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Spring Training is underway, which is cause for celebration within itself. But there is also celebration if you are a Kansas City Royals fan because for the first time in 29 years the Royals are the defending American League Champions. Maybe the most asked question over the last month(by pundits and fans alike) has been whether or not the Royals will be able to make the playoffs two years in a row. In due time I will throw my thoughts out there on that subject, but for now it is easy t0 see that the American League Central will be a fight possibly among four teams(and I think Minnesota will not go quietly into the night). For the Royals to be in that conversation they will need the starting rotation to be at the same level they have held the last two years, even with James Shields now calling San Diego home. That means Danny Duffy needs to step it up yet another notch.

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Heading into 2014 it didn’t appear that Duffy was going to be a major part of the team’s rotation. Duffy had struggled throughout Spring Training and by the time the season started he was pitching in Omaha. When the Royals did finally call him up he was being used out of the bullpen and seemed to find a bit of success there. But the end of April saw a couple of awful outings out of the pen and questions as to where Duffy should go from there. Luckily for Duffy, Bruce Chen came down with an injury, forcing him into the rotation. His first outing was nothing spectacular, but within a few more starts he started pitching more efficiently and was putting up numbers that Kansas City management always knew he was capable of. A large part of his success could be attributed to his ability to pitch to contact, letting the Royals stellar defense get the outs while reducing Duffy’s pitch count. In fact keeping his pitch counts down led to him pitching deeper in games while still lessening his workload. It seemed as if Danny Duffy had finally figured out the key to success.

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Then in September Duffy threw one pitch in a start in New York before being taken out of the game for health concerns. Then there was the horrible outing in Chicago where Duffy couldn’t throw a strike from the windup and was forced to throw from the stretch. Once the playoffs came around Duffy was exiled to the bullpen and appeared in only a few games, normally for just a few innings at a time. It wasn’t until after the World Series had wrapped up that we found out that Duffy had been dealing with a ribcage injury.

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So where does this lead Duffy to in 2015? The Royals are counting on him to be a major part of the rotation, possibly as high as the number 2 starter with Shields leaving and Yordano Ventura (hopefully) taking over the role as team ace. Obviously there are concerns about Duffy heading into this season, mainly concerning his health. Duffy took the first step toward alleviating those concerns, changing his physique over the winter and his workout routine. Duffy cut back on fast food(changing up his diet), cut back on the amount of running he normally does and worked out more in the gym. The point is to keep him healthy so he would be able to log 200 innings this season, which he has never been able to do in his career. The change is noticeable this spring, as Duffy has gained some muscle mass, bumping up from his 2014 weight of 195 to a stealth 212 pounds.

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But his health isn’t the only concern this spring. I mentioned earlier that a key to Duffy’s success was pitching more to contact, which is shown in the numbers. His ground ball to fly ball ratio was up as was the balls in play percentage(up to 69%, as his career percentage before was around 63%) and his walk rate was down as well(down to 8.8% from 13.5 in 2013). But his strikeout rate was also down(18.7 from 21.2% in 2013 and 23.1% in 2012) as was his velocity, although I’m not as concerned with that as others.

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In my mind Duffy’s velocity was down to help his command and throw more strikes. In the past Duffy had a habit of hunkering down late in the count, looking for the strikeout. The change in philosphy though meant he needed better command so he would dial the heat down 1 or 2 miles per hour. Because of that he had very favorable stats when it came to accuracy. His strike percentage was up to 63.8%(from 59.8% in 2013) while his contact percentage was sitting at 83.1%, up from 75.4% in 2013. So with him throwing more strikes, more of those pitches were put into play, meaning his pitch count was kept down while pitching deeper into games. The other positive from this new change was the ability of getting ahead in the count. Duffy’s first pitch strike percentage rose up to 59% last year while the amount of 3-0 counts he faced was at a career low, 5.4%. To add to this his strikeout looking percentage went up, 31.0% from 27.3%, which means Duffy was able to mix his pitches better and keep hitters off guard. It makes sense then (especially with Kansas City’s ‘Grade A’ defense) that Duffy’s BAbip(batting average on balls in play) of .240 is sustainable if he can continue attacking the hitters and pitching to contact. The real question will be if some of his velocity comes back, even just to keep the hitters guessing.

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With all this said, the Royals need Danny Duffy to be the guy he was for the majority of 2014. If he can do that and stay healthy, the Royals have a good shot at capturing the American League Central crown. But if Duffy falls back(or can’t stay out of the trainer’s room) the Royals could have a problem filling out their rotation. Sure, the Royals need Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez to improve the offense this year, and bounce back seasons from Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios wouldn’t hurt. But the key to the Royals success this season lies in their rotation and there is no bigger key to it than Duffy. Without him, the team will need to find innings from somewhere; unfortunately Omaha might not have an answer for them. In 2015, the Royals need Duffy to be as gnar as he can be.

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