Roy Duane Ward | RHP | 1986-1995 | Career Stats | 1 All-Star appearance
Duane Ward's professional baseball career began when the Atlanta Braves drafted him ninth overall out of high school in the 1982 first year players draft. Although he was blessed with a tremendous arm, success was not immediate for the young Ward. In the first four years of his professional career, the Atlanta Braves organization used him almost exclusively as a starter. Despite possessing a repertoire that includes a moving high 90s fastball and a devastating hard slider, he struggled throughout his time in the Braves' farm system as a result of his inability to command his pitches. During that stretch, he averaged nearly 5BB/9IP; in addition, the prolific strikeout numbers he posted late in his career were non-existent at this stage of his development, equating to some ugly numbers.
After toiling in the Braves' systems for four years, the Braves have finally lost patience with Ward. On July 6th, 1986, Duane was traded by the Braves to the Toronto Blue Jays for veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander. He was assigned to AAA Syracuse and continued his struggles there for the remainder of the year.
The initial domino that started Ward's road to stardom fell in the ensuing year when the Jays relocated the struggling youngster to the Syracuse bullpen, where he recorded 14 saves and showed signs of fulfilling his vast potential. Although he struggled in his cup of coffee with the Blue Jays, 1987 was an encouraging year for Ward as he was finally learning how to put hitters away with his dominating stuff.
In 1988, Duane Ward won a job in the Jays' bullpen and never looked back. Over the next five years of his career, he established himself as one of the most dominating relievers in the majors. Together closer Tom Henke, they formed one of the most formidable late inning duos in baseball history. Games led by Toronto after seven innings were as good as a recorded victory, as the eighth and ninth were pitched by the duo with robotic efficiency.
Despite being referred to as a setup man, the way Cito Gaston used Ward starkly contrasts the way contemporary setup men are employed. In each of his five seasons as the setup man, he pitched over 100 innings in each of those seasons, maxing out at 127 2/3IP in the 1990 season. In comparison to today's relievers, only four have pitched more than 100 innings since the turn of the millennium (Scott Sullivan twice, Steve Sparks, Guillermo Mota, and Scot Shields). In addition, unlike most contemporary setup men, who only get a rare save here and there, Ward averaged a smidgeon over 15 saves per season even with Henke being the #1 option in the pen. Because of his usage, Ward, in many ways was even more valuable to the Blue Jays than Henke; over that five year period, Ward pitched an average of 45 innings per season more than Henke.
With the departure of Henke to free agency following the 1992 World Series victory, Ward assumed the vacant closer role in the ensuing season. He responded to his new role with career highs in several statistical categories, including the franchise single season saves record with 45. Furthermore, his performance during the 1993 playoffs was crucial to the Jays' title defence. In eight dominating appearances, he averaged nearly 15K/9IP and recorded four saves; additionally, he pitched a scoreless ninth in game 6 of the World Series, setting up Joe Carter's title clinching walk off homerun and collected the final victory of their championship season.
Coming off a career year and a second consecutive World Series victory, Ward's career took a nosedive in 1994. All those years of firing high-90s heat and his trademark slider have taken a toll on his body; in 1994, he was forced to miss the entire season due to a severely torn rotator cuff. The recovery process was long, but he managed to work himself back into a big league uniform in 1995. However, the damage done to his rotator cuff was too severe, he only managed a couple lacklustre innings before packing it in for good and called it a career at age 31. After resting his shoulder for a couple years, he attempted a come back in 1997 with the Texas Rangers. However, by that time, he has lost a lot of zip on his fastball and was largely ineffective; he never made it out of spring training. In 2002, he considered coming back for one last hurrah, but ultimately decided against it.
Although his career was cut short prematurely by injury, Ward nonetheless enjoyed a successful career as a major league reliever. At his prime, Ward was one of the most feared pitchers in baseball, even more so than his partner in crime Henke, the man nicknamed the Terminator. His wildness is a big contributing factor. Hitters could never get comfortable in the batter's box as they never know if the next heater coming out of his hand will end up next to their head.
Duane Ward will be remembered as one of the top relievers in Blue Jays history. In light of recent bullpen struggles, Ward's name has been alluded to with increasing frequency as fans and management alike want to a dependable, dominating arm like Ward to slot in behind B.J. Ryan as the setup man. In has been eleven years since he has donned a Blue Jays Jersey, but he remains one of the most recognizable names in franchise history, synonymous with the championship teams of the early 90s, and it is most certainly warranted.