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2011 Diamondbacks Report Card: Zach Duke

Reportcardduke_mediumZach Duke
Age on Opening Day: 27
Salary: $3,500,000 ($4,250,000 w/ buyout)
2011 stats: 21 G (5 GS), 76.2 IP, 4.93 ERA, 32:19 K:BB, 6 HR, 80 ERA+
2010 stats: 29 G (29 GS), 159.0 IP, 5.72 ERA, 96:51 K:BB, 25 HR, 71 ERA+

(Extended title: 2011 Diamondbacks Report Card: Zach Duke, or How I Learned To Start Worrying and Distrust the BABIP)

Zach Duke arrived in the desert on November 24 after spending his entire career in Pittsburgh, acquired for a PTBNL - which would be Cesar Valdez - prior to his final year of arbitration. Duke was slated to earn upwards of $6MM in his final arbitration year, which was too much not just for the financially-frugal Pirates, but also for the small-market D-backs. After acquiring Duke, the D-backs went to work on buying out Duke's final arbitration year with a lower-salaried contract, eventually settling on a one-year deal with a vesting mutual 2012 option the day before the D-backs had to make a decision on whether or not to offer arbitration.

Duke's new deal set him up to earn $3.5MM in his first year with the club, with the 2012 option worth $5.5MM with a $750k buyout. The option would have vested had Duke reached a minimum innings-pitched threshold. On one hand, giving someone a minimum of $4.25MM immediately after they posted a 5.72 ERA in 159 innings of work is puzzling. However, amid a transition from Josh Byrnes & Jerry Dipoto as GM to Kevin Towers that was seen as, in a way, a transition away from SABR-based management to more "traditional" scouting-based management, the Duke acquisition and signing was largely a bet on the SABR school and the so-called "DIPS Theory" (Defense-Independent Pitching Statistics) that drives the FIP statistic made publicly-available by FanGraphs.

What do I mean by this? Well, throughout his career, Duke had only had one full season prior to 2011 in which his ERA was below his FIP, the FanGraphs stat that - along with DIPS Theory - essentially says that performance boils down to three things: striking out hitters, limiting walks, and inducing ground balls. Duke has never struck out many hitters (career 4.64 K/9 post-2011), but also has never walked many hitters (career 2.44 BB/9), so the theory, if correct, states that much of Duke's ability to succeed ought to be based on his ability to create outs through inducing ground balls, something he's always done at an above-average rate, with a career 49.% GB-Rate. However, with his career ERA so significantly above his career FIP - particularly if you exclude his first 14 big-league starts in 2005 - the theory suggested that something about Duke or the teams he was on made him an outlier.

A year ago, a team looking at Duke's career ground ball rates could see the large hit totals Duke had allowed over his career and the shoddy quality of defender typically found in the Pittsburgh infield, and make a sound bet that Duke's hit-happy ways as an outlier were a product of a porous infield defense that wasn't corralling the ground balls Duke was inducing. If that were the case, Duke could have been seen as a candidate to rebound towards his 4.06 ERA from 2009 - or at least his ~4.3 xFIP from 2009 and 2010 - if put in front of a quality infield defense, rather than the >4.8 ERA totals Duke had posted in three of the four seasons prior to 2011 (including two seasons of >5.5 ERA). With a solid shortstop in Stephen Drew and average to above-average defenders in Kelly Johnson, Melvin Mora, and Ryan Roberts at second and third base, Arizona had that quality infield defense. If the theory worked, Duke would be set up to thrive in Arizona.

However, one oft-overlooked part of the theory is that all ground balls induced are considered to be equal, whether a soft dribbler to the shortstop or a Justin Upton rocket grounder through the left side of the infield. While the substandard infield alignments of Pittsburgh may have contributed to some of Duke's enormous hit rates, Duke has worked with an average 88.0 mph fastball for his career, so there was an argument to be made that Duke was simply extremely hittable. A broken hand in Spring Training ended any possibility of Duke triggering his option through the innings threshold, but his own ineffectiveness likely would have eliminated that possibility anyways. Whether by small sample fluke or because this theory proved to be true, Arizona's infield defense did little to help Duke in 2011, as Duke posted a 5.47 ERA in 51 innings of work over his nine starts.

After the team had seen enough of Duke in the rotation, he was moved to a mop-up long relief job for the rest of the year. He was at least effective in that role, posting a 3.86 ERA in 25.2 innings out of the bullpen. However, Duke wound up being left off of the team's playoff roster for the NLDS against Milwaukee in favor of right-hander Jarrod Parker, and that simply isn't the pitcher we were hoping to get for our $4.25MM. Arizona's end of Duke's option for 2012 was declined after the season, so the D-backs had to pay him the $750,000 buyout for the option If Duke is willing to transition to the bullpen full-time, I could see him maintaining a prolonged MLB career, but I have a hard time seeing how Duke lands another starting gig with a big-league club unless it's on a minor-league deal.

Grade: D+

Expectations for Duke weren't particularly high given his 2010 season, but I at least hoped he would give us 180 innings or so with a sub-5 ERA, a rebound from his shoddy 2010 campaign. Duke's inability to do that was largely masked by the emergence of Josh Collmenter, Micah Owings, and Wade Miley as useful starters down the stretch for the D-backs, but Duke's struggles also led to Barry Enright getting a start against Milwaukee at mid-season and the need to go out and acquire Jason Marquis to fill the back-end of the rotation late in the year. If not for Collmenter's and Owings' sterling work for the D-backs in 2011, the kind of below-replacement-level atrocities Arizona would have had to put up with in the back end of the rotation might have more closely resembled those from 2010, something we're all very glad to have put long in the past.


But let's see what the rest of the 'Pit thinks!

Kishi: D-

I don't like resorting to purely advanced stats too much... But according to B-R, Duke put up a better WAR as a batter than a pitcher. This basically syncs up with my memory of his season: "...didn't he hit a home run off someone?" Duke didn't give us anything inspiring on the mound, and for $3.5 million, I expect better. He was a little bit better out of the bullpen than as a starter, but it still wasn't anything too exciting. No more than six weeks out from the season, and I really can't remember much about his impact on the team, so that can't speak too highly of him.

Marc: D+

I still remember the days when I played 2K6 and Joe Morgan would introduce Zach Duke as the premier ace and savior of the Pirates. Nowadays he's just some guy with a pretty cool Fu Manchu. I had high hopes for Duke as a D-back, though, and I truly believed that he could earn himself a back-of-the-rotation job on a consistent basis. Instead he had a lousy 3.76 K/9 and one of his worst K/BB rates of his career at 1.68. He was replaced by Barry Enright in the rotation and then permanently replaced by Micah Owings as the long relief guy. To top it off, Duke wasn't even invited to the playoffs. On the bright side of things, he had more home runs than Sean Burroughs (2) and he posted one of his best FIPs in years, albeit in limited innings, at 3.99. It was a worthy experiment and Duke did a good job at keeping home runs at a minimum, but overall he's just a pretty lousy pitcher.

Jim: C-

I'm less harsh, largely because my expectations for Duke were pretty low coming in. Over 2007-10, he went 27-53 with a 4.90 ERA, and was moving to one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the majors. Really, what did you think was going to happen? Duke had a 5.72 ERA last year, and was almost eight-tenths of a run better than that for Arizona. Admittedly, this was largely salvaged by mop-up work in the pen; in his nine starts, his ERA was 5.47. That said, for $3.5m, you should expect more, culminating in one meaningless inning over our last 15 games. But he did have more home-runs than Sean Burroughs and Melvin Mora combined...