THE CASE OF ELIJAH DUKES AND THE BREAKING BALL






washingtonnationalsvarizonadiamondbacksf4byjse7mu3lElijah Dukes is an enigma more than any other player in camp with the Washington Nationals this spring training.  He has been a top prospect oozing with five tool potential since he was drafted out of high school by Tampa Bay.  Washington expected him to become a big time contributor when they traded Glen Gibson for him in 2008 and while he has shown flashes of brilliance, he has failed to live up to expectations that the team, the media, and the fans have fantasied about.  He has had legal troubles, various controversial on field incidents, and was even sent down to AAA last season for a month to sort out his issues with the bat.  Through it all, though, Dukes still possesses the athletic ability to be a very good player, but the general consensus is that this season will go a long way in determining Dukes’ future with the Nationals.

Dukes has very good power and a pretty decent batting eye.  Jim Riggleman mentioned, via Ben Goessling,that pitches which Dukes swings at outside the strike zone are usually breaking balls that he identified too late.  Identifying and hitting breaking balls has been one of Dukes’ major flaws throughout his career.  Using MLB data sorted through TexasLeaguers I took a look at Dukes’ pitch data from last year in order to examine the problem:

 

First Stint (6 April – 30 June)

 

Pitch

Count

Swing %

WHIFF %

Foul %

In-Play %

Four Seamer

334

52.1%

9.6%

24.3%

18.3%

Slider

204

54.4%

19.1%

17.6%

17.6%

Curveball

76

38.2%

14.5%

10.5%

13.2%

 

Second Stint (1 August – 4 October)

 

Pitch

Count

Swing %

WHIFF %

Foul %

In-Play%

Four Seamer

273

50.2%

9.5%

17.6%

23.1%

Slider

224

53.6%

15.6%

16.5%

21.4%

Curveball

68

39.7%

13.2%

13.2%

11.8%

I split the data in to two separate time frames occurring prior to his excursion in Syracuse and then following his recall to the Nationals.  His splits for the two stints:

STINT #1:  211 PA, 13 2B, 6 HR, 18 BB, 47 SO, .244/.308/.415

STINT #2:  205 PA, 7 2B, 2 HR, 28 BB, 27 SO, .257/.366/.368

Elijah Dukes 2.0 was striking out less and getting on base a whole lot more than Elijah Dukes 1.0.  He did lose a bit of power, though.  Apparently he was working on hitting the breaking ball while in the minors, but he was fouling off more and putting the curve in play less during his second stint.  What changed for Dukes was the amount of fastballs and sliders he was putting in play (at least a +4% for both pitches).  Combine this with research that Jay Eward did in which he found Dukes to have a .107 average against the curveball last season, nearly 100 points lower than the league average.

Now we return to Riggleman’s words about Dukes chasing balls outside the zone.  Last season Dukes swung at 51.3% of the pitches thrown to him (league average = 45.2%) and 26.6% of pitches thrown outside the strike zone (league aveage = 25.1%).  Not a drastic difference.  The problem becomes apparent when you look at his contact percentages.  When Dukes swung the bat in 2009 he only hit the ball 73.6% as compared to a league average of 80.5%.  Even more stunning was that he was only able to make contact 46.3% of the time on balls he swung on outside the zone.  The league average is 15.5% higher and I suspect this is the clearest indicator of the words Riggleman spoke.

Now that every MLB has a decent scouting report on Elijah Dukes, he will continue to see pitchers challenge him with the curveball.  If Dukes can continue to hit sliders and fastballs like he did in August and September of last season, then he should still have a spot as a regular on the Nats’ big league squad (given he also improves upon other areas like base running and fielding mistakes).  This data is pretty raw without the 2008 data to compare it to, but it indicates what many of us (as well as Elijah himself) already know, Dukes can not hit the curve.  There was a small glimmer of hope at the end of the season, though, in September Dukes put 19% of the curveballs thrown to him in play, a good improvement on his percentages from earlier in the season.  Hopefully this trend continues into 2010.

 

Phil Naquin is a guest writer for The Nats Blog who will be be appearing weekly with analysis of the Washington Nationals using sabermetrics, pitch f/x tools, and scouting observations.  He also runs a blog, Half Street High Rise

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