In the middle of the offseason following a World Series championship, the Chicago Cubs went to work to improve their team and work toward defending their title and maintain their role as the team to beat for the 2017 season. How did Theo & Co. do that? By signing Brian Duensing.
On December 2nd, Brian Duensing was signed to a Major League deal worth $2 million. Admittedly so, I was shocked and not in a good way. My initial thought was, “Who in the world is Brian Duensing?” After searching for the lefty reliever on several reference sites, I came to the conclusion that the Chicago Cubs were doomed if they were signing players like Brian Duensing.
Duensing came into the league as a swingman for the Minnesota Twins where he actually had a little bit of success. He pitched a total of 354 games up north, with 61 of them coming as a starter. During his time in the Twin Cities he was just about as average as a pitcher can get, as shown by his 99 ERA+ mark. He finished his tenure there with an ERA at 4.13 and a WHIP of 1.38. His strikeout rates that hovered right around the 15% mark with walk rates down around 7%.
After hitting free agency in the winter of 2015, Duensing found himself in the Kansas City Royals organization where he never made it to the Major Leagues. After being released mid-season by the Royals last season, he was picked up by the Baltimore Orioles. Much more of the same occurred there and he saw only 13.1 innings with the big boys in his time there.
Duensing put up good stats in Triple-A as a member of the Royals organization as you would expect from a 33 year old minor leaguer, but in his short stint with the Orioles he was less than stellar, accumulating just a 0.1 WAR. After a sub-par 2016 season it seemed as though Brian Duensing would struggle to sign a free agent deal with a Major League team for 2017.
In stepped the Chicago Cubs.
In 2017, Brian Duensing has been not only one of the best relievers on the Cubs but one of the best bullpen options in the entire league. Going into Wednesday’s game he had the 14th best ERA among qualified National League relievers to go along with the best mark on the Cubs roster. Before allowing the one run in the 7th inning Wednesday, he had a 20 inning scoreless streak going strong.
So what has he meant for the Cubs this season? He started off the season as a hybrid of a LOOGY and an innings eater. He would come in for a batter or two at a time to face a tough lefty where the matchup worked perfectly for him or in games that were blowouts to give the “better” bullpen options a break for the day to be used fresh the next game. A few months later and now Duensing is a part of that “better” options group and is able to be used in high leverage situations as shown by his appearance on Monday night against the San Francisco Giants. He came in during the 8th inning with the Cubs up only two runs, getting groundouts from Pablo Sandoval and Ryder Jones as well as a fly out from Brandon Crawford to make it a 1-2-3 inning.
So what is different this year for the 34 year old compared to past seasons? It is pretty clear that the answer to that question is strikeouts. Duensing has been able to maintain that same low walk rate that he has proven he can keep in past seasons (5.2%) while dramatically raising his strikeout percentage all the way up to 27.8% in 2017.
That increase in strikeout percentage might be due to a change in pitch types that he has been using. Once the definition of a sinkerballer who focused on generating ground balls, Duensing has cut down his sinker usage by an extreme amount this season and is throwing many more curveballs to go along with your typical four-seam fastball as shown by Brooks Baseball.
This change in approach from the mound completely alters the type of pitcher that Brian Duensing is. Over the course of his career he has gone from a guy that pitches to contact by generating ground outs and double plays to a pitcher that guns for the strikeout by using a fastball-curveball-slider combination.
Between his style change to the amount of confidence he has gained by pitching for Joe Maddon due to the situation he gets deployed, Brian Duensing has become a significant weapon for the Chicago Cubs and I expect to see him used in high leverage situations even more as the season moves along.