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Will “The Duke” Continue to Reign in 2009?

The 2008 Oakland Athletics were just bursting at the seams with intriguing pitching storylines. Aside from jettisoning three-fifths of its 2007 rotation and the bullpen developments of a little-known submariner and a well-pedigreed flame-thrower, the A’s also oversaw the successful transition of a bullpen lifer into a starting stalwart. Justin Duchscherer, a 31 year-old who had started all of 5 games in the majors and hadn’t been taken a regular turn in a rotation since 2003 with AAA Sacramento, managed to post a 2.67 WPA/LI in 2008, 12th-best among all major league starters.

As a middle man for the A’s over the 2003-2007 seasons, Duchscherer struck out 7.4 batters per nine innings while also being stingy with the walks (2.42 BB/9). While “The Duke” has a fastball that wouldn’t get him noticed in a high school game (85.9 MPH in ’08), he was always noted for possessing one of the more diverse arsenals among relievers. While most ‘pen arms rely predominantly on two pitches, Duchscherer throws a fastball, cutter, slider, curveball and a changeup. Perhaps intrigued by his solid peripherals and his unusually deep repertoire, Oakland decided to give him a spin in the starting five this past season. The timing seemed a bit peculiar, however, as Duchscherer had just missed the majority of the 2007 season after undergoing hip surgery.

In 141.2 IP, Duchscherer posted a sparkling 2.54 ERA, while posting a WHIP of exactly 1. His control remained stellar, as he issued just 2.16 walks per nine innings. “The Duke” used his full spread of pitches, throwing his fastball just 43.7% overall. He mixed in heavy doses of his 81.7 MPH cutter (29.9%) and his big-breaking 69.9 MPH curveball (24.3%), while also giving hitters an occasional 81.2 MPH slider (1.3%) and an 80.2 MPH changeup (0.8%).

While Duchscherer’s K rate was adequate (6.04) and he limited base runners reaching via walks, there was still a pretty huge discord between his actual ERA (2.54) and his Fielding Independent ERA (FIP ERA), which was 3.69. “The Duke” benefitted from an extraordinarily low .240 BABIP, a number that will surely climb in 2009. The A’s were quite good with the leather in ’08 (ranking 4th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, which ranks the percentage of balls put in play that are converted to outs), and McAfee Coliseum does suppress offensive production , but that .240 mark was the lowest among all starters tossing at least 140 frames. There are also some concerns about the condition of Duchscherer’s hip, as he missed half of August and all of September while dealing with the issue.

Assuming that he’s healthy, Justin Duchscherer should certainly remain on fantasy radars heading into the 2009 season. However, given his solid (but not spectacular) peripherals and his insanely low BABIP, “The Duke” will likely see his ERA rise to a level where he’s more of a useful component rather any sort of rotation front-man.

Courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, we find that Duchscherer’s most comparable player by age is Paul Byrd, another soft-tosser with a diverse repertoire who didn’t get his chance to stick in a rotation until several years into his career (in Byrd’s case, at age 28). Perhaps that’s an approximate career path for Duchscherer from this point forward: he’ll be useful, but just don’t expect another season with an ERA in the mid-two’s.