Pittsburgh Pirates: Revisiting the Historic Start to Zach Duke’s Career

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In 2005, a rookie pitcher appeared to be emerging as a future ace for the Pittsburgh Pirates after a historically good first three months. Unfortunately, things would never pan out for this pitcher as a starter in Pittsburgh or elsewhere

By no measures were the 2005 Pittsburgh Pirates a good baseball team. They owned a 67-95 record on their way to finishing last in the National League Central. However, late in the season a young starting pitcher appeared to be emerging as a potential future ace. This pitcher was lefty Zach Duke.

The young Texan made his MLB debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 2, 2005, and it did not take Duke long to impress. In his first MLB start, he struck out nine Milwaukee Brewer hitters. This was the most strikeouts by a Pirate pitcher in their MLB debut since Tim Wakefield in 1992.

Duke’s success would not stop at any point in the 2005 season following his debut. He made 14 starts for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2005, posting a 1.81 ERA and a 3.00 FIP in 84.2 innings of work. This led to the young lefty posting a 2.2 fWAR, which put him on pace to be a 5+ fWAR pitcher in a full season’s worth of starts.

In the month of July, Duke would be named the National League Rookie of the Month. He had a 22 inning scoreless stretch that month and posted a MLB best 0.87 ERA. He also joined Boo Ferriss, Steve Rogers (not the superhero one) and Fernando Valenzuela as the only pitchers of the Live-ball era to post an ERA under 1.00 through their first six career starts.

The success Duke found in 2005 did not come out of nowhere, either. During the 2004 season he posted a 1.46 ERA between High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Altoona. This 1.46 ERA was the best among all minor league pitchers in 2004, leading to him being named the Pittsburgh Pirates Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2004.

Unfortunately for Duke and the Pirates, he was never able to recapture his magic from 2004 and 2005. In 2006, Duke took a step backward as you would expect any pitcher coming off a season like Duke just had to do. However, he regressed more than anyone could have expected.

Duke still turned in a strong 2006 campaign. He posted a 4.47 ERA, 4.13 FIP and a career high 3.2 fWAR in 215.1 innings across 34 starts, both of which were also career highs. After 2006 though, Duke would really begin a steady decline.

After posting a 4+ ERA each of the following four seasons, including a pair of 5+ ERA seasons, Duke was traded by the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Arizona Diamondbacks in November 2010. After a short stint in the Arizona starting rotation, Duke transitioned to the bullpen. This would prove to be a wise move by Duke.

Next. How Ernesto Frieri Cost the Pirates the NL Central in 2014. dark

While Duke is currently a free agent, he went on to find a lot of success as a left-handed reliever. 2019 was the 14th MLB season of Duke’s career. While it may also prove to be his last after the Cincinnati Reds released him last July and no one picked him up, he will have proven to have had a long and financially successful baseball career. Duke’s career will also always features the historically good start to his career back in 2005.

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