Duane Underwood Jr. has struggled for the Pittsburgh Pirates and with multiple Rule 5 eligible prospects, he could be in his last season with the team
Duane Underwood Jr. came into 2022 with relatively low expectations. The Pittsburgh Pirates reliever primarily served as a multi-inning arm in 2021, having pitched 72.2 innings in only 43 outings. However, with relatively low improvement from 2021 and many upcoming pitching prospects, Underwood Jr. could be looking at his last games as a member of the team.
Underwood Jr. has a 4.75 ERA, 3.21 FIP, and 1.53 WHIP on the season. Underwood Jr. has a strikeout rate of just 20.2% with a 10.3% walk rate. However, he’s been great at limiting home runs. He has a 0.17 HR/9 through 53 innings. His 88 MPH opponent exit velocity and 38.4% hard-hit rate are both pretty average. Nothing sticks out as terrible, but there’s also not much that sticks out as a reason to keep him around.
It’s not as if the underlying numbers paint him in a much prettier light. He has a 4.23 xFIP, 4.27 xERA, and 4.04 SIERA. While an ERA in the 4.00-4.30 range would be better than his 4.75 ERA, it’s not a massive improvement. It would be closer to what he did in 2021.
In Underwood’s defense, he did see some improvements in some areas. He’s throwing much harder, averaging out around 95-96 MPH with his fastball and sinker. Last season he was sitting 93-95 MPH with his fastball. He’s drastically changed up his pitch usage as well, making his fastball his least used pitch while using his cutter and sinker a lot more often.
At the beginning of the season, Underwood had looked like he might figure it out. He was throwing harder with a new pitch arsenal and had a 2.63 ERA and 2.01 FIP through his first 13.2 innings of the year. Of course, that is a small sample size, but he was getting a noticeable amount of swings and misses with a 26.3% strikeout rate. Underwood was trending upward at the start of 2022, and even I thought he might be a potential key part of the bullpen long term, but things have quickly fallen apart.
The only saving grace I see for Underwood Jr. is if he became a two-pitch reliever. Both his cutter and sinker have produced decent results with a -3 and -1 run value, respectively. However, his changeup, curveball, and fastball have average to below-average results. His arsenal defines jack of all trades master of none. He has five offerings he uses 11% of the time or more, but none of his pitches are elite.
Underwood Jr. must hope he can survive the Rule 5 roster purge. Personally, I think if he just focuses on refining one or two pitches, he could be a quality reliever rather than trying to throw all five pitches, both with regularity and productivity. However, the question then becomes whether or not the Pirates have the patience to see if Underwood can refine that one or two pitches before they decide to move on, which isn’t a guarantee.
It’s not as if Underwood is a rookie who is figuring things out. Next year will be his age-29 season, and the Pirates have multiple Rule 5 eligible pitchers who they’ll look to protect. Are they willing to DFA Underwood to make room for Tahnaj Thomas, J.C. Flowers, or Cody Bolton? That trio would likely take priority over Underwood, but does Underwood take enough priority to survive a potential DFA?
There are plenty of depth pitchers currently on the 40-man roster. Jeremy Beasley, Eric Stout, Junior Fernandez, Yohan Ramirez, and possibly even Nick Mears are more likely to get DFA’d than Underwood Jr. To put it simply, he’s the least likely to be designated for assignment among their DFA candidates who are pitchers.
It depends on whether the Pittsburgh Pirates feel Underwood Jr. can master one or two pitches and if they can protect other Rule 5 eligible arms without passing him through waivers. If Underwood returns next year in a low-leverage role like he served in 2021, then he might provide some value as a multi-inning arm. However, it’s far from guaranteed that he’ll return in a Pirate uniform.