The New Duke of Arizona

By R.J. Anderson //

In 2006, the Pittsburgh Pirates had five pitchers of age 24 or younger combine to account for three-quarters of their season starts. Only one of those pitchers remains a Bucco. Oliver Perez was the first to go, then Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell hit the bricks. Now, Zach Duke is a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, leaving Paul Maholm as the sole survivor.

The Pirates chose to designated Duke for assignment last week rather than hold off and (eventually) non-tender him. The move simply paved the way for Duke to leave the team. The only added benefit was the potential to recoup something in exchange for the rights to Duke. Someone did bite, and as a result the Pirates will receive a player to be named later, which reports peg as a marginal prospect.

The 2009 season represents the apex of Duke’s fantasy value. He tossed more than 200 innings of 4.06 ERA ball and won double-digit games. In typical Pirates fashion, the breakout’s sequel was a setback. Duke still made 29 starts, but only lasted 159 innings – a little over five innings per start, on average. That’s not a good ratio for someone who had averaged more than six innings per start throughout his career, including a career-best 6.7 innings a start in 2009.

The drop in innings was not because of durability or stamina issues, but rather ineffective pitching. His 5.72 ERA was an eyesore. Digging deeper, Duke had nine starts last season where he allowed more than four runs and he allowed more than six runs in six of those starts. He also had seven starts where he allowed multiple home runs and two where he allowed three homers.

Nevertheless, Duke is exactly the kind of pitcher Arizona General Manager Kevin Towers targeted during his time in San Diego. A lefty, Duke throws a mid-to-high-80s fastball with sink on it (resulting in a career groundball rate just a tick below 49%). His changeup sits in the low-80s and he relies heavily on two kinds of breaking balls; a low-70s curve and a high-70s/low-80s slider. The pitches combined for a decent whiff rate the last two seasons, but nothing special.

Pittsburgh plays its games within the friendly dimensions of PNC Park – a stadium with a reputation for limiting right-handed power; which in turn enhanced Duke’s ability to pitch. Arizona’s Chase Field is geared towards hitters, particularly lefties. Attempting to find similar cases of pitchers who went from Pittsburgh to Arizona (or vice versa) and quantify the trend is impossible. The Diamondbacks are too young to have many common links throughout the league, but even they had standards above the Pirates’ rejects.

Expect Duke’s hit rate (because pitchers who give up hits on 34.7% of their balls in play simply don’t last in the major leagues) and his home run rate (because, again, pitchers who give up homers on nearly 14% of their flyballs never make it this far) to decline. From there, his upside is likely that of a league-average pitcher, with the chance to look slightly better thanks to pitching his road games in some extremely friendly environments. He could be serviceable for the DBacks. But he’s unrosterable in all but the deepest fantasy leagues.

For more on Zach Duke and other change of scenary pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.  

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