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Fact or Fiction: Zach Duke

Eric StashinSenior Writer IApril 28, 2009

PITTSBURGH - APRIL 13:  Zach Duke #57 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches during the Opening Day game against the Houston Astros at PNC Park on April 13, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

There was once a time when Zach Duke was considered one of the best up-and-coming pitchers in baseball.  He burst onto the scene in 2005, posting a 1.82 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 84.2 innings, but since then things have been disastrous.

He’s posted ERAs of:

  • 2006 - 4.48 (215.1 IP)
  • 2007 - 5.55 (107.1 IP)
  • 2008 - 4.82 (185.0 IP)

Those numbers certainly couldn’t have inspired much faith as we headed into 2009, where Duke has seemingly rediscovered the stuff that once set the league abuzz.  In his first four starts he’s gone 3-1 with a 2.43 ERA and 1.11 WHIP over 29.2 innings.

The question is, is he for real or is a regression coming?

Thus far this season he’s shown great control, walking just six batters for a BB/9 of 1.8.  While that may seem to be a number that is unrealistic, it actually is just a shade better then his career mark.  Over 474 innings in the minor leagues he posted a BB/9 of 2.3 and over 622 major league innings his number is at 2.4.

While he may regress back down to his career mark, that falloff is not one that is going to be tremendously damaging.  The control is one asset that he’s had throughout his career, even while struggling, so do not point to that as a potential red flag.

What you can look at is his strikeouts, at just 4.85.  To be successful when striking out batters at such a low rate, you put a lot of stress on your defense.  Currently, he’s allowing a BABIP of .278, a relatively low number.

Granted, he’s been extremely unlucky over the past three seasons:

  • 2006 - .327
  • 2007 - .360
  • 2008 - .327

Still, a regression is likely in order.  Last season, only fourteen pitchers had a BABIP of .278 or better.  You have to be extremely lucky to pitch to that type of number, and limiting the number of balls put in play surely would help.

If that number starts to rise and more people are getting on base, the ERA is going to inflate with it.  Then again, would anyone anticipate him maintaining a sub-three ERA over the entire season?

He has also been the benefactor of some favorable match-ups.  His start against the Cardinals saw him yield two unearned runs.  He’s also faced a weaker hitting Astros team (28th in runs scored with 66) and the Padres in San Diego, a park that we all know suppresses runs.

I know, all you can do is pitch against the teams placed on your schedule, and it certainly is a benefit that he pitched well in those games.  Still, you have to think some unfavorable match-ups could be on the horizon.

Basically, I’m not expecting things to continue as positively as it has for Duke in the early going.  I don’t see his fortunate luck continuing, especially with some likely less favorable matchups coming up shortly.  While I would not necessarily classify him as purely fiction, I do not believe he can come close to replicating what he’s done thus far.

He has a track record of mediocrity and sooner or later his luck is going to run out.

What does everyone else think?  Can Duke continue as one of the better pitchers in baseball or will he regress back to what he’s shown in prior years?

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