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May 8, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Dreaming of Zach Duke

by Marc Normandin

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By reader request, we're going to continue looking for a pitcher who has become a worthwhile fantasy option this year by having a surprisingly good start and being able to continue his quality performance over the course of the season. We've found that it was not to be Kevin Millwood or Chris Volstad, so today we will turn our attention to another hurler off to a good start, Zach Duke.

The last time Duke was a viable pick for a fantasy roster was back in his rookie season in 2005, when he threw 84 2/3 innings, struck out 6.2 per nine, and went 8-2 with an ERA of 1.81. He has never approached those numbers again (not that anyone expected him to), and has just one other season to his credit with an ERA below 4.50. So why should we believe that there is even a sliver of reality in his current performance, which sees him with a 2.79 ERA after 42 innings pitched?

Where his peripherals are concerned, there isn't much going on that separates the 2008 and 2009 versions of Duke. He's whiffing a below-average 4.9 hitters per nine, although that's a modest increase over last season's 4.2 mark. His 2.1 BB/9 is a tick below last year's 2.2, as well as his career rate (2.3). His 2.3 K/BB ratio so far is the second-best rate of his career, though (his rookie season takes top honors). The most significant differences right now are that he's giving up 0.4 home runs per nine, as opposed to 0.9 last year, and has opponents hitting just .248 rather than last year's .306.

It's too early to tell if the homers are a fluke or not, but we can try to figure that out a little later. The difference in batting average against is easily explained. These are your Pittsburgh Pirates, 2008 edition (.675 Defensive Efficiency), and these are your 2009 Buccos (.729 Defensive Efficiency). That gap will decrease as the year progresses, but as of right now, the Pirates are 56 points of Defensive Efficiency better than they were at the end of last season, a massive jump that has seen them climb from 28th in the majors to the top spot. As a result, Zach Duke's batting average on balls in play currently sits at .279, while in 2008 he posted a .327 BABIP.

That's huge for someone like Duke, who rarely gets his outs on his own. As his strikeout rate reflects, he relies heavily on his fielders, and the Pirates were not up to the task in 2008. Looking at the UZR of the Pirates shows where they've been doing better: Andy LaRoche has an average 0.4 fielding runs, Jack Wilson is at 1.8, and both Adam LaRoche and Freddy Sanchez are at 0.1 runs. There isn't anything special about those numbers, but the key is that they aren't below average. The real progress has been made in the outfield, where Nyjer Morgan has been worth 6.0 runs, Brandon Moss has been worth 4.1, and Nate McLouth... well, okay, McLouth is still terrible with the glove, but as President James Dale would say, two out of three ain't bad.

Morgan and Moss have already reached or exceeded last year's production levels on defense; given they are both young outfielders, this kind of improvement makes sense. When Andrew McCutchen comes up, the outfield defense may get another boost, as McLouth will be bumped to a corner, and center-field defense should improve. That's good news for Duke for a number of reasons; as a pitcher who puts a lot of balls in play, he'll be seeing more outs rather than base hits, making his job that much easier, but Duke has also been more fly-ball oriented this year, posting an average G/F ratio of 1.1 rather than his normal, slightly grounder-oriented ratios (with a career rate of 1.7).

Let's take a look at a few of Duke's starts this year, by examining where he placed his pitches to lefties and righties:

graph

This location chart gives us a view of where the pitcher throws both to lefties and righties. If the dot is red and to the left, it's outside to right-handers; if it's blue and to the left, it's inside to left-handers. Duke threw just two pitches to lefties in this game, giving us plenty of pitches against righties to work with. He went down low at times, but for the most part he concentrated his pitches inside. It's a good plan for a guy with his high-80s velocity, as he can jam hitters inside and give them pitches they can't do much with.

graph

Duke faced more lefties in this game, but the strategy was the same against right-handers. He focused on the inner half of the zone, but he was more liable to go outside against lefties than against right-handers.

graph

No real change from the two previous starts, as Duke went inside to right-handers again, though this time he focused on going down and in more often. These are Duke's three best starts of 2009 thus far, with a combined 24 1/3 innings pitched and just two runs allowed.

graph

This start is from 2008, and it looks like Duke was not going as far inside to right-handers as he is this year. He focuses on getting the ball down in the zone, which risks leaving a lot of pitches out over the plate. Duke still leaves a lot of pitches over the plate now, but he also balances that by pounding hitters inside, unlike in this start, where he left many pitches out over the plate where they could be easily hit.

graph

Duke struggled in this game against the Yankees from 2008. He went inside to right-handers a few times, but he was down the middle of the plate to both lefties and righties; he lasted just 79 pitches before being lifted, giving up four runs and seven hits with no strikeouts.

graph

Here is another start where Duke struggled, giving up five runs in five innings pitched, with 11 hits allowed and just two punch outs. Again, he focused on going down against righties, but left too many balls in the strike zone. Duke's lack of walks has a lot to do with the fact that he keeps the ball over the plate far more often than he does not, letting the batter put the ball in play.

Besides the lower G/F ratio, Duke has also forced hitters to pop out on 22.4 percent of his fly balls, which has a lot to do with his pounding the inner half of the plate. Right-handers are hitting just .226/.269/.348 against him, as opposed to the .321/.360/.486 line he allowed from 2006-2008, including .308/.342/.474 last year.

We know that the Pirates' defense seems to be improved now that Jason Bay and Xavier Nady are no longer patrolling the outfield, and Morgan and Moss, two promising young defensive players are out there. Adding McCutchen will improve things further, so the fear that the Pirates' defense is going to kill the value of all of their pitchers can probably be dismissed. If you combine that with Duke's improved performance against right-handers, then you have yourself a pitcher who, despite the lack of strikeouts, should at least be able to help you with ERA, WHIP, and IP.

Expecting the southpaw to pitch better against righties than he is against lefties all year may be a stretch, however, but even if you look at his adjusted ERA numbers, he's putting up a quality performance. His FIP is 3.42, which seems low to me given his peripherals, and his QERA is 4.64, which seems high given how well the Pirates' defense has been playing. Mix them together and you get a pitcher that should end up with an ERA around 4.00. That's not too shabby, especially in deeper leagues, and though he's not quite the breakout pitcher of 2009, he still has his uses, and shouldn't be ignored.

Related Content:  Left-handers

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