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December 2, 2010

Warning Track Power

The Duke of LOOGYton?

by Chase Gharrity

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When the Diamondbacks acquired Zach Duke for a player to be named later last month, many saw the move as a low-risk, low-reward proposition, the type commonly seen around this time of year. While this will more than likely be the case, Duke may have more value than what he's shown lately. Despite spotty stats over the past few seasons with the Pirates, some fans still believe that he has the sheen of an ace under that rusty shell of a track record. Why? It is largely because of his legendary coming-out party of 2005. Now, as we near 2011, can fans expect a performance close to his rookie line in the coming seasons, or is a role change in order? 

To begin, let’s take a look at what Duke has been able to accomplish over his career:

Year

Age

Tm

GS

IP

H/9

HR/9

HR/FB%

BB/9

SO/9

SO/BB

BABIP

ERA

SIERA

2005

22

PIT

14

84.2

8.4

0.3

4.5%

2.4

6.2

2.52

0.302

1.81

4.02

2006

23

PIT

34

215.1

10.7

0.7

8.3%

2.8

4.9

1.72

0.334

4.47

4.47

2007

24

PIT

19

107.1

13.5

1.2

11.9%

2.1

3.4

1.64

0.370

5.53

4.74

2008

25

PIT

31

185

11.2

0.9

9.3%

2.3

4.2

1.85

0.322

4.82

4.75

2009

26

PIT

32

213

9.8

1.0

10.0%

2.1

4.5

2.16

0.301

4.06

4.60

2010

27

PIT

29

159

12.0

1.4

13.7%

2.9

5.4

1.88

0.343

5.72

4.58

However, despite the fact that Duke finds himself in a more hospitable defensive environment in the desert, one must keep in mind that one of the things that plagued him the most was something no defense can control: his propensity to give up the longball. A career-high 13.7 percent of his fly balls turned into home runs last season, a mark inflated by the 17.1 percent he posted in away games. Fortunately for Duke, he played half of his games in a homer-depressing park. While we can reasonably expect that this number will deflate to something closer to his career average of 10 percent, overexposure to Chase Field might make his HR/FB rate improvement a little less dramatic. Provided his home-run rate isn't completely offset by Chase Field and the defensive upgrade pays off in a big way, the lefty could remain a decent option as a final piece to a strong rotation. As we can see, Duke really hasn’t been spectacular in any particular year besides 2005. However, while he’s no ace, SIERA still believes that Duke can be a serviceable fourth or fifth starter for the right team and in the right situation. Part of Duke’s BABIP and left-on-base percentage attrition could be due in part to a very poor Pirates defense, which ranked worst in the league in terms of Defensive Efficiency during the 2010 season. An ideal place for the lefty would be with a team that could complement his high ground-ball rate with some solid glove work. While Arizona ranked only 19th in the league in DE, Duke will surely be happy to pitch for a team that knows which hand their gloves fit on, granted he remains on the roster.

Of course, one way the D-Backs could limit the effects of Chase Field is by trying him as a relief pitcher. While you can expect many jeers from fans in Arizona, who are expecting that a change of scenery could bring back Duke's 2005 level of performance, this move could allow the Snakes to get the most out of their new acquisition. After all, Kevin Towers has made a career out of turning low-risk moves into the creation of solid bullpen arms and Arizona is looking to upgrade their relief corps.

With that in mind, let's presuppose that Towers has followed my line of thinking here and agrees that Duke should be in the bullpen. What role could he fill? The chart below contains Duke's lefty/righty splits. 

Year

Batter

PA

FB%

GB%

LD%

SIERA

2005

L

54

33.33%

29.63%

22.22%

1.89

2005

R

287

23.68%

52.19%

19.30%

4.36

2006

L

164

23.68%

54.39%

18.42%

3.82

2006

R

771

23.05%

53.41%

18.02%

4.68

2007

L

87

21.74%

53.62%

23.19%

3.66

2007

R

395

21.93%

52.05%

20.47%

5.01

2008

L

122

24.73%

54.84%

16.13%

4.33

2008

R

707

26.33%

48.37%

19.28%

4.89

2009

L

195

25.00%

49.34%

19.74%

4.39

2009

R

696

29.18%

48.93%

16.19%

4.73

2010

L

146

29.73%

49.55%

17.12%

3.77

2010

R

584

27.02%

48.37%

19.39%

4.84

Career

L

768

25.62%

50.88%

18.91%

3.92

Career

R

3440

25.54%

50.36%

18.54%

4.78

As we can see, Duke has shown that he is far more adept at pitching against lefties. With a good SIERA against lefties coupled with his strong ground-ball tendencies, Duke could potentially put forth an above-average season in the bullpen as a LOOGY. The move to a LOOGY role could also address the concerns surrounding Duke's supposed decline in velocity, allowing him to throw with maximum effort in his more specialized, limited-innings role. One thing that can throw this idea out the window, however, is the relatively strong line-drive rate given up to lefties. Part of this could be due to the limited number of opportunities he's had against left-handed batters, but there should be serious concern about whether short relief stints and line drives should be coupled. With that in mind, perhaps calls for Duke to convert to LOOGYism are premature.

Duke is due for one more arbitration hearing this offseason and, after making $4.3 million in 2010, will be in line for something between $5 million-6.5 million. The Diamondbacks have already made it clear that they will try and negotiate a number far less than what he’s expected to get through arbitration, with the non-tender route as a contingency if a deal cannot be reached by tonight's deadline. Given that Duke’s representatives and Towers can come to an agreement by the tendering deadline, say for an arbitrarily determined amount of $4 million, Duke will probably have to be a starter, if only to justify the amount they are paying him. However, if Towers can get a significantly better deal or, after a non-tendering, Duke finds himself with a less lucrative contract with a different team, perhaps a trial as a LOOGY is in order.

 Regardless of what team or role Duke ends up with, the move from Pittsburgh's defense will ultimately benefit the lefty. Whether he continues as a starter or is converted into a reliever in 2011 remains to be seen, but it seems that the Texan can still provide decent innings in both capacities. In an offseason that has had Joaquin Benoit scoring a three-year, $16.5 million deal, turning Duke into a reliever could be an interesting and effective option going forward that, all things being equal, could require a less costly commitment in terms of years and dollars. However, given his current contract situation, he's likely to at least begin the season as a starter in 2011, giving fans another year of hope that one more 2005-ish season could be in their future. Who knows, with some luck and some passable defense, Duke might pitch like a rookie (an upgrade, in this case) once again. If he remains the same guy, however, I'm sure Arizona (or some other interested team, for that matter) has someone keeping a chair in the bullpen warm for him.  

     

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