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Finding "Baseball" Deals: Zach Duke

As the Rockies look to once again enter the All Star break treading water above the .500 level, it is more important now to both the players and the fans a sign that the organization is committed to giving them the best opportunity to competing for a playoff spot.  However, the front office must also be cognizant of the future of the system and not attempt the jeopardize the future by making a frivolous attempt to reach a difficult goal.  This team doesn't need to make the big splashes to prove anything, as they will only be deemed failures if the team comes up short In the playoff run anyways, yet O'Dowd can make a handful of "baseball" moves that not only improve the current product, but also produce in the current window of years this club is operating in.  In essence, the club can build for next year while also showing signs of attempting to win in the now.

The follow is the first in a series of stories that will look at various candidates that meet the "baseball move" criteria.  Some will be buy lows, others calculated gambles, and not all will be ultimately recommended actions, but the point is to get the discussion rolling on how the team can better prepare itself to compete over a number of years.  Lastly, the proposed players and deals could potentially be made with little damage to the farm system and should not leave the club with lasting value should bigger chips be dealt.  So without further ado, our first subject...

While the media frenzy circles around Mark Buehrle as the "pitcher to get" this trade season thanks to a generous BABIP and a rebound in some peripherals, there are a few pitchers with similar traits to Buehrle that could have potentially as big an impact.  Zach Duke could be considered the poor man's Buehrle (it just so happens that Mark is ranked fifth on Duke's PECOTA comparables list).  Duke, however, isn't without his flaws, which we'll get into.

What makes Duke the most appealing is his propensity to get ground balls.  Duke's current GB% of 51.7 is right in line with his brief career numbers, and is back up by his stuff.  I watched Duke's last start both on Advanced Gameday and MLB.TV, and his fastball is truly mislabeled.  Though the velocity was still between 86-90, he was getting seven inches of "break" on the pitch, three more than what Cook was roughly averaging in his last start.  Beyond just the sink on the pitch, Duke was consistently keeping the ball low in the zone, and displayed excellent feel for the pitch.  

Unfortunately for Duke, those high GB% haven't saved him from an ungodly high .348 BABIP, which is over 20 points higher than his NL leading figure last year.  For this, he can thank his defense.  If you look at the zone ratings linked by Russ a few days ago, you'll find the following numbers for the starting Pittsburgh infield:

LaRoche: -3
Sanchez: -7
Wilson: 2
Bautista: -7

The Pirates were rated last in BP's defensive efficiency rating, and could be well on their way to a repeat.  Now contrast these zone ratings with the Rockies' starters:

Helton: 2
Matsui: 4
Tulowitzki: 11
Atkins: -5

That's a combined swing of 27 points.  It's simply criminal to have a GB pitcher in Pittsburgh.  However, in Colorado, with one of the league's top defensive shortstops in zone rating (and high grass), a GB pitcher can find much more success.

Duke also does a good job of keeping the ball in the yard.  His HR/FB ratio is around league average, but when you allow few FB's to begin with, you get a solid 1.01 HR/9, which will only falls as the massive BABIP falls with better luck/defense.  

There are some concerns with Duke (otherwise he wouldn't have the 5.44 ERA).  For one, the K rate has decline each year since being in the league.  This doesn't make much sense to me, as Duke showed great command and control of all four of his pitches the other night against Anaheim.  In his last ten starts, Duke has actually pitched to a 3.01 K/9 rating, which is still very low, but with a BB/9 rating of 2.22, Duke keeps enough runners off base to avoid damage.  His fastball, with its movement, certainly would grade as a plus, the curve ball still has sweeping action and at times was a plus, and the change up had good fade.  All three pitches were played up by his command, and Duke also flashed a slider.  Looking at his data on ESPN's Inside Pitch, Duke does a great job of mixing in his three main pitches, but when you look at his pitching zones, you'll see that he mixes in more spots against lefties (five of nine spots in the zone with more than 5% of pitches thrown), and consequentially, has a higher K rate by around two-three strikeouts.  Against righties, only three of nine spots in the zone have more than 5% of the pitches thrown.  Of pitches outside the zone, he overwhelmingly favors the corner low and away but almost never misses inside on a righty, which may allow them to dig in and take that pitch away to the opposite field (which is in turn hit in Sanchez' direction, one of their worst fielders...).  It looks like Duke has so much control and confidence with his sinker that he becomes not only predictable, but comfortable in having righties reach for the sinker away.

So what has Buehrle done differently?  He pitches at roughly the same ratios of pitch types per lefties and righties, focusing on the fastball and change against righties like Duke.  Yet, Buehrle pitches middle in about six percent more often than Duke, and also doesn't mind missing up and in or up and away.  Buehrle's pitching zones data looks far less predictable than Duke's (granted Mark doesn't have the same sinker as Zach).  I think if Duke mixed in a few more zones, and be less afraid of making a mistake with a better defense, he could add an extra K or two.  He doesn't need many to be a successful pitcher with his skill set.  Buehrle and Glavine have pitched to good effectiveness lately with K rates under or around 5/9, and with Duke's groundball tendencies, he can be successful with ratios of 4 K/9, and 2 BB/9.  The Rockies have recently coaxed more K's out of the likes of Francis and Fogg, so it shouldn't be hard to do it with a pitcher with better stuff and arguably much better feel of his pitches.

Duke has never had a season's VORP below 28, and his weighted mean projected a VORP of 24.3, which for a pitcher that would slot in as the number four or five, would be championship caliber production.  His season is part harsh luck and part his own doing in his decreased K rate.  Yet the stuff is still there to boost the K's, and with better defense Duke's BABIP will surely head south.  Also, who knows what effect Apodaca can have on Duke?  He already has helped Lopez and a few reliever increase their GB% by more than 5%.  If there is a minor adjustment he could make with Duke, his GB% could reach Cook territory, which makes an extra strikeout per nine even less necessary.  

It's hard to believe that this is only Duke's third season, which still puts him several years outside of free agency.  His less than impressive surface numbers should still decrease his value to the point that makes him affordable and potential trade bait.  Nobody is going to give a top performing prospect for a 5.44 ERA pitcher that isn't striking batters out, but the Rockies could possibly consider dealing an underperforming prospect for a worthy gamble.  At the most, I'd offer Jimenez, who has struggled thanks to altitude and his own command difficulties.  I actually think the system is equipped to absorb his loss, and with his BB rate, it's possible that he never holds down a rotation spot in the bigs.  I think Duke's VORP's and projected VORP of this year makes him a worthy gamble, as he could put up a 30 VORP over a full season in 2008, giving the Rockies number three starter production in likely the number four or five spot.  It's possible that the Rockies could get him for a Baker/Ramirez/prospect package as well.  I may even consider an even swap with Hirsh, provided that the Rockies acquire a second starting pitcher elsewhere.  This trade would make some sense in that while both have a comparable upside, Duke's GB% makes him a much better fit that outweighs Hirsh extra two years pre-arbitration.  

So while the Rockies may not be able to afford Mark Buehrle, they could in a way pursue the stock model at a cheaper price and with less competition for his services.  It also doesn't hurt that Duke is only 23 and still years away from the opportunity to walk.  Despite Cook's recent struggles, GB pitchers is the way to go, and Duke may be the best buy low conceivably available.