Pittsburgh Pirates: Duane Underwood Jr.'s August Reminder of His Value to Team

Photo Credit: MLB.com

 I heard something interesting when watching Tuesday's Pittsburgh Pirates game, said by former closer Matt Capps. It came at the beginning of the sixth inning, when Duane Underwood Jr. entered the game replacing JT Brubaker.

"In my opinion, (Underwood Jr.) has been one of the bigger pickups this year for the Pirates ball club."

I was driving home at the time, but remember hearing that and thinking "Really? Underwood?". You generally don't have to go far on the internet to find people documenting the struggles of the now 27-year old Underwood, so I thought it was an interesting statement to make.

To an extent, the criticism has been fair. There was a good stretch of the season where you could have made a legitimate claim for the Pirates to move on from Underwood, which was a far cry from the beginning of the season when he was easily one of the best relievers on the team.

So, not only what happened but maybe more importantly, what was Capps talking about? Was this a case of a home broadcaster hyping up a player, or was there more to that?

Of course I had to dig into the numbers and see if I could find anything that may support what Capps was talking about, and just to gauge the kind of season that Underwood has had.

First, let's go over his season in general.

After getting into Tuesday's game for the Pirates, it gave Underwood 40 appearances on the season which is good for fourth most on the team. He does, however, have the most innings pitched among relievers on the staff. In fact, no other reliever in baseball has pitched more innings than Underwood, sitting at 68 2/3rds after Tuesday.

In his 40 appearances, Underwood Jr. has posted an ERA of 4.19 with 62 strikeouts, 26 walks, and a 2-3 record. The month of July was particular rough on Underwood, as he allowed 11 earned runs in 10 2/3 innings pitched, a 9.28 ERA.

Now let's take a look at what I found and why maybe Capps is right in just how valuable Underwood still is to the team, and the bullpen.

July numbers led to misleading results.

There is no getting around the month of July. It was that bad. When it comes to looking at your basic counting numbers for relief pitchers it's hard to get the right picture sometimes.

One bad outing can lead to misleading results, given that relief pitchers won't be given as many innings to bring it back to normal. Not only did Underwood have a bad outing(s), he had a whole month where he got beat up pretty good.

Even though it was a pretty bad month of July, it took a couple of outings for Underwood to regain his footing after the beating he took against the Atlanta Braves where he allowed seven earned runs in just one inning of work. He would later allow multiple runs in two of his next three outings that ended up in Underwood's ERA going up almost two runs in a two week span.

Outside of that, he's actually been pretty good, when it comes to the basics. His combined ERA excluding July is a very respectable 3.25 and he has used an extremely strong August to bring his season mark close back down to around four.

April - 3.85 ERA, 20 Ks in 14 IP

May - 4.41 ERA, 10 Ks in 18 1/3 IP

June - 3.64 ERA, 13 Ks in 12 1/3 IP

August 0.68 ERA, 11 Ks in 13 1/3 IP

Underwood has allowed just one run in seven outings this month, including the two innings he threw on Tuesday. He has continued to be used as a multi-inning pitcher that has become the bridge between the starters and the back end of the bullpen that includes Chasen Shreve, David Bednar and Chris Stratton

Home, and night, cooking?

Hey, some people are more comfortable pitching at home? Who can blame them. This seems to be the case with Underwood, who has some pretty interesting differentials on some of his splits.

Underwood really cooks it up against the members of the Pirates own division, the NL Central. Even with his solely against the St. Louis Cardinals (4.72 ERA, nine walks in 13 1/3 innings), Underwood has been really good against his own division.

In 37 2/3 innings against the NL Central, Underwood has posted a 3.34 ERA, with a 4.06 BB/9 and a 7.89 K/9. That includes just one earned run in five appearances (9 1/3 innings) against the Milwaukee Brewers. 

He's also pitched better at night (2.86 ERA, .636 OPS) as opposed to during the day (6.57 ERA, .930 OPS). Underwood has also pitched better at PNC Park, holding the opposition to a .633 OPS while posting a 3.52 ERA.

It's a completely different story on the road, as the righty holds a 5.04 ERA at home while allowing the opposition to post a .889 OPS. But maybe the most important split for the Pirates has been his ability to (surprisingly?) hold the lead.

When Underwood enters the game and the team is ahead, opponents have just a .527 OPS compared to a .779 mark when the Pirates trail. 

Advanced numbers still play slightly in his favor

There was a time when Underwood's changeup was not only one of the best pitches on the Pirates roster, but also one of the best in the league.

It's still not a bad pitch, just clearly no where near where it once was. Some of it's more defining numbers that played in it's favor (xwOBA, whiff rate and average) are all up, but overall the analytics still paint about the same picture as before.

Underwood still doesn't allow the ball to be 'barreled up', with a 4.6 Brls/PA%, good for fifth best on the roster. He always some of the more solid contact on the team, but his expected numbers are still respectable for a middle reliever.

xBA - .271

xSLG - .417

xwOBA - .333

The average is higher than you would like but considering the kind of contact he is allowing, and how much the expected stats are based off of exit velocity, it's not bad.

What's it all mean

Relievers are the most unpredictable of all baseball players. They are almost always based on a small sample size, so it's hard to get an idea of what you're getting with one from season to season, or even appearance to appearance.

That being said, yes Underwood has had some bad outings. He's had some bad performances in situations the Pirates couldn't afford for him to struggle in. But also as his splits say, he's been a really reliable bridge to the late inning guys when the Pirates do have a lead.

While I'm sure that some of what Capps was saying was just trying to get the audience hyped, he actually wasn't that far off of. 

Want one last reminder of how small a margin of error relievers have? If you take out that Atlanta game, Underwood's outing goes from 4.19 down to 3.32.

A 3.32 ERA from your multi-inning relief guy, whose pitched the most innings out of any other player coming out of the bullpen? Yea i'll take that too.

What has been your impression of Underwood? Let us know in the comment section below, subscribe to the site with the link at the top of the page, and follow me on Twitter @__Murphy88 and @SportBlogMurphy.

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