The Pirates Need Zach Duke


The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen has seemed like a weak area of the 2016 team for most of the year. The bullpen currently has an ERA of 3.58, ranking tenth in all of Major League Baseball. However, the bullpen also has a 4.17 FIP, ranking 21st in the Majors. They could use another arm, particularly a left-handed reliever.

The Pittsburgh Pirates sit two and a half games behind the New York Mets and Miami Marlins for the second spot in the National League Wild Card with 70 games to play. The second half of their season should bode well for the club, as 42 of 70 games are against sub-.500 teams, but the team still as their holes.

The Pirates current bullpen situation features two left-handed relievers, Tony Watson and Jon Niese. The current relief group also has eight pitchers, which is one more than the seven the Pirates usually carry. With the Pirates activating Jameson Taillon from the disabled list for the start on Tuesday, odds are one of the pitchers will go.

Starting pitcher Chad Kuhl (4.19 ERA), relief pitcher Jared Hughes (3.13 ERA), and relief pitcher AJ Schugel (3.45 ERA) all have options left, and optioning one of the three would be the easiest way to clear a roster spot. Left hander Jon Niese could also be a DFA candidate after the comments General Manager Neal Huntington made over the weekend, assuming a trade cannot be made. However, roster moves somehow always seem to work out in some fashion.

The Pirates bullpen has been strong as of late, but it still needs a left-handed reliever. Juan Nicasio has a 1.88 ERA since moving to the bullpen full-time on June 26, but left-handed batters are still hitting .309/.376/.617 in 166 plate appearances against Nicasio. Trusting him against lefties is not a strong strategy. 

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AJ Schugel has been solid, posting a 3.45 ERA in 47 innings, and he has been incredible against left-handed hitters, primarily because of his change-up. Schugel’s .165/.237/.259 against left-handed hitters is great, but those left-handed hitter have a .171 batting average on balls in play (BAbip), which should cause him to regress, and left-handed batters to improve against him.

Jared Hughes, who despite getting the least amount of ground balls in his career, has posted a 3.13 ERA, and he has posted a 0.00 ERA in his last seven games and 10.2 innings. In 66 plate appearances, left-handed hitters are hitting .278/.369/.575 against Hughes, coming off of a year in which left-handed hitters hit .286/.343/.341 in 105 plate appearances last season.

Arquimedes Caminero has a 3.28 ERA, a mark that was 5.19 before being placed on the disabled list. His 5.01 FIP is rather concerning, and left-handed hitters are hitting .281/.370/.500 in 73 plate appearances. Last season left-handed hitters hit .217/.323/.358 in 125 plate appearances, but a .256 BABIP was bound to cause Caminero to do worse against left-handed batters.

Both of these relievers have shown to be solid and get outs this year, but down the stretch and into the potential postseason, these two should not be relied on to get players such as Anthony Rizzo, Matt Carpenter, Brandon Belt, Christian Yelich, and Adrian Gonzalez out.

Neftali Feliz has a 3.28 ERA, and he has always been dynamite against left-handed batters in his career as they hit .181/.266/.301 against Feliz entering the year, and this year left-handed hitters are hitting .190/.230/.397. He could, in a nontraditional format, be the second left-handed arm out of the pen, but he seems set in his role in the seventh or eighth inning. Mark Melancon has been Mark Melancon this season, as he has posted a 1.43 ERA in 41 games. He is doing what he has always done, and is once again holding lefties to a .241/.308/.310 slash line in 65 plate appearances.

With Nicasio’s struggles against left-handed hitters, Schugel likely to regress, Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero also struggling against left-handed batters, the Pirates need another left-handed arm to get left-handed batters out. Tony Watson is set in his role as setting up Mark Melancon, primarily in the eighth inning. That is where a former friend comes in.

Zach Duke, a 20th round pick in 2001, made his debut on July 2, 2005 against the Milwaukee Brewers. Duke went seven innings, allowing three runs on five hits, one walk, and striking out nine, but the Pirates lost 5-3. In his 84.2 innings in 2005, Duke posted a 1.81 ERA and 3.00 FIP, and he looked like he would be the leader of the staff for years to come. However, from 2006-2010, Duke pitched to a 4.80 ERA and 4.46 FIP in 879.2 innings and 145 starts (146 games). His run as a Pirate ended when Neal Huntington struck a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks on November 24, 2010.

Jun 12, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Zach Duke (33) delivers a pitch against the Kansas City Royals during the eight inning at U.S. Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 12, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Zach Duke (33) delivers a pitch against the Kansas City Royals during the eight inning at U.S. Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports /

Duke bounced around and pitched in the Minor Leagues for the majority of the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Duke found himself as a solid left-handed reliever option in 2014 with the Milwaukee Brewers, and he was able to sign a three-year deal worth 15 million dollars with the Chicago White Sox entering the 2015 season.

Since becoming that reliever in 2014, Duke has posted a 2.93 ERA and 3.20 FIP in 191 games and 150.2 innings. From 2005-2013, Duke had am 11.9 percent strikeout rate, but since the beginning of 2014, Duke has a strikeout rate of 28.2 percent. He has transformed himself into a solid option to get left-handed batters out.

Since 2014, Zach Duke ranks third in relief appearances against left-handed hitters with 166, behind only Marc Rzepczynski and Javier Lopez. In the 274 plate appearances against left-handed batters since 2014, Zach Duke has held them to a .217/.290/.324 with a .308 BABIP.

Zach Duke has relied on a sinker (41.81 percent), slider (21.21 percent), and a curveball (25.26 percent) against left-handed batters since 2014. Left handed opponents are hitting .208 with a .267 slugging on his sinker, .174 with a .304 slugging against his hook, and .268 with a .439 slugging against his slider. This trio of pitchers has allowed Duke to get a 58.1 percent ground ball rate, and against left-handed hitters a ground ball rate of 53.4 percent in 2014, 56.4 percent in 2015, and 60.9 percent in 2016.

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Zach Duke has transformed himself into a solid left-handed reliever who can come in and get left-handed batters out, and can get ground balls left. With a bullpen turning the corner, getting a pitcher who can get some of the games best left-handed bats out without needing Tony Watson, Duke should be that pitcher. Zach has this season and all of next season under team control for a team friendly rate. With others likely to get looked at, Zach Duke could be an under the radar type move that Neal Huntington excels at, and Duke could be of useful service in a second stint in Pittsburgh.

*Numbers from baseball-reference, fangraphs, and Brooks Baseball