When a new baseball season begins, there are certain definites that we are guaranteed and don’t even have to worry about. Mike Trout will put up MVP caliber numbers, Clayton Kershaw will pitch like he is the second coming of Sandy Koufax, and Bartolo Colon will make you smile at some point. There is also this definite for any Kansas City Royals fan: Danny Duffy will make you shake your head at some point. Sometimes it’s for how good he is pitching, other times it will be for how inconsistent he is pitching. Danny Duffy might be one of the hardest players to really put your finger on and he is continuing his mystifying act so far in 2016.
Duffy started the year in the bullpen for the Royals, but was soon summoned to the rotation when both Chris Young and Kris Medlen came down with injuries. Danny would make his first start of the season on May 15 and (on a limited pitch count)would put forth a starling effort. On that Sunday, Duffy would throw 48 pitches in 3 innings of work, giving up 1 hit, and no runs while allowing 2 walks and striking out 5. Over the next three starts, Duffy would gradually increase his pitch count, which also meant he was pitching deeper into each game. But that wasn’t the only improvement by Duffy over those next three starts.
Over his last three starts, Duffy has not walked a single batter, striking out 14 over 15.2 innings, which feels like a minor miracle if you have followed Duffy’s progression over the last three season. One major obstacle for Duffy throughout his career has been the ability to pitch efficiently, both as a way to keep his pitch count lower and to avoid allowing extra runners on base with walks. Since 2012, Duffy’s walks per 9 have been a bit high: 5.86, 5.18, 3.19, and 3.49. So far this year he has lowered it considerably, down to 1.72 over 36 total innings. Allowing less runners, no matter the situation, is always a plus and Duffy lowering his walks has made him a more efficient starter in a small sample size.
While Duffy’s walks are down, his average velocity is up so far this year. Now, part of that reason is his early stint in the bullpen, where he was able to air out the ball in his 16 outings in relief. But over these last four starts, he has maintained his increased velocity with only a slight difference being seen between his stint in the pen and his work in the rotation:
What it also looks like is that Duffy has ditched his slider for the most part and decreased his use of the cutter. Instead, Duffy has been throwing his two-seam fastball at a higher rate(15% compared to 4% last year) and his change-up has been used as a bigger weapon as well(13% compared to 95% usage last year). This actually explains a lot of the velocity increase, as a cutter is normally 2-5 MPH slower on average compared to a 4 or 2 seam fastball. Duffy seems to be using his change-up enough to keep batters on the look out for it while then using his fastball as his ‘out pitch ‘. In fact, Duffy’s swinging strike out percentage this year has seen an uptick (from 14% to 25% this year) while his strike out’s looking has taken a dive(25% to 19%). Rather than fooling batters this year, Duffy is throwing the cheese and forcing hitters to try and hit his 95 MPH+ fastball, a strategy that maybe should have been used earlier in his career.
Hitters are also not hitting the ball as hard off of Duffy this year. On average, Duffy has been below league average most weeks when it comes to the exit velocity off his pitches:
In fact, Duffy’s soft hit percentage has increased this year(up to 26%) while both the medium and hard hit percentages have gone down (48% and 26% respectively). Hitters are just not hitting the ball as hard off of him this year which has helped turn him from a pitcher with potential to be a solid mid-rotation starter to one who could actually achieve that status if he keeps it up.
So which Danny Duffy is the real Duffy? History would say that Danny will come back down to earth and pitch less consistently than he has over his four starts. But all the numbers tell a different story, that of a pitcher who has changed his approach on the mound and might have unlocked a secret to success. Duffy is throwing more strikes(his first pitch strike percentage is up, as is the amount of 0-2 counts he is throwing), and allowing less walks which is also knocking down his pitch counts. On Wednesday, Duffy threw just 75 pitches in 6 innings of work(51 of those pitches were strikes) and if he can keep that kind of efficiency up, there would be no reason to think he couldn’t be the starter the Royals have longed him to be. The one slight on GM Dayton Moore’s record has been the inability to produce productive starting pitching during his tenure in Kansas City. If Duffy can be what they always envisioned him to be, that would go a long way toward improving the rotation and improve Moore’s track record with starting pitching. It might have taken longer than expected, but we could finally be seeing the ‘Real’ Danny Duffy, the one we always knew we wanted.