It has not been the smoothest of rides to get where Danny Duffy is at this moment. If you can think of possible derailments for a player to be a consistent performer in the big leagues, Duffy has probably had it. Tommy John Surgery? Check. Left baseball for awhile for personal reasons? Check. Struggle with pitch efficiency? Check. The word potential has been floated around for years now around Duffy, but headed into this 2014 season it seemed that might be all we saw of him. But a few twists and turns(and an injury to the lovable Bruce Chen) have left Duffy in the brightest of spots; one of the best starters in the Kansas City Royals rotation this year.
The season didn’t start out this year all sunshine and lollipops for Duffy, though. I remember watching a Spring Training game against the Rangers where he was all over the place with his location, which forced him to throw a few pitches down the heart of the plate. This lead to a couple of homers and a big inning for Texas. Outings like this lead the Royals to switch Duffy to the bullpen to start the year, where the thought was that he could harness his nasty stuff(plus fastball with late tail on it, sharp 12-to-6 curveball and a changeup over 10 mph slower than his fastball) and let it all hang out. It worked for awhile, but within a span of a week Duffy had a bad outing in Baltimore and then a few days later he faced two Toronto batters, hitting one and walking the other. None of his pitches were near the strike zone and he didn’t look comfortable on the mound. It made me make this observation:
Whoops! In my defense, 1) it was just an observation and 2) he just didn’t look like himself on the mound. I wasn’t implying that he was going to be the next Rick Ankiel or Steve Blass, but I won’t lie: the thought crossed my mind. This also happened the week that Bruce Chen went on the disabled list, which meant the Royals needed a starter to take his place that weekend. I was almost certain it wouldn’t be Duffy and was worried about what would happen if it was.
Nothing spectacular happened that outing, but my concerns did go away and showed whatever I saw earlier in the week was unfounded. Duffy pitched what has been a normal outing for him the last few years, as he threw 4 innings, giving up 2 hits and 1 run while striking out 2 and walking 4 against the Tigers. Duffy threw 75 pitches in those four innings, which at that point was average for him, as his pitch efficiency has always been the big concern. But then…then there was the outing against Baltimore. Duffy was perfect for 20 batters and pitched into the eighth inning, giving up only two hits. THIS was the Duffy that everyone envisioned as he was coming up through Kansas City’s farm system. Since that start Duffy has been one of the most consistent starters in the Royals rotation, notwithstanding a hiccup here and there. So what is Duffy doing differently?
The obvious answer here is that Duffy has learned how to use the spectacular Royals defense to his advantage and pitch more to contact rather than trying to strike everyone out. This is backed up by a lower strikeout rate(19.2%) and a higher balls in play percentage, which is up 5 percent(28.0%) . Obviously this has helped his pitch count a ton and led to him being able to last longer in the game than normal. His walk rate(10.0%) is also down, about 3.5 percent from last year and the lowest of his major league career. It also appears as if Duffy is inducing more ground balls than ever before in his career, as his ground outs to air outs ratio is at 0.55.
The other thing that Duffy is doing better than ever is pitching ahead in the count. We’ve already seen this year how that has helped teammate Jason Vargas and it appears to have helped just as much for Duffy. His first pitch strike percentage is the highest it has ever been(58.3%), as is the amount of 0-2 counts he has achieved(28.8%). What seems the oddest fun stat for Duffy is the amount of strikeouts looking, which is sitting at 46.2% this year, almost twenty points higher than his previous high last year of 27.3%. Duffy over his career has had issues with not being able to finish batters off, which leads to numerous balls fouled off and a raise in his pitch count. This year he seems to be fooling batters more often and they don’t appear to be locked in on what Duffy will throw next.
To me, the best part of Duffy’s game this year are the pitch counts. It has been obvious for a very long time that for him to be a major contributor for Kansas City Duffy would have to be a more efficient pitcher. This year he is doing that, as he is averaging 92 pitches per start, which isn’t much less than his career average. But what has changed is his innings pitched per start, which is up to 5.9 compared to last year’s 4.9 and 2012’s 4.6. So it’s obvious that he is throwing the same amount of pitches, just spread out longer, which is a great thing. So far this year Duffy has had one game where he threw under 80 pitches(which would have been his first start after leaving the bullpen), 6 games throwing between 80-99 pitches, and 3 games throwing between 100-119 pitches. With the way Duffy has been throwing, he has earned more faith from the Royals coaching staff and has been allowed to go longer in his games. That is nothing but positive for a team who will need him down the stretch if they are to be serious contenders.
So after all this time and some losing faith(like myself), Danny Duffy has found himself in a position where he could be a difference maker this September for a playoff hopeful like Kansas City. At one time some of us debated whether Duffy should be a starter or pitch out of the pen. It now appears as if Duffy will be a fixture in the Royals rotation for years to come, barring an injury. His new found success couldn’t come to a better guy; the Royals need more guys who make comments like “bury me a Royal”. It proves once again that efficiency is the key to a pitcher’s success.