Prospect Retro Redux: Zach Duke
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.
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:
Fast forward to 2010. Duke had an okay year in 2006, was awful in 2007, then rebounded somewhat in '08 and '09. He is currently 37-55 (.402), but a lot of that is because he pitches for a poor team. He has a career ERA of 4.30, ERA+ of 100, a career xFIP of 4.38, and a 409/212 K/BB in 805 innings with 956 hits allowed. He is basically an average major league starter, neither very good nor very bad most of the time.
Miscast as a number one starter, he is very reliant on his defense, but for a good team he'd be a decent option as a strike-throwing number four type.
His list of comparable pitchers is different than it was four years ago. The top candidates now:
Sim Scores: Bruce Ruffin, Roger Erickson, Randy Lerch, Floyd Bannister, Ed Brandt, Jay Tibbs, Joe Mays, Scott Karl, Neal Heaton, and Odalis Perez.
PECOTA comps: Scott Karl, Rick Honeycutt, Paul Maholm, Jon Garland, Jeff Suppan, Allan Anderson, Jason Schmidt, Bobby Jones, Brian Moehler, and Doyle Alexander. Neal Heaton is 11th.
There are some decent names there and some of those guys had good bouts of success at times. None of them were world-beaters. Scott Karl is an interesting comp since he shows up on both lists. He was out of the majors by the age of 29, so the 27-year-old Duke needs to hope that comp doesn't hold up.
My guess is that Duke will last longer than Karl did, and could have one of those surprise 15-win, 3.20 ERA seasons at some point, especially if he gets in front of a better team or if the Pirates improve dramatically. Overall he'll be an average pitcher.