Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/12/12

“I love his upside. If he can harness his fastball, throw a few more strikes, he’s got a chance to be pretty good. Guys have a tough time squaring up balls against him; it’s tough to make solid contact. When you see some of the reaction of some of the hitters, I don’t think there’s any fluke about it.” — Ryan Doumit on Samuel Deduno

Few things are inevitable in baseball. Preseason favorites fail to deliver postseason destinies, future Hall of Famers go through prolonged slumps both at the plate and on the mound, and under-the-radar prospects burst onto the big league stage and become household names in a matter of weeks. It’s one of the main reasons we so passionately follow the game.

As of mid-August, though, perhaps nothing seemed so inevitable as the downfall of right-hander Samuel Deduno.

The 29-year-old journeyman began his season in Triple-A Rochester for the Minnesota Twins — his third team over the past three years — and eventually worked his way into the big league rotation. He took advantage of the opportunity by only allowing eight earned runs in his first 29 innings, winning three of his first five decisions and posting a 2.48 ERA. Given the state of the Twins’ starting staff, that type of production secured him a permanent place in the rotation for the remainder of the season.

Plenty of reasons for concern existed, however. Our very own Mike Podhorzer outlined why Deduno was unlikely to continue his early success on the mound, which largely centered around his lack of command. He has historically struggled to command his pitches — particularly his fastball — and that resulted in an astronomical walk rate. Even today, his walk rate currently stands at 5.45 BB/9. Far too high for a guy who possesses a below-average strikeout rate.

Almost a month later, Deduno’s statistics continue to defy common sense. His 1.12 K/BB ratio currently ranks seventh-worst in the league amongst starting pitchers who have thrown at least fifty pitches this season. He owns a 5.06 FIP and 4.93 SIERA. His 80.3% strand rate continues to beg for a regression.

Yet, instead of experiencing a tremendous regression of his skills on the mound, Samuel Deduno has shown marked improvement in recent starts. He has only surrendered four earned runs in his last three starts (spanning 20 innings), while striking out 19 and only walking six. And as his catcher Ryan Doumit said in the quotation above, success for the right-hander begins with throwing more strikes.

On the season, Deduno has averaged a 60.1% strike rate on the mound. During his recent improved performance, his strike rate has improved dramatically.

Date Opponent Pitches Strike% Whiff% 9/10 Indians 108 66.7% 10.2% 9/3 White Sox 93 58.1% 8.6% 8/29 Mariners 98 69.4% 14.3% 8/24 Rangers 85 61.2% 4.7% 8/19 Mariners 99 57.6% 6.1% 8/13 Tigers 103 56.3% 7.8% ’12 AVERAGE 97 60.1% 7.5%

As you can see, three of his last four starts have featured a better-than-average strike rate, and his last three starts — all quality starts — have a higher whiff rate than his season average. Of course, one can’t help but wonder if it’s a coincidence that his drastic improvement came against the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians, who have two of the five-worst wOBAs in the league over the past 30 days, but it’s extremely obvious that his ability to throw strikes appears to have turned a slight corner over his past four starts.

The reason Doumit mentioned fastball command as a key to success for Deduno is because his fastball gives opposing hitters fits. It supposedly cuts and sinks with no predictability. It’s why PITCHf/x categorizes his fastball as both a fastball and a cutter, and it’s also why Doumit says catching Deduno’s fastball is “like catching a 92-mile-an-hour knuckleball.”

That crazy description is illustrated in the numbers. The AL average against fastballs this season is .278. Opposing hitters are only hitting .255 off Deduno’s fastball this season and .268 off what PITCHf/x dubs his cutter. Add the fact that he also has a 57% groundball rate on the season — including a staggering 66.3% ground ball rate on his fastball — and it’s not difficult to ascertain why he can find success on the mound when he’s consistently throwing strikes.

Locating his fastball then allows him to get to his curveball, which is significant because opposing hitters are only hitting .170 against his breaking ball. When he doesn’t locate his fastball, however, opposing hitters can lay off his curveball (and changeup) in order to sit on his fastball. Even with an unpredictable fastball such as Deduno’s big league hitters are still going to find more consistent success against a fastball than a curveball.

In the end, it’s extremely tempting to simply make the argument that Deduno will find success on the mound if he throws more than 60% of his pitches for strikes in a single game. He has done so four times this season, and he did not surrender more than two earned runs in three of those four outings. Throwing strikes allows him to generate ground balls with his crazy fastball and generate swings and misses with his offspeed pitches.

The sample size is not nearly big enough to make that argument, though, and one cannot just ignore a seven-run implosion in the midst of his three above-average performances. While certainly throwing more strikes will help Samuel Deduno be more successful on the mound, it’s far too early to say it makes him a viable big league starter in the American League.

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