Saturday, November 20, 2010

Zach Duke - A Cautionary Tale

It's hard to believe Zach Duke is only 27 years old. It seems like he has been pitching for a decade. The past few seasons, his seasons seemed like decades. Duke went from phenom to bust quicker than just about any pitcher in recent memory. You could compare him to Dontrelle Willis without the walks. But Willis at least had a few seasons of success before it all fell apart. Duke had one glorious half season. But it was a mirage then and the Pirates kept reaching to get to that hazy oasis on the horizon and could never get there. The Pirates gave up on Duke yesterday and designated him for assignment, ending his Pirate career after six seasons.

Zach Duke was an 18 year old kid fresh out of high school when the Pirates drafted him in the 20th round in 2001. Against the odds, he started piling up stats for the Pirates, but that was part of the problem. He pitched 142 innings as a 20 year old and and 148 at the age of 21. His strikeout rate was healthy, topping out at 9.8 in 2004. Plus, he had great control, walking only 1.8 per nine. But the higher he rose in the Pirates' organization, the lower the strikeout rate went. Then came his debut year for the Pirates in 2005.

Duke had already pitched 108 innings in 2005 for their Triple A affiliate. The Pirates then called him up and he pitched 84 more innings for the big club. Remember that he was only 22 years old at the time. But they were 84 GREAT innings. Duke made 14 starts for the Pirates that year and went 8-2 with an ERA of 1.81. It wasn't lucky either as his BABIP was right where it should have been at .303. He gave up only three homers. It was an impressive debut and everyone thought he was going to be the next great pitcher. His K/9 rate was healthy enough at 6.2 and his K/BB ratio was 2.52, a nice total. He would never again come close to those kinds of numbers.

The very next year, Duke made 34 starts and pitched 214+ innings. He was 23. He ended up going 10-15 that season and gave up more hits than anyone else in the National League. His K/9 rate fell below five per nine. His WHIP went up to 1.50. It was all downhill from there. Since his rookie season, he has gone 37-68. He was the poster boy for everything that was wrong with the Pirates.

And now, at the age of 27, in what should be the peak of his career, he has washed out of Pittsburgh and his future is unclear. He could catch on with a minor league contract. Some club might have an idea they can reclaim him and find lightning in a bottle. But looking at his strikeout rates, his homer rates and his hit rates, it appears that there is little left in what was once a promising arm.

This writer believes he pitched too many innings at too young an age and as a result, washed up early in life. Who knows, Duke could resurface and could somehow become an effective pitcher in the majors again. But those chances remain slim and he looks like a cautionary tale to all those who think babying pitchers is a stupid idea.

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