Duchscherer dominates his own way
Righty plays crucial role in 'pen despite lack of velocity
PHOENIX -- After righty Justin Duchscherer stifled the Angels on four singles over seven innings in his A's debut in September 2003, one of the Halos' beat writers opened his game story thusly:"How slow does Justin Duchscherer throw? Slow and slowerer." Never mind that Duchscherer is pronounced "Duke-sher." It was a clever line nonetheless. Accurate, too. Duchscherer never topped 86 mph on the radar gun with his fastball that day, and his curveball was gunned as low as 69. Back then, Duchscherer's velocity -- or lack thereof -- was something of a sore spot for him. Thanks to fellow Texas natives Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood, it was almost expected of Lone Star State hurlers to be big, burly power pitchers. Duchscherer was skinny and threw what one Angels hitter that day in 2003 called "slop." "My whole career I was told that I didn't throw hard enough to make it in the big leagues," Duchscherer said Tuesday at Papago Park, Oakland's Spring Training headquarters. "I had teammates in the Minors telling me I should take steroids, it was so bad." It didn't help that after five-plus years in the Red Sox organization, Duchscherer was traded to ... Texas. "When I first got over there, Doug Melvin was the general manager, which was great because he just wanted me to pitch to my strengths and get outs," Duchscherer said. "But then he left, and the new guy was in love with big guys who threw gas." So, again, Duchscherer was traded, this time to the A's in Spring Training 2002, and he found in A's GM Billy Beane another executive who didn't put much stock in radar readings. "When I got traded here, Billy called me and said, 'I don't care how hard you throw; just get people out,'" he said. Duchscherer's first year in the organization, at Triple-A Sacramento, was truncated by two long stints on the disabled list with a strained back. But since then, he's been so successful at getting people out that he's now gushed over by some of the same people who used to dismiss him. "When I first saw him, I thought, 'Maybe he'll be a No. 5 starter. Maybe. Probably more of a long [reliever]. Won't be around long with that fastball,'" admitted an American League scout. "Now, I'm like, 'Man, I'd love to have that guy.' And I'm not alone. Everyone loves him." What everyone loves about Duchscherer, who has added a nasty cutter and a couple of ticks to his heater since his storybook debut in Oakland (his son, Evan, had been born earlier that day), is a command of his arsenal that veteran catcher Jason Kendall calls "ridiculous."
So easy to catch is Duchscherer that when Kendall is given his choice of batterymates during the six-man bullpen sessions here, he looks for one name on the list of potential partners."I grab the paper, look at it, and if his name's on it, I say, 'I got Duke,'" Kendall said. "I remember when I was a kid, hearing my Dad (former big-league catcher Fred Kendall) saying some guy had such good control you could catch him in a rocking chair. I wasn't sure what it meant then, but I do now. That's what it's like catching Duke." That pinpoint accuracy has always been the key to Duchscherer's game. A's manager Bob Geren first saw him in 1996, when Geren was managing the Red Sox's Gulf Coast League team and Duchscherer was in his first year of pro ball, right out of high school. "His fastball was quite a bit below average, but even then he had a Major League curveball and Major League command," Geren said. "I had him in Sacramento, too, but that was the year he was injured, so I didn't get to see him much. But he was throwing a little harder, and he still had that great command." Geren was promoted to bullpen coach for the big-league club prior to the 2003 season, and by the end of the year, he was joined in Oakland by Duchscherer, who was called up after going 14-2 with a 3.25 ERA in Sacramento to earn Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year honors. "At one point during that year, he had more wins than walks," Geren marveled. "I think he had 13 wins and 12 walks at one point. That's how good his control is." Said Duchscherer: "My control has to be that good. I have to work the corners and off the corners, because when I miss over the white [of the plate], I get hit." Duchscherer would have liked to continue as a starter, and he'd like to return to the more comfortable routine of rotation work at some point in his career, but Oakland's decision to move him to the bullpen has worked out well for everyone. He made the team out of Spring Training in 2004 and posted a 3.27 ERA in 53 games as a rookie, and in 2005 he made the American League All-Star team on the way to a 2.21 ERA in 65 games, leading the league with a 4.47-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Last season, he was again one of the most reliable setup men in the game, and when closer Huston Street was out with injuries, Duchscherer filled in and picked up nine saves in 11 chances. "I know he'd like to start again," Geren said. "We've talked about it, and maybe he'll get that chance down the road. But I told him he's too valuable to us in the role he's in right now. Guys who can do what he does aren't easy to find." Duchscherer, who won't be a free agent until after the 2009 season, said he doesn't think the A's will ever ask him to start again but admitted, "I'm trying to work on Bob a little." No matter his role, though, Duchscherer takes pride in having made it this far without being a flamethrower, and Kendall hopes young pitchers are taking notice. "Now that he's a veteran," Kendall said, "he's the perfect guy to show kids who might not have the greatest arm in the world and say, 'See? If you can put the ball where you want it, you can make it; Duke did it.'"
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.