One of the most underreported stories of the summer has been the somewhat resurgent performance of Duane Underwood. The 2012 draft pick has been healthy all season, which is a victory in and of itself. Over his last 10 starts, he has compiled a 3.45 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP. His last start saw him go 7 innings with as many strikeouts and no walks. Previously prone to free passes, Underwood has actually walked none in three of his last four starts.
What I find most encouraging about the rebirth of Underwood is that he has done it pretty much unnoticed, which is to say that he’s not one of the pitching prospects to whom people are looking as the key to the system. Here are six reasons why you could jump back on the “Duane Underwood Top Prospect” train.
1. He just turned 23
It seems like Underwood has been around forever. When you are drafted into an organization devoid of pitching, as the Cubs were in 2012, your name moves to the top of the list. Add in his performances at Kane County and Myrtle Beach in 2014 and 2015 and bloggers, writers, and other evaluators were drooling over his potential. As a result, in a system bereft of pitching, the radar gun lit up and everyone fixated on it, saying, “Easy 95.”
2. Elite velocity
The attention-grabbing velo has never gone away. In fact, I think it has improved since he was in class A. Underwood now throws 95-97 regularly and, on the odd occasion, he touches 98-100.
He hasn’t missed a start all year, which is very encouraging. He’s taken the ball every fifth day and goes between 90 and 100 pitches most of the time. For the year, he has thrown 108 innings and 1,776 pitches, 1,088 of them for strikes.
4. Pure stuff
I don’t think there’s anybody in the system with three better pitches than Duane Underwood. There are pitchers who have better command, which has been the issue the past two seasons, but no one has better stuff. What I find odd is that, despite the velocity and the varied offerings, he’s never really been a strikeout pitcher. One would think he could just wipe guys out left and right, and I still don’t know why that is not happening. In 2015 at Myrtle Beach, his last full year, he averaged 5.69 K/9. He’s up to 6.79 this season, but that’s still pretty low.
This has always been Underwood’s kryptonite or Achilles heel, depending on which mythology you prefer. In 58.2 IP at AA in 2016, his BB/9 rate was 4.76. This year it is down to 3.42, which is almost respectable. He needs to get that in the twos if he is going to go beyond Iowa. In spite of his iffy command, I feel pretty good about his chances to make it to AAA in 2018. And I feel pretty good about his chances of being a starter at AAA next year.
6. Time to Develop
Sometimes it takes five to seven years to develop a high school pitcher, which was where Underwood was when the Cubs drafted him. Because of his young age, I’m not ready for the Cubs to give up on him as a starter. If he was 25, I could see him transition to a relief role. But here’s the thing: He’s still a young kid and there’s plenty of time to make that change later. He’s got a couple years of development still in him and that’s fine. If he makes to it Chicago in two years with a 95-97 mph fastball that he can command to go along with a plus curve and a change, that’s more than you could ask for in a starter.
Right now, Underwood is improving every month and he’s healthy. That’s a huge improvement from the past two seasons. With just a little over three weeks left in the minor-league season, he will probably make four to five more starts. I don’t think there’s anything to look for or expect out of him in those final starts other than to just stay healthy.
A lot of people, myself included, have been impatient with with the fireballing righty. But I also recognize that he is an extremely talented and athletic pitcher, so the expectation to see him force his way to the majors has been there for three years. Those expectations haven’t worked out too well, so maybe it’s time for new ones. Rather than focusing on the radar gun, we may wan to just sit back and let development take its course.
If Underwood can finish the season healthy, it will go along way toward improving his own confidence and, maybe more importantly, the confidence the Cubs have in him.