Pittsburgh Pirates: Duane Underwood Jr. on Verge of Breaking Out
By Noah Wright
Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Duane Underwood Jr. is showing massive improvements in 2022, putting him on the verge of a breakout.
The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Duane Underwood Jr. from the Chicago Cubs in the 2020-2021 offseason. Last season he served as a league-average long-relief arm. The former Cubs prospect appeared in 43 games with 72.2 innings under his belt with a 98 ERA+/104 ERA-.
Although there was one outing where he gave up seven earned runs in just a single inning, which boosted his ERA by nearly a whole run, from 3.51 to 4.33, the season as a whole for Underwood was just solid. Nothing much to write home about.
However, Underwood Jr. has come out with the Pittsburgh Pirates this season looking like a different pitcher. He’s added velocity, getting a lot more swings and misses, and he’s getting better at silencing hitters. Although the surface numbers might not say it, Underwood Jr. might just be on the verge of a breakout.
Underwood made his sinker his most used pitch this year, over his fastball. Not only is he using that offering more often, but he’s added just over 2 MPH of velocity. Last year, his sinker averaged out at 93.3 MPH but is now sitting at 95.7 MPH. He’s also swapped out his slider for a cutter, which has held opposing hitters to just a .195 wOBA.
However, the one pitch I want to highlight is his change-up. He’s significantly decreased its spin rate from 1609 RPM to 1463 RPM and increased its velocity from 87.8 MPH to 90 MPH. This has made it a much harder pitch to hit. Opponents have a whiff rate of 51.4% against the offering. The Brewers’ Devin Williams’ famous air-bender changeup has a whiff rate of just 48.4%. All four of his pitches have gained at least 1 MPH of velocity compared to last season.
Home runs were a slight issue for Underwood Jr last season, having a 1.11 HR/9 rate. However, this year, he’s yet to allow a long ball. That’s because his flyball rate has gone from 30.9% to 20.8%, and his ground ball rate has skyrocketed from 43.5% to 50.9%. He’s getting a ton of groundballs and a ton of weakly hit ground balls. Opponents have managed just an 86.3 MPH exit velo, a 3 MPH improvement from last season. Plus, his hard-hit rate has dropped from 42.9% to 37%.
Underwood’s 25% strikeout rate doesn’t tell the whole story. He’s getting batters to chase 29.8% of the time, which is significantly better than the 24% rate he had last year. His whiff rate of 28.4% is nearly a 5% improvement from last year. When batters chase after his stuff, they’re making contact 49% of the time, which is another improvement from 2021.
The only department that Underwood hasn’t improved in is walks. He’s allowed 10.4% of batters to reach via the free pass, compared to 8.4% last season (slightly above the average league rate of 8.7%). However, his walks could partially be chalked up to a completely different pitch arsenal. He made his fourth most used pitch last year his most used, he made his cutter (which he used less than 1% of the time) a pitch that has been used nearly 20% of the time, and his fastball usage has nearly been cut in half. Plus, each pitch has gained velo and has lost/gained a notable amount of spin.
The underlying numbers also love Underwood Jr. He has a 2.34 FIP, 3.19 xFIP, and 3.44 SIERA. Baseball Savant’s expected measurements, which uses his batted ball data, also put Underwood in a good light. Opponents have a .245 expected batting average, .325 expected slugging percentage, and .292 expected wOBA. His expected ERA comes out to 3.10.
Underwood Jr. is 27-years-old, but you have to remember he was also considered a notable prospect in the Cubs’ system at one point. Going into 2016, he was ranked as MLB Pipeline’s 77th best prospect. At the time, they cited that he could have a fair amount of success as a late-inning arm, which still holds true today, and it looks like it has a good possibility of happening.
Underwood Jr. is doing everything right. He’s made massive strides this year and is starting to look like the pitcher many saw in him back in the late-2010s. The 4.19 ERA and 1.35 WHIP don’t tell the full story. He’s been relatively successful this year but is showing the improvement you want to see from a guy who could become a late-inning arm for the Pirates long term.