It’s been somewhat obscured by the Cubs’ mediocre overall results, but Duane Underwood Jr. is once again showcasing his stuff after a very rough go of it for a while there. The 26-year-old righty spent a long time in the system and finally took off last year after being moved to the bullpen full-time, then had a great showing in summer camp. Once the games started counting, however, his performance took a nosedive.
Underwood held his opponents scoreless in just one of his first seven appearances, compiling a 9.00 ERA with four home runs out of the 12 hits he allowed in 10 innings. He struck out 13, though, a sign that his swing-and-miss stuff could play if he just dialed a few things in. That’s exactly what he’s done in four scoreless appearances since, allowing just two hits and striking out six men with no walks.
“He’s coming into his own of knowing what he needs to do to have success,” David Ross said recently.
Sure enough, the numbers say he’s doing a better job of executing all three of his pitches to keep them closer to the zone. He still likes the high fastball, but now it’s hitting the top of the zone more frequently rather than sailing above it. The changeup is being thrown more to his arm side rather than tumbling off to his glove side, and the curve has sharper 12-6 action rather than sweeping down and out of the zone to the lower glove side.
So while Underwood is actually throwing a lower percentage of his pitches in the zone itself, he’s throwing far more of them close enough to entice a great deal more swings. Over those first seven outings, batters only swung at 39.7% of his total pitches and just 33% of those he threw out of the zone. Those respective numbers are up to 55.3% and 50% over his last four appearances despite throwing less than 32% — down from 39.1% in the earlier sample — of his pitches for “strikes.”
With all due respect to small samples, that’s all we’re ever going to have to work with when talking about relievers in a 60-game season. Underwood’s stuff has never been a question, it’s just been a matter of health and consistency. Pitching out of the ‘pen seems to have solved at least one of those and finding a groove might mean the other is no longer an issue.
A few more outings like his last four and Underwood might be in line to join Rowan Wick and Jeremy Jeffress in the late inning bucket brigade.