A little over a year ago, Brian Duensing signed a one-year contract with the Cubs worth $2 million. That’s hardly the kind of commitment that would break the Cubs’ bank, but it was still somewhat surprising that Duensing got such a guarantee, given that he was aging, and hadn’t been very good. He had thrown just 13.1 big-league innings in 2016, and that season he injured his elbow while moving a chair. It wouldn’t have been hard to see Duensing end up as a spring-training NRI. The Cubs, though, took a chance.
It worked out! Duensing had a good year. Appeared in 68 games. Did well. And now Duensing has re-signed, for two years and…$7 million. Compared to the previous contract, it’s more than double the commitment, I know, but it’s still modest, given what Duensing just did, and given what other free-agent relievers have signed for. This has been a slow-moving market, and there’s a strengthening conversation about how players aren’t getting their collective due. You might be tempted to point to Duensing’s deal as evidence.
Yet it doesn’t quite work. Duensing’s deal, it turns out, is rather evidence of something else.
I’m writing this with the full understanding that this is a whole post about a 34-year-old Brian Duensing. This isn’t what anyone was looking to think about this Wednesday. But as long as we have a few minutes — after all, you’re already here — let’s focus on those two years, and that $7 million. The two years is about what you’d expect, especially since Duensing is old, as baseball players go. But the $7 million? Seems like that’s discounted. And it turns out it seems that way because it is indeed a discount.
Duensing had deals for significantly more money elsewhere but liked the cubs experience so much he wanted to return. Can’t blame him. Chicago’s the best (in the summer)
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) January 17, 2018
Most of the time, when we see terms, we only see the terms from the “winning” team. And, most of the time, the winning team is the team that offered the most money. Not so, in this case. I don’t know who else might’ve been involved, and I don’t know how much money might’ve been on the table, but Duensing ultimately opted for a pseudo-hometown discount. It speaks well to the culture the Cubs have developed, and it also says something about where Duensing has been. Though he hasn’t yet been a journeyman, he has the general profile. He could be a journeyman. And in 2016 he belonged to both the Royals and the Orioles. Duensing is the kind of player who might most value some manner of stability. The Cubs are a familiar ballclub, and Duensing will occupy a familiar role.
Furthermore, on top of that, it’s worth wondering whether Duensing might value the Cubs more because the Cubs squeezed more out of Duensing’s arm. It’s not just that the Cubs took that chance, going back 13 months. They also saw Duensing improve under their watch, at an age when the majority of players are in the midst of decline. Duensing wasn’t exactly a shutdown reliever in 2017, but he showed off a new skill. In one way, he got back to his old self. In another, he got a lot better.
Using our splits leaderboard, I selected left-handed relievers. Here are Duensing’s percentile rankings among them, in terms of K-BB% against left-handed hitters.
- 2011 – 2013: 53rd percentile
- 2014 – 2016: 7th
- 2017: 66th
Duensing just did pretty well against opponents on the same side. At the very least, you need for your lefties to be able to retire other lefties. Duensing bounced back, and perhaps then some. That’s promising, but now, here are his percentile rankings among lefty relievers, in terms of K-BB% against right-handed hitters.
- 2011 – 2013: 15th percentile
- 2014 – 2016: 11th
- 2017: 74th
That’s different. Against righties, Duensing didn’t return to some previous level of performance. Instead, he did something brand new. Previously, in a season, Duensing had never struck out 15% of the righties he faced. Last season, he struck out nearly a quarter of them. This isn’t like some kind of Craig Kimbrel level, but for the first time, Duensing looked like a lefty reliever who could be a threat against righties. That’s a new skillset, and it came along with a change in Duensing’s approach, rather unsurprisingly. I’ll borrow from Brooks Baseball. Here’s how Duensing has pitched to righties, over his career, in terms of average vertical pitch location.
Duensing just pitched righties lower than ever. Related to that, here are Duensing’s general pitch mixes.
Duensing has never had, and never will have, an overpowering fastball. Righties saw fewer fastballs than ever, and more breaking balls than ever — especially curveballs. Duensing leaned more heavily on his curve, in particular early in counts, in an effort to get ahead without a swing. Batters tend not to go after early curveballs, and Duensing used that to his advantage. Whether that was his idea or the Cubs’, I’m not sure, but I’d say the ends justify the means. Whatever it was, Duensing, at 34 years old, learned a new skill. It didn’t require him to do anything dramatically different, but rather just a simple adjustment to when he threw which pitches.
Brian Duensing still isn’t a closer. Brian Duensing still isn’t some All-Star setup guy. But what the Cubs could have here is a lefty reliever who can pitch effectively to hitters on both sides. That means that Duensing doesn’t have to just be a specialist, and last year, on several occasions, the Cubs had Duensing work multiple innings. You could argue that could make him somewhat redundant with Mike Montgomery, but it’s not as if the Cubs couldn’t use them both. And if Montgomery ever ends up starting, well, Duensing is an available bullpen replacement. You can never have too many useful relievers.
It’s not common for a pitcher to achieve a new and better profile at the age of 34. It’s also not common for a free agent to re-sign while turning down significantly more money. It’s by no means unheard of, but it’s still a rarity, and it can only say good things about the Duensing/Cubs relationship. Not only can the Cubs offer Duensing something he already knows — it was with the Cubs that Duensing managed to flourish. Sure, he might’ve been able to take those skills somewhere else, but, in the end, why jeopardize a good thing? It’s just money. Duensing’ll get more than enough of it.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.