Zach Duke wasn’t going to be picky.
The veteran left-hander had logged nine years in the major leagues leading into 2014, but 2013 was a rough go. He posted a 6.03 earned run average while splitting 26 games between Washington and Cincinnati last year after spending the bulk of 2012 in the minors.
The Milwaukee Brewers signed him to a minor league deal with an invitation to major league camp and an opportunity to win a job in the bullpen, so it was hard to pass up.
Then, he pitched well enough Arizona to make the team, creating a new lease on life for the converted starter who only began transitioning to the bullpen in 2011.
"Absolutely. Absolutely," Duke said. "It was the main reason I signed with the Brewers. I talked with (general manager) Doug Melvin and he said the opportunity was here to make the club and sure enough it was. If I performed well, the opportunity was there and they were truthful about it and I felt like it was up to me at that point after I made the team to take the opportunity and make the most of it."
He has been doing just that, posting a 1.42 ERA and 0.895 WHIP in 21 games, to go with a 3-0 record. He’s striking out 10.9 batters per nine innings, by far the highest total of his career, and has walked just four in 19 innings.
"Zach has been great all year, whether it’s right handers or left handers," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "He’s getting them all out. His stuff is good. He’s not just a trick guy – his stuff is really good. He’s got a really good two-seamer, he’s got a good cutter and he’s got a really good curveball. Then after that he can throw in the deception, which is the drop down. He’s done a great job for us."
Right-handers are hitting .190 off of Duke and lefties aren’t faring much better at .200, and he’s been good in whatever role he’s been thrown into in relief – he’s pitched in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and extra innings so far this season.
"I feel like I’ve found a good zone of consistency," Duke said. "I feel like my stuff is working every day and I’ve got a good routine going. I feel like every time I’m on the hill I can throw any of my pitches at any time."
Part of that is refining that drop down, or sidearm, arm slot, which Duke said he decided to try last year while spending 26 games with Cincinnati’s Class AAA affiliate in the minors. Big league opportunities were getting tougher to come by, so he felt he should add another weapon to his arsenal to make himself more valuable as a reliever.
He chuckled a bit at the memory – he came up with the idea, threw one bullpen session with it, and then started using it in games.
"I wish I could say it was a long, drawn out process but it came really naturally for me, actually," he said with a smile. "I feel like my conventional stuff is still pretty good, so I was able to just kind of work it in there and there in the early going, but now I’ve reached a level of consistency with it where I can throw my fastball both sides of the plate from the sidearm slot and throw a breaking ball for a strike or expand the plate with it."
A drop down is a pitch that catchers Jonathan Lucroy or Martin Maldonado will call, but Duke does have the option to do it "unannounced," so to speak, if he feels like it.
"Obviously with a runner on second I need to know, but other than that, as long as it its’ the same pitch, I don’t worry about it," Lucroy said. "He’s a veteran guy, been around a long time, knows what he needs to do, very intelligent, and he’s actually a lot of fun to catch because he knows what he wants to do and it makes it a lot easier on me."
By adding that ability to change up his delivery on two standard pitches, as well as getting his regular stuff over consistently, Duke has maximized his ability. Lucroy thinks that being a reliever is helping him do that, too.
"You can kind of get to starters because you see them, you might get three or four at-bats off ‘em, but a reliever you’re going to get one, two, maybe, if it’s a long relief situation," Lucroy said. "He can just go in there and attack with all his weapons and now that he added that drop down slider and drop down fastball I think it really opens up a lot of options for him. He’s been doing really good."
For his part, Duke’s done making changes such as the drop down mechanic – but it’s all about refining and replicating what he’s been doing through the first month and a half of the season.
"I knew through the offseason I had done some really good work, was really consistent through the offseason, cleaned up my delivery a bit, and I knew the ball was coming out of my hand really well and I just tried to stay consistent with it and keep doing what I was doing," he said.
"I didn’t really try to change anything and just build off what I was doing, and so far, so good. There’s going to be some bumps in the road, but I think the main thing for me is just staying the course and trusting the stuff I’m throwing is still good."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.