Every time I watch Duane Underwood pitch, there are several questions running across my mind like the ticker at the bottom of ESPN. How close is he to being ready? Is his stuff good enough for the next level? Will he be successful if he gets the call? Okay, those are all pretty close to the same question. And the answer is always the same as well. Almost.
Drafted in the compensation round in 2012, Underwood has had his moments as a Cubs prospect. His stuff was eye-opening early on, with the only questions regarding his conditioning and the ability to stay healthy. He was throwing an easy 95 in A-ball and was named the Cubs MiLB pitcher of the Year in 2015 at Myrtle Beach after posing a 2.48 ERA that year in 73.1 innings.
Things started going off the rails for him in 2016 as he battled injuries for the better part of the season and ended up logging only 58.2 innings with a 4.91 ERA at AA Tennessee. Nothing required surgery, but it was a little alarming. He missed more than a month and made his last starts of the season at the lowest levels of the system as he rehabbed.
Underwood was back at AA in 2017, logging career highs of 25 appearances (24 starts) and 138 innings. Much of that was lost behind a middling 4.32 ERA, but he looked much more mature on the mound since about the mid-July of last season. And the most important thing was that he remained healthy.
He looks to be in great shape so far this season and his curveball looks great. Most importantly, he’s throwing pretty much where he wants when he wants. His 2.21 BB/9 mark is the best of his professional career and his 8.26 K/9 is higher than ever (save for those very short rehab stints). A 3.98 ERA in 110 starts might not impress too many, but 56 strikeouts in 61 innings is nothing to sneeze at. And he’s only walked 15 in that time, which is amazing.
What’s more, we have to remember that Underwood is only 23-year-old and is still learning how to really pitch. He is getting more comfortable starting hitters off with a curve and he can finish them off with the changeup for strike three. He can run into trouble when he leaves the ball up, but that’s happening less and less. It’s good that he’s pitching in a variety of ways and that he’s keeping the ball down, which can make him unhittable at times.
The only thing left work on is consistency from inning to inning and start to start. As evidence, take the string of six starts in which Underwood alternated between giving up at least four earned runs and shutting his opponents out. As a result, his ERA is not a true indication of his talents. It is, however, a clear sign of his inconsistency.
Last Friday’s start is a perfect example. He got hit hard in the 1st inning and gave up four runs, then shut things down by giving up only one hit against eight strikeouts over the next four innings. The issue in that opening frame was he opened with two walks, then gave up two singles. He wasn’t hit hard, he just couldn’t get the ball where he wanted before striking out the last two batters.
Learning and recovering from adversity is one of the traits the Cubs really covet in their prospects, so that is exactly the kind of performance they might look for when considering what to do with Underwood. Of course, they are only going to bring him to Chicago if they feel he can succeed. I don’t know when that will be, but I do know that he is almost there.
The righty has been going deeper into games and has thrown at least 92 pitches in six of his last seven starts. The results haven’t always shown it, but staying healthy is enabling Underwood to continue working on his game. It’s all about consistency now.