Brian Duensing’s future in the game was tenuous when I talked to him in June 2016. Struggling with the Orioles after being cut loose by the Twins and Royals, he was on the brink of being sent to Triple-A. Moreover, he was flirting with baseball oblivion. And he knew it. As Duensing told me at the time, “If the Orioles send me back down… I don’t know what I’d do. I’d have to talk to my family.”
Thirty-three months and 125 big-league appearances later, the resilient reliever is proof that lefties really do have nine lives. His career may well be dog-eared — Duensing turned 36 last month — but he’s nonetheless still pitching.
I asked the southpaw — after first reminding him of our 2016 conversation — how that’s come to be.
“Good question,” responded Duensing, who is heading into his third season with the Chicago Cubs. “I really don’t know, to be honest. But if anything sticks out, I guess it would be that we made it to the playoffs after I ended up with Baltimore. Getting that sense of winning again kind of rejuvenated me.”
The five previous seasons had been difficult. Not only had he gone from starter to middling reliever during that stretch, he did so on a Twins team that lost 90-or-more games four times. His body was willing, but his mind wasn’t in the right place.
“I’d gotten a little stale mentally,” Duensing admitted. “When you’re constantly getting beaten down, it can be tough on your psyche.”
Compounding his problems was an inability to miss bats. Never a strikeout pitcher to begin with, Duensing punched out just 4.4 batters per nine innings in his final season as a Twin. He doesn’t feel that his stuff had backslid. It’s more that he was running in place when he should have been staying a step ahead.
“My pitch sequencing got stale,” he explained. “I wasn’t doing a very good job with scouting reports. I was kind of going after hitters the same way, over and over. I became very predictable. That’s something I had to change.”
According to Joe Maddon, the veteran hurler has done just that.
“One of his strengths is that he pitches to scouting reports really well,” opined the Cubs manager “If you give him a template to work from, a road map to work from, he’s very good at executing it. He knows how to nitpick a hitter apart. Give him the info — give him the intel — and when he’s on top of his game, he can complete the task.”
How much longer he’ll be getting opportunities to complete tasks remans to be seen. Stellar in 2017, the southpaw was mostly subpar a year ago, and this spring has been a mixed bag at best. As was the case three years ago, the former Nebraska Cornhusker can sense baseball’s Grim Reaper lurking over his shoulder. To a certain extent, the talk-to-my-family conversations have already been taking place.
“They haven’t been about how long, so much as it’s been us understanding that we’re getting close to the end,” said Duensing, who along with his wife, Lisa, is raising two girls and two boys. “We’re just trying to enjoy the ride. We want to let our kids enjoy this type of lifestyle — not everyone can grow up saying that they were in big league clubhouses — while we can. It’s obviously not going to last forever. Nothing does.”
A few weeks ago, this column led with how Brad Ausmus has been striving to improve his analytic chops. In the piece, Anaheim’s new manager was quoted as saying that while he didn’t want to go into specifics, the data his team is using “plays heavily into how we do things.”
Those ‘things’ include catcher development. Prodded for an example, the former backstop brought up framing.
[If you missed the news earlier this week, we’ve added catcher framing data to the site, and have also incorporated catcher framing into WAR. David Appelman and Jared Cross provided the details here and here.]
“We look at where a guy is getting strikes, and where he’s not getting strikes,” Ausmus told me. “From there we can go to, ‘All right. How can we make him better?’ We put a plan into place and see if that results in a positive impact. If not, we go back to the drawing board. Eventually you find something that works, and when you do, now you apply that to other catchers who have a similar receiving weakness.”
Regardless of their experience level, some catchers frame certain areas of the plate better than others. One guy on your 25-man roster might steal an extra strike or two glove side or down in the zone, while another may do the same arm side or up in the zone. According to Ausmus, that doesn’t play much of a role in who catches whom on a given day — despite the increasing amount of job-sharing we’re seeing behind the plate across both leagues.
“We know which of our catchers frame which pitches well,” Ausmus said. “And we know which of our pitchers we want down in the zone, and which of our pitchers work up in the zone. But I can’t say that matching up those two up is something we put a lot of weight on. There are too many other factors involved to do that.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
I posed a pair of pitching-strategy questions to Torey Lovullo earlier this spring. I first asked the Diamondbacks manager if he likes to construct his starting rotation so that an opposing lineup doesn’t see similar pitchers on consecutive days. For example, is it preferable to follow a finesse lefty with a hard-throwing righty? Or doesn’t that really matter?
“It does matter,” responded Lovullo. “We try to stay away from like match-ups on back-to-back days. Sometimes you can’t help it, and sometimes you don’t care. You bet on your guys. You say, ‘Go out there and have at it.’ But yes, we try to avoid like match-ups. We try to keep it as diverse as possible.
“Last year we were in a situation where [Robbie] Ray and [Patrick] Corbin were back-to-back for awhile,” continued Lovullo. “But we believed in those guys and were going to knife them in against anybody. But when you can — if you can control that and have days to maneuver — that’s one of the things we pay attention to. We try to make the road as bumpy as possible for the [opposing] hitters.”
The pothole approach doesn’t extend to employing openers.
“We haven’t given that concept much thought here,” admitted the 2017 National League Manager of the Year.” We’ve walked through it — we’ve looked at it — but we want to preserve the bullpen pieces the best way we can. We want to make sure that the starting pitcher is carrying the workload and preserving things on the back end of the bullpen. [Using an opener] isn’t something we’ve embraced.”
It was said of Joe DiMaggio that he never had to dive for a ball, because he’d always be there waiting for it to come down. Count Joe Maddon among those who would applaud The Yankee Clipper.
“I’m really trying to put an emphasis on the first step,” Maddon said at Cubs camp a few weeks ago. “That’s at every position on defense. First move. Everybody always loves the sexy — watching themselves hit, striking someone out and watching that nice pitch — but very few times do players have a chance to watch themselves move; that first movement. I try to convince them that the big plays are made on the front part, not the latter part. Your first movement has to be efficient. I want them to understand that what you do at the beginning of the play totally impacts what happens at the conclusion.”
It was announced earlier this week that Eric Jagers will be leaving Driveline Baseball to join the Phillies as a pitching strategist. That was hardly a surprise. The Gabe Kapler-led team had already brought over Jason Ochart from the nerdy Kent, Washington facility, and several of their erstwhile colleagues are with other MLB organizations. In a game that has gotten more and more cutting-edge, Driveline has become a de facto pipeline for forward-thinking organizations.
At this year’s SABR Analytics Conference, I learned that Driveline’s head nerd actually has an affinity for good old-fashioned scouting. Participating in a pitcher-training panel, Kyle Boddy brought up that somewhat-surprising fact when the topic turned to decimal points — more specifically, to the relative importance of the final two digits in spin-rate readings.
“I came up through a traditional scouting path, in organized baseball, anyway,” said Boddy, who worked as a video scout for the Houston Astros in 2013. “And the beauty of the Branch Rickey system — the beauty of the 20-80 — is that it’s actually three standard deviations… You have a spin rate that’s above average. What does that mean? Right? We can use the 20-80 scale, which I think is extremely elegant in that regard.”
In other words, elegance in the form of simplicity. A 2,323-rpm spin rate is higher than a 2,300 spin rate, but just how much does the extra detail matter? For most of the pitchers Boddy works with, the answer is ‘not so much.’ Rate stats are similar. A 112 wRC+ is 12-percent offensive production above league average, but when push comes to shove, what exactly does that mean?
Mike Ferrin, who was moderating the panel, asked that very question.
“It’s an easy concept to understand, but where is the delineation?,” posited the D-Backs broadcaster. “Is it 15% before you’re really talking about a plus player — a 60 player in scouting parlance — versus simply ‘This guy is above average.’ We say 100 is average, but clearly there are fudge bars on either side.”
There are indeed. Call it the Ferrin Fudge Factor, if you will.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Ashley MacLennan thinks it’s time for the Tigers to experiment with their pitching roles. She made some suggestions on that front at Bless You Boys.
Over at Billy-Ball, stat maven Bill Chuck listed the strikeout leaders for pitchers who never started a game.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Ichiro Suzuki (4,367) and Pete Rose (4,683) combined for 9,050 professional hits. Rose was 45 years and 125 days old when he played his final game. Ichiro was 45 years and 150 days old when he played his final game.
Per New York Times baseball columnist Tyler Kepner, Ruben Sierra went the last 5,767 plate appearances of his career without being hit by a pitch.
In 1971, Houston Astros shortstop Roger Metzger had 14 doubles and an NL-best 11 triples. In 1973, he had 11 doubles and an NL-best 14 triples. Metzger’s career slash line was .231/.291/.293.
Derek Lowe had a 21-win season and a 42-save season. He threw seven scoreless innings in his only World Series appearance.
Dallas Keuchel leads all qualified pitchers with a 58.7% ground-ball rate over the past two seasons.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.