Clone Wars: Pitchers due to fall

Clone Wars is my new weekly article here at THT and will be used to address players who look very similar on the surface and discuss what makes them the same or not. If they are different we will discuss which one is worth owning if any and why. This week we have two pitchers with ERAs around three and good win totals so far. One has shown success before and the other is a sophomore breakout so far.

Zach Duke

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YTD: 3.18 ERA, 7 W, 47 K

Starting pitcher Zach Duke showed flashes in 2005, winning eight games with an ERA of 1.81 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.51 in 84.7 innings . Sure he had some luck in homerun-per-flyball percentage (5.8%) and left on base percentage (84.2%), but still his xFIP was 3.66. Even if you went into 2006 expecting that type of skill you were disappointed as his ERA has been at or above 4.40 every season since. His K/BB has never been the same as it fell below 2 for every season since.

His problem has been strikeouts since 2005. His strikeouts per nine innings in 2004 was 6.17, but has been close to four while his walks per nine innings has been similar. Looking at his minor league numbers you can see that 6.17 K/9 was not his norm. In 105.3 IP in Triple-A in 2005 before his callup he had a K/9 of 5.49. It’s possible he could have kept the 6.17, but not likely.

There is also reason to be concerned about his pitching as his groundball percentage has dropped three years in a row. It has gone from 51.1 percent in 2006 and is down to 45.3 percent this year. This change will be seen in his home runs allowed total this year if it continues.

Has he changed anything in 2009 to maintain his current numbers though? Nope. His numbers look very similar to the past three years and his luck indicators are calling for a regression. His BABIP and LOB% are combining to strengthen his ERA so far at .268 and 78.5 percent, respectively. His HR/FB is fairly normal for him, but looking at his FIP of 4.29 and his xFIP of 4.57 you can see he is going to have a rough second half.

Nick Blackburn

YTD: 3.09 ERA, 6 W, 39 K

Starting pitcher Nick Blackburn has yet to have previous success in the major leagues, so his success so far is a nice surprise. He has always had his best success by controlling his walks and in 2007 at Triple-A he only allowed 0.89 BB/9, which led to a great season with seven wins and an ERA of 2.11. The concern was a low strikeout rate even though his K/BB was 4.00.

In his first full season his walk rate did come back up to 1.82 and his strikeout rate did not improve. He was able to maintain a K/BB of 2.46 though and although his xFIP was 4.40 there were signs he could be a usable pitcher if his walk rate improved.

So far this season he has struggled with strikeouts and walks and his K/BB now stands at 1.56 in 93.1 innings. He is much like Duke with a low BABIP and high LOB%, but he is also showing a very low HR/FB. Since his HR/FB is so low I would expect his xFIP to be more accurate and it stands at 4.95.

Some notes on his PITCHf/x are the drop in his fastball average speed from 91.3 to 90.6, but his slider is down two mph as well. There is also an increase of two mph in his change-up making the split between the fastball and change-up three mph slower than before. I don’t think this is necessarily any injury, but just making his stuff less effective. I don’t follow the Verducci effect, but it is note worthy he threw 33 more innings in 2008 than 2007 across all levels.

Conclusion

These pitchers faced off on Thursday with Blackburn throwing a complete game for the win, but these two pitchers are soon to be head in the same direction. Expect both to have ERAs in the mid 4s by the end of the season and if you can’t trade them you should at least move them to the bench.

If they happened to hold their ERA numbers with continued luck, their low strikeout rates give them very low value. Obviously Blackburn would be the better bet for wins, but Duke should have the better ERA as his team defense has been much better this year.

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