Who is DannyDuffy?

Is he the twenty-two year old who entered 2011 as the 68th best prospect in all of baseball?   The guy who obliterated minor league competition, striking out 407 batters in just 350 innings?   The guy who allowed just seven hits per nine innings and less than three walks per nine?

Or is he the twenty-two year old who could not get the third strike against major league hitters?  The guy who allowed almost four and one-half walks per nine innings, struck out just over seven batters per nine and was tagged for 119 hits in just 105 innings of major league work?

What we currently know about Danny Duffy is that he has marvelous pure stuff.   His major league fastball averaged over 93 mph and touched 95 easily.  He brings a big curve, at times devastating and a decent changeup.   He is a pitcher who got two strikes against batters more often than C.J. Wilson did and who probably was somewhat unlucky given that his xFIP of 4.53 was considerably better than the 5.64 earned run average that will forever reside on the back of his baseball card.

Who is Danny Duffy?  Is he a future top of the rotation guy like Tom Glavine?

Glavine was, stuff wise, a far different type of pitcher than Duffy is, but in the low minors he was a guy who averaged more than a strikeout per inning and saw his walk rate rise as he rose through the minors.   He broke into the majors at the age of 21, making nine starts in 1987 and was simply awful (5.54 ERA, 5.9 BB/9, 3.6 K/9).   Glavine was only slightly better in 1988:  starting 34 games at the age of 22, throwing 195.1 innings, walking 2.9/9, but striking out just 3.9/9 on his way to a pedestrian 4.56 ERA.   

In 1989, Glavine shaved nearly a full run of his ERA and his walk rate fell to its lowest mark of his minor and major league career.   He regressed some in 1990, but still threw 214 innings and then, in 1991 won the Cy Young Award.   He finished second in the Cy Young voting in 1992 and third in 1993 and was basically a number one/number two type (probably not an ace) pitcher for more than a decade.

Who is Danny Duffy?  Is he John Danks?

Danks also broke into the majors at age 22, starting 26 games and allowing 160 hits and 28 home runs over just 139 innings.  Danks finished that 2007 season with an ERA of 5.50, an xFIP of 4.76, a walk rate of 3.5/9 and a strikeout rate of 7.1/9.   For his minor league career, Danks had struck out 9.2 batters per nine innings and walked 3.3.

As a 23 year old in 2008, John started 33 games, threw 195 innings and posted an ERA of 3.32 (xFIP 3.82).   While his strikeout rate was basically unchanged (and has remained unchanged in the three seasons since), Danks dropped his walk rate considerably in 2008, down to 2.6/9.   What Danks really did, however, was keep the ball in the park and, after being tagged for 10.4 hits per 9 innings as rookie, held it under 8.5/9 from 2008 through 2010.

I view John Danks as marginal number two/solid number three starter who has a chance to become even better.   At age 26, he has already contributed 16.3 career fWAR to the White Sox, gobbled up just under 1,000 innings and started 150 games.  The Royals could do a lot worse than have Danny Duffy become their John Danks.

Of course, maybe Danny Duffy is Randy Wolf.

Wolf emerged on the major league scene in 1999 at, you guessed it, the tender age of twenty-two.   In the minors, Wolf had struck out just under a batter per inning and had a career walk rate in 344 innings of 2.9/9.  He appeared in 22 games as a rookie, starting 21 and while his strikeout rate held, Randy walked five batters for every nine innings he pitched on his way to a 5.55 ERA  and a 5.14 FIP (he’s old enough that xFIP is not available at Fangraphs).

As a full-time rotation member in 2000, Wolf threw 206 innings, posting rates of 7.0K/9 and 3.6 BB/9 and shaved well over a run off his ERA down to 4.36 with a roughly equal FIP of 4.46.  The following season, Wolf’s strikeout rate went back up to his minor league levels, his walk rate dropped below three and his ERA and FIP dipped in the threes.

Over his 13 major league seasons, Randy Wolf has thrown 2,110 innings with an ERA of 4.09, an ERA+ of 103, a FIP of 4.34 and given his combined teams 24 WAR.  Injuries have been a bit of an issue and Wolf has thrown 190 innings or more seven times.  In 2009, at age thirty-two, Wolf had probably his best season and has since pitched over 210 innings in each of the last three years.

What is Randy Wolf?  A number three/four type starter?  Is that Danny Duffy’s destiny?

Or is Danny Duffy the next incarnation of  Kyle Lohse?

Guess how old Kyle Lohse was when he broke into the majors:  yeah, twenty-two.  Coming off a minor league campaign that saw Lohse strike out almost nine batter per nine innings and walk less than two per nine, Kyle was tagged for a 5.68 ERA (5.16 FIP) in his first 90 major league innings.  His strikeout rate fell to 6.4/9 (and frankly has never really come back) and his walk rate jumped up to almost 3 per 9 innings.

Lohse came back in 2002, threw 181 innings with an ERA of 4.23 (xFIP 4.72), which began a string of four seasons as a full-time member of the Twins’ starting rotation that would see him compile 9.3 WAR over that time.   Lohse has been better in the National League, but up and down enough to occasionally find himself in the minors.   Over 11 seasons and with 4 teams, Kyle has tossed 1,762 innings with an ERA+ of 94 and a career ERA of 4.64 and an xFIP of 4.51.   Lohse is your classic number four/five starter who every once in a while has a season where he becomes a solid mid-rotation guy.   He’s given his teams a combined 21 WAR over his career.

We would all be disappointed if we reach the next decade and Danny Duffy has given a Kyle Lohse like career, but it could be worse.

Danny Duffy could be the next Chris George.

At age 19, George had a very good season for High-A Wilmington.  He threw 145 innings, struck 142, allowed just under a hit per inning and walked 3.3 batter per nine frames.   The Royals moved him to AA at age twenty, where George was pretty good:  3.14 ERA in 97 innings.  He walked over four batter per nine, but struck out 7.4.   It was enough to push Chris up to AAA the same year and earn him status as the 21st best prospect in the game.   The following season, George started 20 games for AAA Omaha:  posting a 3.53 ERA and allowing just 103 hits over 117 innings despite seeing his strikeout rate drop to 6.4/9 while his walk rate continued to hover around four.

Those AAA stats were enough to earn Chris George his major league debut the same season (2001) at age twenty-one.   George started 13 games, threw 74 innings, struck out just 32 and floundered to a 5.59 ERA.  George was no better in six starts in 2002.  He was exceptionally awful (I mean worse than Kyle Davies at his worst!) in 93 innings in 2003, walking 44, striking out 39 and giving up 22 home runs and somehow managed to be worse in 42 innings of work the following season.  Chris George has not sniffed the major leagues since and racked up over 1,200 AAA innings in six organizations and Mexico.

I don’t think Danny Duffy is Chris George.   God, I hope he’s not Chris George.

Five different pitchers, five different career paths and while the styles vary, it is quite possible to envision Danny Duffy turning in any of the above careers.   I personally believe that Duffy will improve dramatically in 2012 and might well become a legitimate number two starter by the beginning of 2013.   To do that, Duffy needs to pitch in the majors, not Omaha, and continue the learning process of what it takes to put away major league hitters after getting ahead in the count.   That is, as we have discussed here before, a skill I don’t think he can acquire getting the Paulo Orlandos of the world to chase out of the zone fastballs in a 1-2 count.

The Royals, I believe, are convinced that Duffy is a major part of their future, but may not be sold that he is a lock for their 2012 rotation.   Maybe they are right and quite possibly, right or wrong, more AAA time for Duffy in 2012 likely won’t do any long term damage to his overall career.  

My preference, obviously, is for Duffy to get 32 major league starts in 2012.   Maybe then, we will be able to answer the ‘Who is Danny Duffy?’ equation.

xxx