Nine Innings: Jays targeted reliever Zach Duke

Zach Duke. (Ben Margot/AP)

Nine Innings is a series of questions with players & personnel from around baseball. In this edition, Shi Davidi talks to Chicago White Sox reliever Zach Duke.

At the same time general manager Alex Anthopoulos worked to sign free agent catcher Russell Martin last off-season he was also trying to lure reliever Zach Duke to the Toronto Blue Jays.

The left-handed set-up man took a major step forward during the 2014 season, posting a 2.45 ERA and a 1.125 WHIP in 74 games for the Milwaukee Brewers, turning himself into a highly sought commodity.

Anthopoulos landed one of his targets in Martin with an $82-million, five-year deal, but Duke ended up taking a $15-million, three-year contract from the Chicago White Sox. Both agreements were finalized Nov. 18.

“The interest was mutual, honestly,” Duke says of his negotiations with the Blue Jays. “I talked with Alex quite a bit, I talked to a few guys on the Blue Jays, too, and I was pretty interested. Toronto was definitely a huge consideration for me.

“It just didn’t work out, Toronto wasn’t quite the right place for me.”

Chicago, it turned out, was and the White Sox eventually signed David Robertson, as well, landing the closer with a $46-million, four-year deal, a figure the Blue Jays contemplated beating, but were uncomfortable with how much they’d have to backload to make it work.

Duke, meanwhile, has been solid for the White Sox, posting a 2-2 record with one save and 3.60 ERA in 21 games. He talked about free agency, becoming a reliever, adding a second arm slot and more in his Nine Innings with us.

1st inning – I know a former reliever who described pitchers in the bullpen as the pond scum of baseball because of the way the game chews them up and spits them out. Can you describe your transition from starter to reliever and how you came to accept the change?

“You said it right there, accepting the change is the main thing. I had to get it through my mind that my starting days are over in the big-leagues, the opportunities weren’t there anymore, so I didn’t necessarily have to make the decision, the decision was made for me. If I wanted to be in the big-leagues, I was going to have to make the transformation to a reliever. At that point, the tough part for me, I had made the transition and was in triple-A with the Reds (in the summer of 2013), I was having good success, but there were still no big-league teams interested in me. So I had to figure out something else to maybe make me a speciality reliever, someone who could be dominant out of the ‘pen, because nowadays it seems everyone who gets called up is throwing 95-plus with nasty off-speed stuff, and I’m never going to throw 95-plus, so I had to figure out something else. That’s when I added a second arm angle. Things really took off from there.”

2nd inning – You had a strong month to close out the 2013 season with the Reds, before things really locked in with the Brewers. Did you have a stretch of games at some point that made you think, ‘this is going to work?’

“I got that confidence with the Reds in ’13. I was put in a lot of high-leverage situations with them, had success against lefties, and some righties as well, but I believed it was there, it was something that made me a different pitcher, tougher to hit. I knew that if did the consistent work in the off-season, and I felt good going into the spring, I was going to have a good chance. I went into spring training at the top of my game and really was able to maintain it all through the year last year, and really to this point this year, as well.”

3rd inning – You headed into free agency after a strong season as a setup man with the Brewers and after the Kansas City Royals bullpen starred in the post-season. What were you thinking going into the open market?

“Heading into the off-season I didn’t really know what to expect. I was coming off, really, my first year of full-time reliever duties so I didn’t know what the offers were going to be like or of anyone had bought in that I was doing this full-time or not. Maybe people would think it was a fluke, just a one-year kind of thing but thankfully there were a lot of teams interested the first week of the free-agent signing period. I said OK, ‘This is blowing me away already, so let’s go ahead and get this process over with.’”

4th inning – What are the challenges you face in-game pitching with two different arm slots?

“You see a pitcher that has one arm slot lose their release point for a little bit, it can happen from either one or both of my arm slots at any time. It takes a lot of consistent work in between, making sure that I’m throwing from each slot, throwing all my pitches and really just staying consistent with it.”

5th inning – Do you find you’re generally able to self-correct on the mound when one or the other doesn’t feel right?

“So far. I think because I had so much experience starting, so many innings, my muscle memory is sort of well locked in at this point. I’ve always been a feel pitcher, I’ve never been a stuff pitcher, so I can figure out how to get back in the strike zone on a given day.”

6th inning – Over the course of your career, starting as a 22-year-old with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2005, how would you describe the evolution of bullpen usage?

“Especially with pitching being more dominant in the game now, in those one-run, two-run ballgames, having a few guys in the back of the bullpen that are lockdown guys is paramount. They can protect that one-run lead every night, and you look up at the end of the day and all of a sudden your record in those one-run games is way over .500 as opposed to closer to .500 or even under .500 because maybe the bullpen gave up a run or two. That’s just the nature of the game today and there is a lot of importance placed on bullpen guys, which being in my position is great. It’s just the way the game goes, it goes in cycles. There’s more of an emphasis placed on offence, or defence, now the emphasis has been put on relief pitching.”

7th inning – What kind of mindset do you take into high-leverage situations?

“Really just no panic, focusing on executing pitches, knowing what pitches are going to get you the result that you want according to the situation you’re in. Say you’ve got a runner on second, you need a groundball to the left side, you have to know the one or two pitches that will get you that groundball. Or say you need a strikeout, what pitches against a certain hitter are going to get it, and if you don’t strike him out, it’s OK, don’t give in and start fresh with the next guy. It’s really just an awareness of the situation, and no panic if something doesn’t go your way.”

8th inning – How different are you as a pitcher now compared to when you broke in?

“When I broke in with the Pirates, I was kind of a three-pitch pitcher and I executed every pitch. I had good life on the ball, I was almost like a robot – tell me what you want me to throw and I’d throw it right there. Over the course of the years, you get a few little injuries here and there, lose a few miles an hour, you have to become more sneaky, so now I have seven or eight different pitches, a lot of experience, move the ball around real well, a little more crafty I’d say now.”

9th inning – How do your catchers signal for pitches No. 6, 7 and 8?

“We’ve figured out a few ways, a few different combinations and a few different things.”

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