Unusual suspect: Justin Duchscherer
Team: Oakland Athletics
Position: Starting pitcher
Stats: 6-4, 2.20 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 42 Ks
Measurements: 6'2", 200 lbs.
Nicknames: "The Duke." Beauty.
Signature: Keeping American League lineups in check with a really long last name and some true grit ... not too dissimilar from another guy that was known as "The Duke."
Mysteries: Where did this guy come from? How has his conversion from the 'pen to the rotation gotten less pub than Joba Chamberlain's? Does he get intimidated when facing Jarrod Saltalamacchia, as Salty is likely the only player with a longer and harder-to-spell last name? How bored did he get as a youngster growing up in South Dakota? How big of an inspiration is John Wayne in his life? Alright, background time.
As if he were a card-carrying member of Del Boca Vista Phase III, a 30-year-old Justin Duchscherer missed most of last season with arthritis of the hip.
After offseason surgery, the Duke came to Spring Training pain-free and ready to make the conversion from top reliever (remember, he was an All-Star in 2005) to frontline starter. Ten starts into the year, the Duke couldn't look cooler on the mound, reminiscent of a young John Wayne. So, how did this greatest story ever told all come about?
To the evidence!
Without Reservations: Hampered by arthritis, the Duke managed to toss only 16 1/3 innings last year, sporting an ugly 4.96 ERA along the way. Now fully healthy, it's not too surprising to see his success as a reliever (2.21 ERA in '05, 2.91 in '06) translate to the rotation.
Flying leatherneck: One secret to the Duke's triumphs this year has been his uncanny ability to induce the ground ball. As a result, the A's hurler has shrunk his fly-ball rate to 35.6 percent, translating to a career-best 0.44 HR/9 IP.
Minimal trouble along the way: Despite an increased workload, the Duke continues to stay focused on the mound while limiting his mistakes. He's issued only 16 walks over 61 1/3 frames, good for 12th best amongst all starting pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched.
The lucky Texan ... or Dakotan: Of course, not even the Duke himself could pull off such a crispy-cool season without a little luck. And so far, luck has been on this Duke's side. Duchscherer currently sports a pitcher-friendly .247 batting average against on balls in play, making him the eighth-luckiest starter in the Majors.
Of course, there are always ulterior explanations.
While much of Duchscherer's success can be attributed to what I outlined in "The Evidence," I can't help but think that other factors have come into play.
After missing much of last season with a bout of arthritis, a debilitation typically reserved for more aged citizens, I can't help but think that Duchscherer was searching for some added inspiration over the offseason, perhaps in need for a role model to emulate on the mound.
And what cooler dude could the Duke have possibly picked than the Duke, himself? Whether it was as a hard-nosed U.S. Marshall in "True Grit," a slick cavalry rider in "Hondo," or as a tough-minded Marine from "Sands of Iwo Jima," John "The Duke" Wayne has always been an icon of coolness, composure and equanimity -- all traits that translate to success for gunslingers like Duchscherer.
So with a locked-in and sure-minded Duke toeing the rubber every fifth day for the A's, in a few months' time, you'll have no doubt as to how the (AL) West was won.