Pittsburgh Pirates: Duane Underwood Jr. on Verge of Breaking Out

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 31: Duane Underwood Jr. #56 pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers Pittsburgh Pirates at Dodger Stadium on May 31, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 31: Duane Underwood Jr. #56 pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers Pittsburgh Pirates at Dodger Stadium on May 31, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images) /

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.

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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.