Monday, November 05, 2007

2007 Review: Zach Duke

2006: 4.47 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 117 K, 68 BB, 255 H in 215 and 1/3 innings
2006 rate stats: 4.89 K/9, 2.84 BB/8, 10.66 H/9
2007: 5.53 ERA, 1.73 WHIP, 41 K, 25 BB, 161 H in 107 and 1/3 innings
2007 rate stats: 3.43 K/9, 2.10 BB/9, 13.50 H/9

Counting hits is a dangerous way to measure pitchers, especially on a team that isn't terribly good at fielding. A lot of how many hits a pitcher gives up is made of luck (simply where the hits fall) and the defense (what they're capable of fielding), that just saying "Zach Duke gives up a ton of hits and that's why he sucks" isn't a complete statement, even if it's technically an accurate one.

Duke's problem is that he doesn't fool anybody. Three strikeouts per nine innings is a painfully low number. I'm serious, it actually hurts me to look at it. That's a big problem when you pitch for the Pirates because, despite what a lot of people say, the Pirates aren't very good at fielding the ball. They were third from the bottom of the league this year in defensive efficiency, which just a percentage of balls in play turned into outs. It's a rough metric, but I think it tells us more about the Pirates defense than their second place finish in fielding percentage this year does.

If you're wondering, in Duke's great 2005 second half, he struck out more than 6 batters per 9 innings. It's not a great number, but it's high enough for a pitcher of Duke's make. The problem is that as he gets older that number should be rising, not dramatically falling. That leaves us to try and guess why Duke has suddenly become as hittable as a batting practice pitcher. There are a few explanations. I'll list them in order of how likely I think the explanation is.

Explanation #1- He sucks
Do you remember what his rookie year was made up of? Mostly him putting runners on base, then finding a way to get out of the inning. In his first two starts he struck out 17 batters in 14 innings. The rest of the way out, after hitters had some tape on him, his K/9 was only 5.22, much more in line with his 2006 numbers. He was also giving up almost a hit an inning in those last 12 starts in 2005. That's not a recipe for success, and it's pretty clear that his 1.78 ERA in those starts is at least as improbable as the existence of Magrathea. Give the hitters more time to catch up and you're left with the mess of a pitcher we've got today.

Explanation #2- He was hurt

He missed a lot of time this year with his sore elbow, which explains the awful numbers this year (he did throw a lot of innings in 2006 when compared to his minor league career and if you remember the 2007 preview, he was the starter I was most worried about getting hurt in 2007). If you break his 2006 numbers into halves, he did improve a lot in the second half of '06, which makes his awful 2007 even harder to figure. Thus, injury must be the answer!

Explanation #3- Jim Colborn is a bad-touch man and ruined him
I don't buy this one at all, honestly. For Colborn's changes to have been that disastrous, we would first have to assume that Duke was some kind of great pitcher that he sent into a deep tailspin and, as I've already pointed out, Duke's 2005 numbers involved a lot of smoke and mirrors. That's one of the reasons I don't think Colborn should bear the brunt of the blame for Duke's demise. Another is that Duke actually pitched quite well after the All-Star break in 2006, which was before he tried to abandon Colborn's changes. And lest we all forget, Duke was all for the changes when Colborn was suggesting them. He never said they made him uncomfortable until he started getting pounded, when they first talked about it Duke was all for making some changes in his delivery to make it more consistent.

In the end, things probably aren't as cut and dried as I've made them seem here and it's probably a combination of all three things that has turned Duke from "can't miss" to "can't get an out." Getting him on track is going to be a huge task for whoever John Russell picks as his pitching coach, though, because as good as Snell and Gorzo might be, two men do not a rotation make. I don't have my hopes up, though.