Easy 95. Those five syllables described Duane Underwood the last two years. The phrase actually began at Kane County when someone commented on a Cubs Den message board how Underwood was throwing in an early August game. 2014 was the year in which Underwood broke out as a starting pitcher. That summer he threw 100 innings (still a career high). He had a 2.50 ERA and shot up the prospects rankings. He was the top ranked pitcher in the system after that summer.
When he got to A+ Myrtle Beach the next year, he was still throwing an easy 95. The first part of spring and early summer saw Underwood slice and dice through most of the Carolina League. Through 11 starts, he was 6-2 with a 1.85 ERA. He struck out 41 in 63.1 innings
However Underwood’s fortunes changed in a late June start when he was just shredded for six runs in 1 innings. Underwood left the game holding his arm and Cub fans all across the system gasped.
Many, like myself, feared the worst – Tommy John surgery. Luckily, it was just elbow inflammation. Underwood went to Arizona where he rehabbed and made a couple of starts in the Arizona rookie league in July. He returned in mid August and made three starts at Myrtle Beach, all of the short variety. He also made two starts in the playoffs, one was classic Duane – 6 IP, 1 ER. and 7 Ks. It looked like he was back.
When Underwood came back to spring training in 2016, the inflammation reappeared. After some rest and some rehab in extended spring training Underwood finally made his 2016 debut on April 29 at AA Tennessee. He has thrown 26 IP going into Wednesday night’s start. He has struggled with a 5.19 ERA. He’s given up 30 hits and walked 14 for a WHIP of 1.69. Opponents are hitting .286 off him. He’s only struck out 18, which is about his normal rate.
With those things in mind I anxiously tuned in to watch him on Wednesday night. I went in with an open mind as to what was happening, or if anything was wrong with him.
Sometimes when a player gets injured in spring training, when they come back, it’s like they have to go through spring training all over again. Part of me hoped that was Underwood’s issue. Maybe he just needs to work his way back. It’s only been a month, spring training lasts 6 weeks.
He came out throwing straight heat between 95-97. Tennessee doesn’t have the best video feed, but announcer Mick Gillespie said the ball was coming out of Underwood’s hand free and easy. The Jackson Generals went down 1-2-3 on a K, a ground out, and a fly out.
The radar gun was jumping as Underwood came out 98-98-98 (K), 99-99-Curve (K). That was the highlight of that inning. Underwood went back to the fastball and 3 straight hits resulted in one run before a fly out got him out the inning, but trailing 1-0.
Underwood immediately gave a up single, then a stolen base. Then a Texas League double brought in a run. It was at this point that I realized Underwood is throwing 80-90% fastballs. The next batter he tried to remedy that and it was a scene out of Bull Durham as a curve went over the hitter and all the way to the backstop. Next thing you know, a Sac fly, an overthrow to the plate, a home run, and it was 4-0 quickly. It was not a pretty inning.
While the Smokies were batting, I tried to remember how many curves Underwood threw. It was not many. Usually his pitch sequence was to throw 2 fastballs for strikes 1 and 2. Then he might, just might, break out a curve. It was pretty predictable. It makes me think their might be another goal, or pretty poor pitch selection…I hoped it was not that.
In the fourth, he broke out the curve and change on pitches 1 and 2 and the hitter was fooled. Next thing you know, strike out! He fell behind the next hitter but got a pop up. At this point he was close to 70 pitches. The velocity of the fastball was down to 93-95. Then he couldn’t control where it was going. So, the next hitter walked on 5 pitches. Another duck snort followed and Underwood was pushing 80 pitches. He starts off the next hitter with a change up. The hitter almost corkscrewed himself into the ground. He finally got him to strikeout, Underwood’s fifth, to end the inning. He’d thrown exactly 80 pitches after 4 innings.
I was quite surprised to see Underwood come out for the fifth. I was not surprised to see him walk the first hitter. He struck out the next hitter with a curveball. He got the next hitter on a groundout as he neared 100 pitches. The final hitter struck out as thunder clouds loomed in the distance. I like that he was able to throw 103 pitches, but in five innings? That’s not ideal, but then again…HE THREW 103 PITCHES AND HIS ARM DIDN’T FALL OFF!!!!!
Hot Take #2: I know that in Kane County under the tutelage of pitching coach David Rosario and Manager Mark Johnson (his current manager), starting pitchers were to focus on fastball command the first two to three innings. I don’t think Underwood has changed that type of modus operandi (m.o.) since.
Once Underwood began throwing curves and changeups more, he became a strikeout machine. I don’t know why Underwood, his catcher, and his manager didn’t have him use all three pitches early and often, or maybe they were just working on fastball command. It is the minor leagues after all. The 103 pitch count is kind of a big deal for him, albeit in five innings.
- I love the fastball, Duane probably loves his fastball, as do his battery mates, manager, and organization. Maybe this was a night where the goal was to get to a 100 pitches. Throwing fastballs might have been the easiest way to build up the arm strength for later.
- In the future, I’d like to seem him mix it up – throw any pitch at any time in any count.
All in all, I am just glad there is nothing physically wrong with him. The pitch selection thing can be easily fixed. But 98, 99 mph heaters in the second? Oh, my!