D-backs' Duplantier named Pipeline Pitcher of the Year
In first full season, Arizona's No. 2 prospect posts Minors' second-best ERA in 32 years
By Mike Rosenbaum
All the reasons were ostensibly there for evaluators and fans to have tempered expectations for Jon Duplantier's 2017 season. After all, the D-backs right-hander had logged just one Minor League frame during the previous summer in his professional debut before being shut down with right elbow soreness, the latest arm-related injury for Duplantier after a right shoulder impingement had cost him his entire 2015 season at Rice.
But those concerns quickly went by the wayside in Duplantier's first full season, as the 23-year-old right-hander turned in one of the more dominant campaigns in recent history to earn MLB Pipeline's Pitcher of the Year award, which is given annually to the top pitching prospect in baseball. Nominees are determined and voted on by the MLBPipeline.com staff. Players must have spent at least half the season in the Minor Leagues to be considered.
Splitting his season between Class A Kane County and Class A Advanced Visalia, Duplantier ranked first among qualified Minor League hurlers with a 1.39 ERA, the Minors' second-best mark for a full-season starting pitcher in the past 32 years, behind only Justin Verlander's 2005 campaign (1.29 ERA). He also finished third with a .192 batting average against and 12th with a 0.98 WHIP, all while racking up 165 strikeouts and averaging 10.9 strikeouts-per-nine in 136 innings across the two levels.
Of course, Duplantier wasn't the only prospect to warrant consideration as Pitcher of the Year. No. 11 overall prospect Michael Kopech (White Sox No. 3), acquired from the Red Sox during the offseason in the Chris Sale blockbuster, checked every box in his first season with the White Sox, earning a late promotion to Triple-A Charlotte after taking home Most Outstanding Pitcher honors in the Double-A Southern League. Completing a career-high 134 1/3 innings and 25 starts between the two levels, the 21-year-old right-hander finished with a 2.88 ERA and 172 strikeouts (11.5 K/9) to go along with a .193 opponents' average.
Braves No. 8 prospect Luiz Gohara also was deserving of attention. Atlanta certainly agreed, as it called up the No. 91 overall prospect to make his Major League debut on Wednesday, capping a remarkable surge through the Minors for the Brazilian left-hander in his age-20 season. Altogether, Gohara posted a 2.62 ERA across three Minor League levels while setting career highs in both innings pitched (123 2/3) and starts (25). He finished with 147 strikeouts (10.7 K/9), and hitters batted just .228 against him.
However, the fact that neither Kopech nor Gohara's campaign quite stacked up in the end speaks to Duplantier's overall consistency is his breakthrough season.
After missing 2015, Duplantier returned to Rice as a junior to finish second in NCAA Division I with 148 strikeouts and earn Conference USA Pitcher of the Year honors. The D-backs made Duplantier their third-round pick that June, signing him for $686,600, only to see him be limited by an injury in his debut.
Fully healthy in 2017, Duplantier opened his season by posting 20 2/3 consecutive frames without giving up an earned run -- 21 2/3 frames including his lone outing from the previous year -- for Class A Kane County before the streak ended on May 2. He went on to not allow an earned run in nine of his first 10 starts in the Midwest League, ultimately posting a 1.24 ERA with a .180 opponents' average and 78 strikeouts in 72 2/3 innings.
Meanwhile, the move up to the hitter-friendly California League in late June didn't slow down Duplantier. Not only did the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder register a 1.56 ERA over 12 starts with Visalia; he did so while improving his strikeout rate, tallying 87 strikeouts in 63 1/3 innings.
That success, according to the right-hander, was a product of his maturation as a pitcher throughout the year.
"The first thing I noticed was that [California League] hitters were more patient," Duplantier said. "It seemed to me like they were looking for something early in counts … and I had to make more adjustments as they were adjusting to me.
"[Pitching coach Jeff Bajenaru] did a great job in Visalia, giving us all those kind of tools -- scouting reports, hot-cold zones, swing-and-miss zones -- so I was really fortunate and blessed in that respect. He helped me a lot, helped me evolve as a pitcher."
Duplantier was selected to represent the U.S. Team in SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game, where he entered out of bullpen to record the final two outs in the seventh inning. In a season that featured plenty of high points, he looks back at his Futures Game experience as the most memorable.
"When I was getting ready to leave Visalia, Shelly Duncan, our manager, sat me down and said, 'I don't care if you walk everybody or strike everybody out, but just do one thing for me: When you run out of the bullpen or step on the field, you look around and take it all in,'" Duplantier recalled.
"That's what I did running out of the bullpen in the seventh," he said. "And I couldn't contain myself. I couldn't believe what I was feeling in the moment."
Physically strong and athletic on the mound with advanced feel for three above-average-or-better offerings, including a low- to mid-90s fastball and a power breaking ball, Duplantier has shown all the ingredients needed to become an impact starter in the big leagues.
And with his first full season now in the books, Duplantier has already begun to cautiously look ahead towards to 2018 -- a season that, if all goes as hoped for both him and the D-backs, could feature the right-hander's Major League debut.
"I try not to think about that stuff … It's out of my hands in terms of things I can control. The only thing I can control when next season starts is how I perform every day, and how I go about my work leading up to every outing," he said.
"I want to go out there every day and give the team a chance to win. Hopefully [Arizona] sees that, and if I can do that with the big league club at some point, that would be awesome."
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.