Zachary Thomas Duke is a 26-year old Texan (he'll be 27 in April), and he's spent the past five years tantalizing or terrifying Bucco fans, depending on the day and season.
Duke was drafted out of Waco's Midway High School in the 20th round of the 2001 draft, signed late after agreeing to a $260K bonus, and began his career the next year with the Pirates' rookie Gulf Coast League team.
He spent 2003 with Class A Hickory, going 8-7 with a 3.11 ERA for the Sally League Crawdads. His breakout year was just around the bend.
In 2004, Duke led all minor league pitchers with a 1.46 earned run average. He posted a 15-6 record in 26 combined starts, amassing 148-1/3 innings of work between Class-A Lynchburg and AA Altoona, while his 15 wins (he finished 15-6) tied for third most victories among all minor league pitchers.
He was named Pittsburgh's Minor League Pitcher of the Year and garnered Carolina League Pitcher of the Year honors.
Duke was rated by Baseball America as the sixth-best prospect in the Eastern League and the best pitching prospect (fourth-best overall) in the Carolina League. He was also cited by BA as having the best breaking pitch in the league.
However, one red flag was blowin' in the breeze. His Lynchburg strikeout rate was 9.8 K's per nine innings; it dropped to 6.3 at Altoona. It was a small sample size - he only threw 51-1/3 innings for the Curve - but would become a trend.
The Bucs were fast tracking Duke, and the internal debate was whether to jump him to the big club or Indianapolis after an impressive training camp showing. Sanity prevailed, and he went to the Indians. Duke went 12-3 for the AAA club, with a 2.92 ERA.
He was named the International League's third best prospect. The Pirates called him up and he made his first major league start on July 2nd against the Brewers, getting a no decision. Duke then rolled off four straight starts without allowing an earned run, and won his first six games.
Duke's piled up 22 consecutive scoreless innings from July 2 to July 21. He was named National League Rookie of the Month in July after compiling a 0.87 ERA, the best among all starting pitchers in the Major Leagues.
The lefty became only the second Pittsburgh rookie to win his first five decisions, joining Whitey Glazner, who set the team standard in 1921. He was also one of only four pitchers during the live-ball era to record an ERA below 1.00 in their first six starts (the others were Fernando Valenzuela, Boo Ferriss and Steve Rogers).
Then the injury bug bit him. He missed several weeks with an ankle sprain, and it probably cost him a shot at the Rookie of the Year award. Duke ended the season 8-2 with a microscopic 1.81 ERA, and it looked like a star was born.
Duke's 2006 season saw him anointed as the team ace, anchoring a young rotation along with Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, Tom Gorzelanny and Ollie Perez (remember those heady days?). His performance, not very surprisingly, was up and down, especially during the first half of the season.
The bullpen didn't give him much help, and his peripheries were beginning to catch up with him. His K rate dropped to 4.9 whiffs per nine innings, and his opponents' ball in play average went from .296 in 2005 to .327 in 2006.
Duke's final line for the 2006 season was 10-15 with a 4.47 ERA and he became the first Pirates starter since Kris Benson in 2000 to throw more than 200 innings with 215-1/3 frames. All in all, not the second coming of Sandy Koufax, but a solid performance for a 23 year-old.
He opened 2007 still as the team's top starter, but that wouldn't last long. Duke was smacked around early and often until he went on the DL with a sore elbow at the end of June, not to return until he got a couple of September starts. Duke finished the year 3-8 with a 5.53 ERA.
He gave up career highs in hits per nine innings at 13.5, 1.2 homers per nine, and a WHIP of 1.733 with a .360 ball-in-play average. Duke's fastball velocity dropped from the low 90's to the mid-80s, and his bread-and-butter curve was flat. His K ratio crashed to a career low of 3.4 per nine innings. There was a lot of finger-pointing after the season.
The Pirates claimed that Duke hadn't taken care of his shoulder during the offseason. Duke countered by saying that his elbow had been acting up. Either way, it was clear that he wasn't anywhere near 100% in 2007.
In 2008, Duke had another unimpressive season, though better than 2007, thank goodness. His stuff came around a bit, with his fastball now in the upper 80s, and his curve showing more bite. In August and September, he looked like he had finally found his stride, putting up an ERA of 3.84.
Still, he was a disappointing 5-14 with a 4.82 ERA in 185 innings. His ball-in-play average dropped down to 2006's level of .327, and his K rate picked up, if you can call it that, to 4.2 per nine innings.
He was in his first arbitration year, and signed a one-year, $2.2M deal with the Buccos.
It looked like a steal early last season. The left-hander's 3.29 ERA through the first half of the season earned him a spot as a reserve on the National League All-Star team.
Philadelphia Phillies and All-Star manager Charlie Manuel chose Duke to replace San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain, who was whacked by a liner the weekend before the game. Duke became the first Pirates starter to be an All-Star since Denny Neagle in 1995.
But the wheels fell off after the break; after July his ERA was 5.81. In one memorable early September outing, Duke tied a major league record by allowing hits to eight consecutive batters to start a game against the Cubs, leading to a seven-run first inning.
Only one ball was hit squarely, and every Buc infielder boneheaded a play. To boot, the ump blew call at first. And they were all scored hits. It was indicative of how the season went for both Duke and the Pirates after the annual trade deadline shake-and-bake.
Duke's opponent batting average was .265 during the first four months of the season; it was .326 afterward. The Pirate defense, after Jack Wilson and Freddie Sanchez left, went from top-five to sub par in a hurry. And that makes it tough to get a hold on Duke's future as a pitcher.
He finished off 2009 with a 11-16 record and a 4.06 era in 213 innings, 3 complete games, and a shutout. Again, he was cursed by a shaky bullpen. His ball-in-play average was the same as in his first year at .296, and his WHIP was 1.315, his lowest since that golden 2005 season, but it didn't translate.
Duke was rewarded when in his second arb season when he almost doubled his contract, inking a one-year deal worth $4.3M, in the same ball park as Paul Maholm ($4.5M) and probably about the figure he'd win if his contract went to arbitration.
Duke is a solid major league pitcher, capable of keeping the team in games and notching a couple hundred innings. He has nice control, but nothing that can regularly miss a bat, throwing a high 80's heater and depending on his curve.
He does the little things well. Duke fields his position, holds runners, and can put a ball in play. He's one of the team's better bunters. And he's a young lefty, which puts a premium on his value.
The 800 pound gorilla is his inability to strike guys out at a major league rate. In the past three years, he hasn't averaged more than 4.5 K's per nine innings. That, in turn, makes him exceptionally dependent of his defense, as demonstrated at the end of last season.
His career ball-in-play average is .321; the average is around .300. Duke gives up nearly 11 hits per nine innings.
His career has shown long stretches of mid rotation potential, but his performance has been maddeningly inconsistent. Duke seems to have dodged the off-season meat market; it'll be interesting to see where he's at in August.