The Pittsburgh Pirates have tried and failed for two years to make Duane Underwood Jr. a high-leverage reliever and it's time to end the experiment
The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Duane Underwood Jr. during the 2020-2021 off-season. He was expected to serve a long-relief role, and did fine in that role, pitching to the tune of a 4.33 ERA, 4.27 FIP, and 1.43 WHIP. Outside of one blow-up outing in which he gave up seven earned runs in just one inning, he did his job. In his 43 total appearances, 28 lasted more than one inning and soaked up innings without being a total liability.
Then in 2022, something changed in the way the Pirates wanted to use Underwood Jr. They wanted him to become more of a traditional reliever, but not just a low-to-mid-leverage middle innings reliever. Rather one who could come in during higher leverage situations and shut things down.
Sure, Underwood was a former top prospect with decent stuff, but he struggled in this new role. When Underwood came into the game in a high-leverage situation, batters hit .296/.393/.394. While he only allowed five extra base hits, but in total, he allowed 21 hits and walked ten more batters in 84 innings. When the Pirates tried to make him a 7th/8th inning man, he failed miserably. In the 36 innings he pitched in the 7th/8th, he allowed 22 earned runs, 15 walks, and 39 total hits (47 total bases).
On average, his WHIP was 1.50. Once again, the Pirates have tried to use Underwood in a similar role. Underwood has combined for 11.1 innings in the 7th/8th. He’s allowed eight more earned runs on 14 hits, and three walks. Of those 14 hits, five have gone for extra base hits. Again, that is a WHIP of 1.50. Keep in mind that this is before his blow-up on Friday evening.
At this point, trying to make Underwood Jr. a high-leverage reliever is like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. I understood trying to see if he could take on a larger, more important role in 2022, but the experiment was tried, and it failed. Trying it again when we now have better options to turn to is not a bright move in the slightest.