The underrated Zach Duke

Zach Duke - Newscom

With Zach Duke posting a 5.32 ERA and preparing for his third and final year of arbitration, some fans have called for the Pirates to cut ties with the veteran starter after the season. Their position is that he should be traded to the highest bidder or non-tendered if there are no adequate offers, freeing those dollars for a potential free agent pitcher. This would be an unwise decision.

It is simple to understand why Duke frustrates fans. His pure stuff is underwhelming, leading to very few strikeouts. He appears to be a very hittable, soft-tossing lefty, because that’s exactly what he is. He is not going to overpower hitters and he will allow plenty of hits, but that does not mean that he is an ineffective pitcher. Here is how Duke compares to the average National League starter based on ERA and FIP during the 2006-2010 period.


Zach Duke (’06-’10) 4.69 4.45
Avg NL Starter (’06-’10) 4.44 4.41


Over the past 4.5 years, Duke’s peripheral numbers are almost exactly league average, due to strong walk and ground ball rates. His ERA is slightly higher, probably the result of playing mostly in front of poor defensive teams during his career. At the very worst, he has been a slightly below average starter. Having an average to slightly below average starting pitcher who can give you 180 to 200 innings per season certainly has value, particularly when we are discussing a team that severely lacks major league pitching talent. It is important to note that, while Duke has a bloated ERA this season, he currently leads the Pirates’ starting rotation with a solid 4.25 xFIP, a stat that is a very strong indicator of future performance.

Duke is being paid $4.3 million in 2010. It will likely cost somewhere between $5 million and $6 million to bring him back for 2011. That is a very reasonable price for someone who is arguably the top starter on the team. Of course, it would be nice if some higher upside arms (such as Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Brad Lincoln, etc.) began forcing Duke out of the picture. If/when that time arrives, and maybe that will be as early as the upcoming offseason, moving Duke will likely be the smart decision. Even without an adequate replacement, if another team were to offer good value for Duke, the Pirates should not hesitate to deal him. That being said, simply non-tendering him because he can be frustrating to watch would be far from shrewd.





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I haven’t heard anyone asking for Duke to be non-tendered. I have heard a few people questioning whether Huntington might non-tender him. I’m guessing it’s because they don’t see the difference between Duke and Matt Capps of last year.

The huge difference comes in comparing a relief pitcher with a starter, apart from the fact that Duke has not been nearly as bad as Capps was last year. Relievers are over-valued in the arbitration process, meaning that their 3rd year arbitration award comes close to their free agency value, and might even exceed it.

In Duke’s case, as you’ve pointed out, $5M – $6M is still around 80% of Duke’s free agency value, which is what 3rd year arbitration normally amounts to.

So, no reason to non-tender him if the Pirates are still getting a discount.

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