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White Sox bet new Zach Duke is here to stay

Three-year commitment to a one-year track record is steep, but the reasoning is sound

John Konstantaras/Getty Images

When the news of Zach Duke's three-year, $15 million contract broke, the immediate response from third parties was predictable:

It's pretty much the opposite of the majority reaction here on South Side Sox, which was generally enthusiastic.

Part of the difference is attributed to the White Sox Offseason Plan Project. A quick scan pulls up 18 plans featuring Duke as a left-handed relief addition, and reading the explanations behind the mock signings -- basically, he could be as useful as Andrew Miller for far less money -- turned out to be excellent preparation for the real deal. So, again, thanks for your participation.

(Some of us may have wanted the Sox to see the Miller sweepstakes all the way through, but the Sox needed to upgrade the bullpen with a guy they liked, and now they're not going to be left holding the bag if Miller takes the process to absurd lengths and heights.)

Another reason for the split -- we watched the 2014 White Sox bullpen, which was an intriguing idea in theory, and piss-poor when it came to results. It turns out you can't make relievers out of just anybody! Some anybodys are just nobody!

That's why I liked Jeff Sullivan's analysis on FanGraphs, because it's honest enough to acknowledge the urge to mock it, but thorough enough to see the potential for value:

If you’re anything like me, you kind of forgot that Zach Duke was still a major-league baseball player. And in fairness, less than a year ago, Duke no longer looked like a major-league baseball player. So the news that Duke got picked up by the White Sox for three years and $15 million came as a mild surprise to me, for two reasons. Immediately, I thought, that seems like a lot for a regular lefty middle reliever.

But Duke is no regular lefty middle reliever.

I'd recommend reading the whole thing, and also Mark Simon's explanation of Duke's heat maps on, as it digs into Duke's 58-percent ground-ball rate:

A look at the heat map atop this article shows where Duke most frequently threw pitches in 2014. He had the second-highest rate of pitches thrown in the lower-third of the strike zone or below among anyone who threw at least 50 innings (68 percent), trailing only submariner Brad Ziegler.

By introducing the two camps, we have already established the spectrum on which Duke will be judged: "Dukelicious" on one side, and a "Duketastrophe" on the other.

In the comments on our Tuesday afternoon post, the name "Scott Linebrink" popped up as an example against long-term investments in relievers. I understand the urge, but if you're going to pick a comparable reliever pick-up, there are a lot more similarities to Jesse Crain.

The Sox signed Crain to a three-year, $13 million on Dec. 20, 2010.  It wasn't the surest of bets, because Crain put together his best season in his contract year, and the years leading up to it were either injury-shortened or wildly uneven. It was the kind of deal that Dave Cameron dismissed with a dogmatic declaration.

As a group, teams have paid for premium production and instead received the same level of performance that they could have expected if they had signed minor league free agents. The evidence couldn’t be any stronger: signing guys like Guerrier and Crain to three year deals is just throwing money away. It’s not that they’re bad pitchers; it’s that relief pitchers are so prone to huge swings in performance that trying to project the long term future of any of these guys is simply folly.

But the Sox had a reason to buy into Crain's improvement -- he started throwing far fewer fastballs and far more sliders, to the point that he became a slider-first pitcher. It worked for him in 2010, and the Sox wagered on it working in the near future.

The investment paid off. Crain continued using the slider early on, then eventually replaced some with split-fingered changeups to even greater success. All in all, Crain posted a 2.10 ERA and struck out 176 batters over 150 innings as a member of the White Sox bullpen. He earned his pay and then some, and if he were working on one-year deals, he could've easily cost twice as much over that time frame. The Sox saved themselves money and headaches with that commitment.

The Sox are in a similar spot with Duke, who is coming off a renaissance/reinvention year in the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen. You can't call his 2.14 ERA over 74 games a fluke within the confines of the season, because his peripherals say he deserved to be that stingy (74 strikeouts over 58⅔ innings, with just 17 walks and three homers allowed).

You could say that his track record doesn't line up with his career year, and regression is near. That might be true, but just like with Crain, Duke reconfigured his entire approach. Actually, it's an even more dramatic overhaul, because while he's throwing his breaking ball more than his fastball like Crain did, he's also using two arm slots as well, against both lefties and righties:

Duke arm slots

In the only year Duke has pitched like this, he produced ideal results -- lots of strikeouts, lots of grounders, few walks, and he was even effective against righties:

vs RHB 133 30 2 1 1 8 37 4.63 .242 .288 .298 .586 .337
vs LHB 105 19 0 2 2 9 37 4.11 .198 .267 .302 .569 .298

The only question is whether he can repeat this kind of success, or even 85 percent of it. He's never done that before, but if he had done it for consecutive seasons, he would've cost more than the Sox committed to him.

That's the gamble, but it might only take a year to resolve itself. If Duke's 2015 is comparable to his 2014, then every team in baseball would be happy to pick up the remaining $10.5 million over two seasons. We saw that with Crain. At the start of his deal, Cameron called his contract a "folly." At the end of it, Cameron called him a bargain.