Good left-handed pitching is hard to find. A lot of this is probability; there are more right-handed people in the world, and thus more right-handed pitchers. Left-handers constantly find themselves in a buyer's market, and can often get away with having mediocre stuff. For instance, how many right-handed relievers do you know that could have allowed a 2.54 ERA in 39 innings with a four-seam fastball that averages 89.4 miles per hour? Not many, if any at all. Left-hander Blaine Hardy was able to do this for the Tigers in 2014, and no one batted an eye.
This doesn't mean that fastball velocity isn't important. Aroldis Chapman throws a gazillion miles per hour and might be the most dominant pitcher in baseball. Andrew Miller's fastball averaged 95 miles per hour last season and he just scored a huge payday. Rays closer Jake McGee and Athletics closer Sean Doolittle also throw 95 miles per hour, and were worth a combined 5.0 WAR in 134 innings last season.
Stuff matters, and this is why the Tigers took a chance on soon-to-be 25-year-old left-hander Omar Duran. A cast-off from the Oakland A's farm system, Duran signed to a minor league deal with the Tigers in November and will be in major league camp this spring.
Where did he come from?
The A's signed Duran as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic prior to the 2008 season. After an unimpressive showing in the Dominican Summer League that season -- he walked 34 batters in 34 2/3 innings -- Duran opened some eyes with 21 strikeouts in 15 innings in the Arizona Rookie League in 2009. The rest of Duran's numbers lagged behind until 2010, when he allowed a 2.01 ERA and a 3.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 40 1/3 innings in the same league.
Duran started to move up through the system in 2011, albeit slowly. His numbers follow a similar pattern at every stop: loads of strikeouts, lots of walks, not many hits allowed, and no home runs. In fact, Duran did not allow a home run until 2013, his sixth professional season! He struck out 30 batters in 33 1/3 innings in 2011, 49 batters in 27 2/3 innings in 2012, and 97 batters in 68 innings in 2013. However, he did not make it past Advanced-A Stockton during this stretch thanks to his unsightly walk totals.
Duran finally made it to Double A in 2014 after his walk rate became more manageable. He struck out 79 batters and walked 28 in 60 1/3 innings between Stockton and Double-A Midland, a 2.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He continued to be stingy to batters who couldn't draw a free pass, allowing just 44 hits across the two levels. He allowed a 2.54 ERA on the season, but it was not enough to save his job. The A's released Duran after the season, and the Tigers quickly swooped in to sign him to a deal.
While many scouts shy away from player comparisons, we find them useful in order to paint a broad picture of a player. Earlier this offseason, Cameron compared Duran to current Tigers reliever (and fellow Dominican) Al Alburquerque.
However, it's not just their stat line that we find similarities in. Both Alburquerque and Duran find success by mixing devastating sliders with fastballs that sit in the mid-to-upper 90s. Alburquerque has become known at the major league level as a pitcher that will throw his slider with confidence in any count. I don't think I'll ever be able to say that Alburquerque has command of any of his pitches, but when he controls his slider, it's one of the most dominant pitches in baseball. I have never seen Duran pitch, but scouting reports indicate that he tends to nibble around the zone rather than attack hitters.
Duran's fastball has been clocked from 96 to 98 miles per hour when he is throwing out of the bullpen, and is considered his best pitch. He did a good job of elevating the fastball during a solid showing in the 2013 Arizona Fall League. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs has been exploring the efficacy of elevated fastballs recently, and has shown that high heat generates more whiffs.
Granted, this requires a fair bit of command, something that Duran does not have. He has walked 184 batters in 288 1/3 career innings in the minor leagues, a rate of nearly six per nine innings. His walk numbers improved in 2014, but one season of middling command -- he still walked over four guys per nine innings -- does not mean his issues are fixed. His lack of command, often due to an over-reliance on velocity, is why he only has 14 1/3 career innings at the Double A level in seven minor league seasons.
Duran's other pitch is a wipeout breaking ball that has been called both a curveball and slider. It too has been labeled a potential plus pitch and can generate plenty of swings and misses when thrown in the right location. Duran seems to rely on the fastball more than the slider, so the above comparison to Alburquerque only goes so far. Either way, Duran is your prototypical power relief arm; if he can harness his excellent raw stuff, he could be dominant.
What should we expect from him?
Opposing batters hit just .204 with a .329 slugging average off Duran in some very hitter-friendly environments last year. The Tigers are hoping those numbers go even further south once he gets into the cooler midwestern air in 2015. Duran's improved command in 2014 is a good sign going forward, but the A's willingness to let him go raises doubts on how much we can trust the numbers. Still, left-handers with his kind of stuff don't come around often, and a high walk rate is manageable if everything else is kept under control. He will almost surely begin the year at Double A, but the Tigers won't hesitate to bring that live arm up if he continues to blow away hitters in the minors.