For a year, Royals fans heard a refrain: Just wait until Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura are in the starting rotation and contributing. That was when the club would truly turn the corner and contention would finally be reality. The damnedest thing… That actually happened in 2014. Last season Danny Duffy indeed enjoyed his finest season as a major league professional. And the Royals actually played in October.
You have to admit, you were surprised how it all worked out. There’s no way you could have seen this coming.
In spring training in 2014, Duffy insisted he wanted to be in the Royals bullpen. Huh? Aren’t starting pitchers, you know… Supposed to want to start? Apparently, not Duffy. At least not in March, 2014. Duffy lost the competition to be a starter to Ventura and the Royals shipped him to Omaha. Just days later, the Royals obliged Duffy’s wish and he was recalled to throw out of the bullpen. And Duffy was quite good. In his first four relief appearances, he threw 8.1 innings, struck out 11 and walked just two without allowing a run to score.
Then, he hit rock bottom.
In a tie game in Baltimore on April 26, Duffy was summoned in the tenth inning of a 2-2 game. He walked the first batter on four pitches. The next batter bunted on the first pitch (remember in October, how Buck Showalter was a managerial savant of some kind?), Duffy fielded and threw it away. The next batter also bunted. Also to Duffy. And again, Duffy threw the ball away. He exited with the bases loaded and the Royals lost game two batters later on a Markakis single.
Four days later, Duffy relieved Ventura in the sixth inning in a game against Toronto with the Royals leading 2-0. Again, he hit the leadoff batter. Then he walked the next man. Ned Yost pulled him after just six pitches thrown. And one strike.
But with Bruce Chen sidelined, the Royals needed another starter. Relief issues aside for Duffy, he was summoned to the rotation. And for four months, he thrived.
Overall, Duffy appeared in 31 games for the Royals, made 25 starts, threw 149 innings, struck out 113 batters and walked just 53. He finished with a 2.53 ERA, a 4.42 xFIP and an ERA- of 56.
From May 2 to August 31, Duffy threw 133 innings, struck out 97, allowed hitters a .203/.277/.314 line. His ERA was 2.44. He was magnificent.
The underlying positive for Duffy in 2014 was his command. Entering the season, he had a career walk rate of 4.7 BB/9. The falling behind in the count, the failing to put hitters away after hanging two strikes on them, and the walks were a cumulative issue that threatened to hold him back from his potential. Factor in his recovery from Tommy John surgery where the last thing pitchers typically recover is command and you can see how it was a concern.
In 2011, in 250 plate appearances where Duffy got two strikes batters, he them a .263/.324/.452 line with 20 walks and 84 strikeouts. By comparison, in 2014, Duffy had 304 plate appearances where he had at least two strikes on a hitter. In those instances, he approved to a .149/.211/.206 line with 113 strikeouts and 20 walks. His sOPS+ (split relative to the league’s split) went from an obscene 197 (with 100 league average and a lower number better for pitchers) to 65. Basically, he went from having two strikes on a hitter as a liability to where it should be – a point of strength.
He also finally started to jump ahead of hitters. In 2014, he threw a strike with his first pitch 59 percent of the time. Going back to 2011 and 2012 (before the Tommy John) he was around 52 percent. That improvement of seven percent is massive. To give you some perspective of how awful his first pitch strike rate was, consider that even at 59.1 percent, Duffy was still 1.5 percentage points below league average in the AL. Had he thrown enough innings to qualify, his first strike rate would have been the 31st best in the AL out of 40 starters. So let’s not treat his improvement as though he’s running with the big strike-throwing dogs now. But let’s do acknowledge he needed to improve that rate and he figured out a way to accomplish that.
It all added up to improved command and a career-best walk rate of 3.2 BB/9. I know Duffy has a legion of Royals fans who have always believed in him, but I’m not sure any rational analyst saw that kind of improvement in the cards for his walk rate.
Time to stare at the elephant on the blog and that is Duffy’s health. He exited a start in Yankee Stadium at the start of September after throwing just a single pitch. The Royals medical staff diagnosed it as inflammation in his rotator cuff. I’m not a doctor, but the words “rotator cuff” make me cringe. Duffy missed a couple of starts and returned to throw 96 pitches in six innings in a 2-0 shutout of the Indians. In his final regular season start, Duffy lasted just two innings before exiting with what the Royals initially thought was a strained intercostal muscle.
In October, Duffy made just three appearances for the Royals in their 15 games. He pitched the bottom of the 10th inning for Kansas City in Game One of the ALDS against the Angeles, throwing 19 pitches before sending the game to the 11th where the Royals eventually won. Duffy didn’t make another appearance for 18 days, finally making it to the mound for some mop-up duty in the Game One shellacking in the World Series. Another appearance followed in the fifth inning of Game Four and Duffy was done for the year.
For September and October, Duffy made six appearances, threw 250 pitches in 12.1 innings. After the postseason, it was revealed Duffy’s alleged intercostal muscle strain was actually a stress reaction in his ribcage; a hairline crack on the outside of a rib where the discomfort would limit him to two or three innings per outing. Basically, there was no way he could start. And looking back, Yost was clearly nervous about using him.
As exceptional as Duffy’s turn as a starter was for four months of 2014, there are signs regression is lurking around the corner. He allowed a .239 BABIP, his career-best rate and nearly 60 points lower than league average. Part of that can surely be attributed to the Royals defense. However, know that of the other four Royals starters, none had a BABIP lower than .288. If you’re going to credit the Royals defense for Duffy’s BABIP, why didn’t that carry over to the other starters?
His strikeout rate was down. He whiffed 18.7 percent of all batters, off his career pace of close to 20 percent entering the 2014 season. The Royals will tell you his strikeout rate was down because he was harnessing his command by taking something off his pitches and locating the ball with purpose. They will also tell you strikeouts aren’t a huge deal for the Royals because they have a phenomenal defense behind their pitchers. Don’t believe them. It’s usually not a good development when a 25 year old pitcher sees his strikeout rate decline. Although in this instance we have the caveat of the Tommy John surgery and the fact this was his first full season of pitching since his rehabilitation from that surgery. Perhaps the strikeout rate will bounce back in 2015.
Also, there’s the fact he morphed into an extreme fly ball pitcher. Among starters with at least 130 innings, Duffy had the sixth-highest fly ball rate at 46 percent. His HR/FB rate was a low 6.1 percent. If he keeps allowing so many fly balls and his HR/FB rate normalizes, his ERA is going to increase. The defense can’t make a play on a ball over the fence. The fly ball rate, the HR/FB rate, his decline in strikeouts and BABIP all contribute to his 4.42 xFIP, which was almost two full runs higher than his actual 2.53 ERA.
When I hear talk about James Shields and how great of a leader he was to the Royals pitchers, I inevitably think of Duffy. Leadership gets the shaft in the sabermetric community, but it shouldn’t. Baseball is an incredibly difficult game chock full of ups and downs. Some players need a little guidance from time to time. Not only about how to handle the failures, but the successes, too. That’s where Shields supposedly played a part in the maturation of Duffy. Remember, this was a guy who never tasted failure until he turned pro and then at one point became so frustrated that he walked away. He was also the guy who, as I mentioned, asked to be a reliever. It’s OK to say there were some makeup and maturity issues with Duffy. He’s a young guy. That’s why a mentor like Shields is so valuable. If he can get through to someone like Duffy, he can absolutely make a difference. And by all indications, that’s what happened. Good for Duffy for accepting help. Good for Shields to being the guy in the clubhouse. And good for the Royals for enduring the ridicule that comes with trading a prospect for a “leader” and making a positive difference in a young man’s career.
There were positives. There are warning signs for some regression. And James Shields isn’t around to dispense advise. How will it affect Duffy. That’s a good question. Steamer projects Duffy to finish with a 3.95 ERA while seeing an increase in both his strikeout (7.4 SO/9) and his walk rate (3.7 BB/9). They have him making 25 starts and throwing 144 innings, which would be low obviously, but not so low if he misses time due to injury again.
I side with Steamer in thinking his ERA is going to increase, but I’m not so sure it’s going to approach four. A correction is coming, but that’s one rude adjustment. I’ll be happy with an increase in his strikeout rate, if he can induce a few more ground balls and if he can keep his ERA in the 3.50 neighborhood. If you want to be the optimist on the projections, Steamer really only has a few months of Duffy as a starter to work with.
Duffy is eligible for salary arbitration for the first time in his career. He’s asking for $3 million. The Royals countered at $1.75 million. Major League Trade Rumors projected Duffy would play for $2.6 million. If he can build upon last year’s 2.2 fWAR and give the Royals something around 2.5-3.0 fWAR for a full season, he will be quite a bargain and a true number two starter. He’s probably going to be a bargain no matter how much he makes next year.