The life and times of Zach Duke

I’m fairly certain of two things right now regarding Zach Duke:

  1. On a team with a good defense, he’d be an entirely different pitcher.
  2. He’s almost certainly going to be non-tendered by the Pirates this winter (Tim’s post from last week does a great job summarizing why).

Point #2 makes point #1 not worth arguing over (I can make the case thusly: his walks are a bit up this year but so are his strikeouts, his groundball rate is nearly identical to last year, and his line drive rate is a bit up but really he’s just giving up a few more homers and the defense behind him stinks), especially since it’s something we’ve talked about ad nauseum here in the past.

Of course, all of that conversation we’ve had about Duke in the past is why I’ve got mixed feelings if we’re down to his last few starts in a Pirate uniform. Duke’s awesome debut came on July 2, 2005 — less than three months after I started blogging. It seems like a lifetime ago, but he baffled hitters at first. In his first two starts, both seven innings, he struck out nine and then eight batters. He kept his ERA under 1.00 for the first whole month of his career. I remember being at the game he turned his ankle at first base; the Pirates won 10-0 and no one in the stands that night talked about anything other than Duke’s injury.

The 2005 Pirates were not an exciting team. Daryle Ward played first base, Tike Redman and Matt Lawton played outfield, Mark Redman and Josh Fogg and Dave Williams make a huge chunk of starts, Oliver Perez started falling apart, and Jose Mesa was the closer. They won more games than the 2010 Pirates will, but not because they had more exciting young players. That’s exactly what Duke was at the time, though, and it was something we all needed.

Of course, things went downhill pretty quickly for Duke. Most people blame Jim Colborn for tinkering with his mechanics in 2006, but I’ve never been entirely sold on that. Duke’s FIP in 2006 was 4.13, his career FIP is 4.33. His xFIP that year was 4.40, his career xFIP is 4.38. Colborn didn’t ruin Duke, Duke just failed to progress that year. His rookie year success was built on escaping jams (unsustainable) and a high strike out rate that he was unable to replicate. Duke’s innings total took a big jump in 2005 and Jim Tracy pushed him again in 2006 and we shouldn’t have been surprised he really struggled had elbow trouble in 2007. Since then he’s only found any success in 2009, which is the only year the Pirates have had a good defense.

By following Duke’s career closely, I’ve learned a lot about baseball. Watching his ERA fluctuate wildly year to year while his peripherals remain constant is a great demonstration of how important defense can be to some pitchers. Most importantly, perhaps, Duke taught me that a prospect that seems to good to be true when he debuts usually is (this is why I have trouble trusting guys like Garrett Jones or Neil Walker will replicate much larger-than-expected production). Duke’s 2005 season had an unsustainably low ERA and a strikeout rate higher than anything he managed in Double-A or Triple-A. Even when he debuted and put up his incredible record and ERA in 2005, people were making noises about his velocity and his strikeout rates. I thought Duke would be different because as a Pirate fan, I needed to be able to believe that. For better or worse, I know better now.

If Duke’s Pirate career really is winding to a close, I do feel sorry for the guy. In an alternate universe he might’ve been drafted by a club that could play defense behind him and score him some runs, and he might have another All-Star appearance or maybe some playoff berths or a World Series ring to his name. Instead, he’s spent his whole career with the Pirates, who are never in contention and very rarely make the plays a pitcher like him needs to survive. As the Pirates wrap up one of the worst seasons in their history, almost as many people are complaining about Zach Duke as are complaining about any other player on the club. Wherever he ends up in 2011, I hope he can catch a break or two.

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.