Pittsburgh Pirates: Duane Underwood Jr.’s Strong Three-Pitch Mix
By Marty Leap
Right-handed reliever Duane Underwood Jr. is off to a strong start with the Pittsburgh Pirates this season and his success has been driven by a strong three-pitch selection
During the offseason the MLB roster of the Pittsburgh Pirates underwent plenty of changes. One addition to the roster was right-handed relief pitcher Duane Underwood Jr. In early March the Pittsburgh Pirates added Underwood Jr. via trade with the Chicago Cubs.
The trade that sent Underwood Jr. to the Pittsburgh Pirates took place less than a week after he was designated for assignment by Chicago. While Underwood Jr. did struggle at times with the Cubs it was still a surprise to see the Cubs DFA him due to his high ceiling and plus pitches.
Thus far, Underwood Jr. has made the Cubs look silly for letting him get away. The 26-year-old righty has posted a 2.89 ERA and 1.91 FIP in 9.1 innings pitched with the Pirates. Underwood Jr. has not allowed a home run, walked 10.3% of batters faced and struck out 33.3% in these 9.1 innings pitched.
Underwood Jr. has flashed the ability to pitch in multiple roles out of the Pirate bullpen. He has been able to give the team multiple innings, as well as being successful in a single inning outing. Combine his success with his plus stuff and being under team control through the 2025 season and Underwood Jr. could be pitching his way into becoming a building block piece of the new Pirate core.
Driving Underwood Jr.’s success this season has been a three-pitch mix that features three plus pitches. These three pitches are his four-seam fastball, changeup and curveball. This three-pitch mix has turned Underwood Jr. into a weapon out of the bullpen for Derek Shelton.
Underwood Jr. has thrown his changeup 31.8% of the time this season, his four-seamer 30.5% and his curveball 24.0%. While he also mixes in a sinker (10.4% usage rate), the pitch is one that has been hit hard this season and Underwood Jr. could benefit from throwing less.
This season Underwood Jr. has thrown 49 changeups. Opposing batters are 1-for-12 off of his changeup, with the lone hit being a double, and 7 strikeouts. The pitch has generated a 52.2% whiff rate.
Opposing batters are 1-for-7 off of his four-seam fastball. Underwood Jr. has thrown 47 four-seam fastballs, generating a 28.6% whiff rate. The pitch also has a healthy spin rate of 2151 RPM, which has made it difficult to square up.
Underwood Jr.’s curveball also has a strong spin rate of 2427 RPM. The pitch has generated a 25.0% whiff rate, while limiting opposing batters to just a pair of singles in 10 at-bats. The pitch has been thrown 37 times, generating 3 strikeouts.
While it’s a super small sample size, an even smaller sample size than the early season results of his three main pitches, Underwood Jr.’s slider has also flashed this season. He has thrown just 5 sliders but the pitch has not allowed a hit.
His pitch usage has changed from last season when he threw his four-seam 43.0% of the time, changeup 28.4% and curveball 24.5%. His changeup and curveball were successful pitches for him, limiting opposing batters to 9 hits in 38 at-bats while racking up 16 strikeouts. A drop in four-seam usage appears to be benefitting Underwood Jr. after opposing batters posted a .368 batting average and .711 slugging percentage off of the pitch last season. However, with a lessened usage this season the pitch appears have improved success for Underwood Jr.
With a three plus potential pitches at his disposal, Underwood Jr. is emerging as a weapon out of the bullpen for the Pittsburgh Pirates. By leaning on his three main pitches a tick more, and potentially some more slider usage as well, to lessen the usage of his sinker, Underwood Jr. may go on to find even more success with the Pirates as the 2021 season progresses.