Thursday, August 21, 2008

Duke Welker: First-Hand Look at a Pirate Farmhand

I've been sitting on this analysis of a pitcher in the Pirates' minor-league system for two weeks. It's an obvious case of small sample-size, but it's much better than reading a box score. My fault for not putting it on the blog sooner. Nonetheless, enjoy.

As I’ve written and said in the past, I’ve been spending more than half my time this summer in Charleston, W. Va., the home of the West Virginia Power, Class A affiliate of MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers. Two weeks ago, the Pirates’ representative in the sprawling South Atlantic League, the Hickory (N.C.) Crawdads, paid a visit to Charleston’s four-year-old Appalachian Power Park for a four-game series.

I had hoped to catch the second Crawdad start for the newly-acquired Bryan Morris, who came over from the Los Angeles Dodgers system in the Jason Bay-Manny Ramirez three-way trade. Morris, said to be the pitcher with the highest potential of the five acquired by Pittsburgh in the final week of July, was enjoying a good measure of success as a member of the Great Lakes Loons of the Class-A Midwest League. Unfortunately for me and all the rest of the Buccos fans in central West Virginia, Morris threw in the game immediately previous to Hickory’s trip to Charleston, a home win against Rome, Ga. There was an off day sandwiched between the finish of the ‘Dads series against Rome and the showdown with the Power, but the Hickory coaching staff elected to maintain a five-man rotation instead of throwing Morris in the series finale against the Power.

Long story made short: I missed out on a front-row view of Our Buccos’ promising pitching pickup, but instead got a chance to scope out the only other Hickory hurler worth seeing – Duke Welker. As it turned out, the 6’6” righthander enjoyed what could be considered a showcase start against the best hitting team in the South Atlantic League on the evening of Aug. 7.

It was apparent Welker brought his best stuff from the get-go, as he struck out the side in the bottom of the first. Welker got the Power’s Eric Farris and Logan Schafer to swing over nasty “downer” curveballs for third strikes, then finished the frame in impressive fashion by freezing No. 3-hitter Eric Fryer with a fastball at the knees in a 2-2 count. All in all, it took Welker 18 pitches to set down the Power in order, 11 of those offerings for strikes.

Using his above-average height to his advantage, Welker continued to keep his pitches low with a pronounced downward flight. He surrendered a pair of baserunners in the second on a leadoff infield single by Steffan Wilson and a full-count, two-out walk to Caleb Gindl. Catcher Ronald Pena nailed Wilson on a caught stealing to settle things down, and then Welker did the rest, getting Zelous Wheeler to wave over another “plus” curveball low and out of the zone, then set down Curt Rindal on a shallow flyout to left to finish the second.

The only serious critique of Welker’s work through two was an elevated pitch count – 38 to only seven batters. But the Crawdads’ righty made up some ground by slipping through the third on just five pitches, inducing a pair of harmless groundballs on the way to his second perfect inning of the night.

After two quick groundball outs to kick off the fourth, Welker endured some hard luck that partially contributed to what proved to be the ballgame’s deciding inning. With the bases clear, Wilson stroked a medium-paced grounder directly over second base. Wheeler followed with a seven-pitch at-bat that ended in a base on balls. Then, on a 1-0 pitch, Gindl fought off a Welker inside fastball and poked a two-run double inside first base, just beyond a diving Tom Hagan. Rindal completed the Power onslaught when he chopped one off the upraised glove of Welker that died on the infield grass for another RBI. Bottom of the fourth: three runs on three hits and a walk; Welker threw 27 pitches to push his game total to 70.

Welker continued to throw quality pitches, however, as he used a 6-4-3 double play to shimmy out of a spot of trouble caused by the Power’s improbable third infield hit of the evening, this time off the bat of No. 9-hitter Lee Haydel.

The sixth inning turned sour when two out of the first three West Virginia batters reached by way of singles to left. Welker managed to set down Gindl on a 1-3 putout, then was lifted for reliever Wanell Macia. The Dominican lefty would escape that jam, but the Hickory bullpen went on to give up a nine-run eighth in what finished as a 13-2 Power victory; the main culprit was Francisco Ortiz, who incredibly allowed the first eight West Virginia hitters to reach base. Let’s just say it’s no mystery why the Crawdads are firmly entrenched in the South Division basement.

Final line for Welker: 5.2 innings, three runs, seven hits, four strikeouts (all in the first five batters) and two walks on 89 pitches. He got the loss, but if you are an aficionado of sabremetrics like me, you know never to pay attention to a pitcher’s record as it is almost entirely a result of offensive support and factors outside his control.

Polish Prodigy final analysis: Duke Welker turned in one of the more dominant performances by a starting pitcher I’ve seen in my nearly two years following the South Atlantic League. His fastball bounced from the low 90s to as high as 95-96 and his aforementioned “12-to-6” curveball had a good tight break as it fell from his high release point. He showed an occasional changeup, more often as he got deeper into the game. The key to his success Aug. 7 was staying in the lower half of the strike zone and not surrendering many line drives or fly balls. As I wrote above, he was the victim of bad fortune in the “hits allowed” category, seeing grounders either barely sneak through his infield defense or settle on the grass for infield safeties.

Don’t assume Bryan Morris is the only pitcher in the low minors with a high ceiling; as Duke Welker showed on the road against the SAL’s premier hitting squad, he has the ability to make a charge up the Pirates’ prospect list.

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