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Young Pitcher Symposium Part One: Zach Duke

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Zach Duke (AP photo)

Zach Duke: What Does The Future Hold?

Zach Duke made 30 starts last year, going 20-5 with a 2.43 ERA. Now, yes, that's a combined stat line, 16 starts for Triple-A Indianapolis (12-3, 2.92) and 14 starts for the Pirates (8-2, 1.81). On the surface, it looks like he pitched significantly better for the Pirates than he did in the minors, but this is somewhat misleading.

WHIP: 1.21 for Indianapolis, 1.20 for the Pirates
K/9IP: 5.50 for Indianapolis, 6.17 for the Pirates
W/9IP: 1.92 for Indianapolis, 2.44 for the Pirates
H/9IP: 9.00 for Indianapolis, 8.40 for the Pirates.

The WHIPS were virtually identical. His strikeout rate rose in the majors, but so did his walk rate. He gave up fewer hits, but it's close enough to be luck/random variation (and the difference between a major league defense and a Triple-A defense). Basically, Duke's component ratios could remain the same in 2006 as they were in 2005 and his ERA could rise more than a full run without him having pitched much differently than he did last year.

Which would still leave him as a very effective pitcher and one of the better lefty starters in baseball.

Duke was drafted by the Pirates in the 20th round in 2001, out of high school in Clifton, Texas. This was a good bit of scouting by Pittsburgh; he wasn't regarded as a hot prospect in draft day, but emerged in instructional league by throwing upper 80s/low 90s sinkers with regularity. He also showed a very good curve, with sharp command. Duke made his pro debut in 2002, going 8-1, 1.95 in 11 starts for the Gulf Coast League Pirates. I gave him a Grade C in the 2003 book, noting his strong early performance, but worried enough about his low strikeout rate to be cautious until we got more higher level data.

Promoted to the Sally League in 2003, Duke went 8-7, 3.11 with a 113/46 K/BB in 142 innings for Hickory. Decent numbers, certainly. I didn't put him in the 2004 book, which was a mistake on my part. He looked like a C+ prospect to me, high enough to be included. Baseball America noticed him, though they rated him as just the 15th-best prospect in the Pirates system.

Duke improved tremendously in 2004, improving from the "decent/interesting prospect" category into the "whoa, check this guy out" range. He went 15-6 with a 1.46 ERA combined between Class A Lynchburg and Double-A Carolina, vaulting to the top of the Pirates prospect lists. I rated him as a B+ entering '05, impressed with his improvement but noting that he wasn't a sure thing just yet. I was worried about his strikeout rates, as his K/IP was below average in Double-A, not that it hurt him, but it was a marker of concern, especially given what happened to fellow sinkerball lefty Sean Burnett.

As stated above, Duke could pitch just as well component-wise in '06 as in '05 and see his ERA rise significantly. PECOTA forecasts a strong regression towards the mean for Duke, his 50 percentile ERA checking in at 3.86.

Finding comparables is difficult given Duke's 14-game sample size in the majors. PECOTA brings up some names, and doing some of my own research here are some similar guys to Duke based on what we know so far:

Britt Burns
Steve Trout
John Candelaria
Steve Avery
Harry Krause
Lefty Leifield
Marcelino Lopez
Mike Hampton

Most of those names should be familiar to you. All these guys had success of one form or another, though some had problems with durability and erratic performance.

There are two early 20th century names, Harry Krause and Lefty Leifeild. Krause was a lefty who pitched brilliantly for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1909 at the age of 22 (ERA+ of 172) but he hurt his arm the next season and was never the same. Leifield also had a strong age 22 season for the Pirates in 1906 (ERA+144) and he remained an effective pitcher until hurting his arm at age 27.

I am going to post a companion projection thread for Duke momentarily.