 22 year-old. While his 1.81 ERA and a low HR/FB rate (4.5%) in 84.2 innings led to some outsized expectations, Duke had plenty going for him. Whiffing 6.17 batters per nine innings, the Texan also kept the free passes in check (2.44 BB/9). His Expected Fielding Independent ERA (XFIP, based on K’s walks and a normalized HR/FB rate) checked in at a quality 3.66.

As a full-time rotation member in 2006, Duke compiled a 4.47 ERA in 215.1 innings. His XFIP climbed to 4.60, as his K rate fell below five (4.89) and his walk rate rose (2.84). Duke was putting the ball in play more often, and his BABIP rose from .296 to .327. The Bucs (28th in team UZR/150) were awful with the gloves in ’06, featuring defensive disasters at multiple positions (Jeromy Burnitz still sends Dave Littlefield postcards for that cool $6.7 million he pulled down that year).

Duke’s young career reached its nadir the following year. His ability to fool hitters completely evaporated as he dealt with left elbow tendinitis. He posted a grisly 5.53 ERA in 107.1 innings. Things certainly weren’t going swimmingly (he K’d just 3.44 batters per nine innings with a 4.79 XFIP), but a .360 BABIP would be enough to make any pitcher curse his fate. Overall, Pittsburgh was about league-average defensively (18th in team UZR/150). But when Duke took the hill, they fielded about as well as a team of Adam Dunn‘s.

2008 followed a similar pattern, though not quite as extreme. With a .327 BABIP and 4.23 whiffs per nine innings, Duke compiled a 4.82 ERA (4.81 XFIP). The Bucs were again among the fielding laggards, placing 22nd in team UZR/150.

After a couple years of listless showings with the leather, the Pirates have actually been a plus defensive team in 2009. Pittsburgh ranks third in the majors in UZR/150, trailing only the surprising Brewers and the Rays (who orchestrated a historic defensive turnaround last season). Nyjer Morgan, Brandon Moss, Jack Wilson and Andy LaRoche are all on the plus side, with Adam LaRoche and Nate McLouth a few runs in the negative. Only Freddy Sanchez (-8.6 UZR) is deep in the red among regular starters.

With better support behind him, Duke has posted a .268 BABIP in 2009. In 72 frames, his ERA sits at 2.75. He’s more than likely not going to keep up that level of performance (his XFIP is 4.34), but Duke has a 2.47 K/BB ratio this year after failing to crack two over the past three seasons.

Duke is pitching fairly well, and he’s now being aided by his defense instead of watching them boot easy plays and fail to track balls that most big leaguers would reach. With an 88 MPH fastball and a kitchen-sink approach that entails more deception than brute force, Duke will always be reliant upon the quality of the fielders behind him. Luckily, those guys are picking him up where previous squads hung him out to dry.