The Royals ZiPS projections were just recently released, and already discussions are a plenty in the Royals fan community. One of the biggest topics of discussion centers on the Royals starting pitching, as ZiPS is projecting a slight improvement from the Royals rotation in 2020.
With the Royals projected to win 63 games by Las Vegas, and 65 games by USA Today, expectations are modest in Kansas City for 2020. The struggles of the starting rotation in 2019 probably contributed to the meager predictions for the Royals this Spring. Last year, the Royals rotation ranked 27th in baseball in pitching WAR, 23rd in team ERA, and 27th in team FIP. Safe to say, if the Royals want to see any chance to surpass those 63 or 65 win totals, the Royals pitching staff will need to improve tremendously in 2020.
And Danny Duffy may be the key to that starting pitching improvement happening in 2020.
Duffy has been a polarizing figure in his tenure in Kansas City. Once a top prospect, Duffy has actually become a dependable starter in the rotation, something former top prospects he was lumped with such as John Lamb and Mike Montgomery (though Monty joined him in the rotation a year ago) failed to do. However, injuries and inconsistency has dogged Duffy and prevented him from being a true ace in the Royals rotation, something the Royals were hoping he would be after he signed a five-year $65 million extension in 2017.
There are some out there thinking that Duffy would be best served in the bullpen, especially after a year where he pitched only 130 innings, his lowest inning total since 2013, where he pitched only 24.1 IP. Furthermore, Duffy posted a 5.14 xFIP and a 1.45 HR/9, both career highs in those metrics, respectively. Even though Duffy has two years, and nearly $30 million total remaining on his deal, some Royals fans and experts believe that Duffy would be better in a relief role, much like Ian Kennedy, who made the switch to the closer’s role in 2019, even though he was paid to be a starter.
However, the Royals shouldn’t throw the towel on Duffy just yet. While he may not be the Opening Day starter or perhaps the ace of the rotation anymore (that honor probably belongs to Brad Keller), he has the potential to have a bounce back season, which in turn could help the Royals’ rotation overall.
Here are three reasons why Duffy is the key to the Royals pitching rotation improving overall.
Duffy had a strong finish to 2019
Duffy struggled through injury in the second half, specifically in August where pitched only 4.2 inning and posted a 15.43 ERA. Furthermore, his 4.42 ERA in the second half was higher than his 4.28 ERA in the second half, which suggests that Duffy may be pitching his way out of the rotation soon enough.
However, Duffy’s advanced metrics hint that Duffy was starting to develop a better feel on the mound in 2019, which could bode good things for 2020. His second-half 4.52 FIP was better than 4.97 FIP in the first half, and he also posted a better second half K/BB ratio in the second half (3.18) than the first half (2.10), highlighted by a nice bump in strikeout rate (18.9 to 23.2, respectively). This was mostly helped by a solid last month of play, where he posted a 2.37 ERA and 3.61 FIP over 30.1 IP in September/October.
Duffy wasn’t perfect in the second half. There are concerns about him giving up the long ball, and his high flyball rate (his average GB/FB rate is 0.88) won’t help things, especially with balls flying out of the park more often a season ago. Granted, while the HR rate remained around the same (1.43 in the first half to 1.47 HR/9 in the second half), Duffy showed a lot of promising signs in the second half that he could be the pitcher the Royals thought he would be when they re-signed him in 2017.
Duffy’s re-worked approach could pay dividends in 2020
Danny Duffy changed his pitching approach greatly in 2019, and it was obvious that he went through some growing pains in the process. In 2018, Duffy went to pitching out of the stretch full time, as their were worries that he was tipping off pitches to opposing batters. Last season, Duffy continued to pitch exclusively out of the stretch, and it seemed to have some results overall, as his ERA went down from 4.88 in 2018 to 4.34 in 2019.
However, even though he pitched in the stretch full time, he still struggled to find a rhythm with this new approach over the course of 2019. One interesting metric to note in 2019 was his increase in pitching pace from 22 seconds to 24.9 seconds from 2018 to 2019, respectively. Now, there are a lot of studies done on the correlation between pace and pitching effectiveness: some argue that taking extra time between pitches can lead to more effective pitch selection as well as less fatigue from some continuous action. That being said, one could also argue that pace can indicate indecisiveness, and that the extra time could actually lead to a “paralysis by analysis” of sorts for pitchers on the mound.
If anything, Duffy’s pace probably was more of an indicator to the latter than the former. During Duffy’s most successful seasons, he posted a pace of around 23, which is about a second faster than a year ago. While Duffy working too fast may have produced undesired results (he may have been increasing his pace due to frustration, which probably led to more mistake pitches), working too slowly on the mound may have led him to over-analyzing his pitches, which could have had negative effects when it came to pitch selection (leading to more mistakes and hence more home runs).
Duffy’s pace will be an interesting metric to follow in 2020. If Duffy is around that 23 second mark, the lefty could see some improvement, which would benefit the Royals rotation as a whole.
Duffy provides the leadership and mentoring for the young prospects
If there was one thing that was obvious from Royals FanFest, it is that Duffy is well-liked by Royals players. Furthermore, Duffy’s candid interview about mental health and his initial struggles in the clubhouse when he started with the Royals earned him a lot of respect: not just in the clubhouse, but among Royals fans everywhere.
With a lot of the hype focused on the Royals’ young pitching guns in the minors such as Brady Singer, Danile Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Kris Bubic, it is easy to think that Duffy may be fodder once those much-hyped four make their Major League debuts (whenever that is). However, big league hitters are much better than minor league ones, and without the proper mentoring or structure, a highly regarded pitching prospect can struggle at the big league level, which could derail their development as well as their outlook as a pitcher at the big league level.
Duffy knows this first hand. When he first came up, he was in a clubhouse where guys were trying to push him out to protect their jobs. However, it wasn’t until the Royals acquired James Shields did things turn around for Duffy. Shields provided the mentoring and help Duffy needed at the Major League level, and even after Shields left, it was obvious that those couple of years with Shields made a profound difference on Duffy as a pitcher at the Major League level.
Thus, Duffy most likely will be thrust into this Shields role in 2020, especially this Spring as many of the young arms will be joining the Royals for the first time in Spring Training in Surprise. Duffy could be the leader this rotation needs to help the young guys not just be effective this year, but for years to come as they hopefully solidify and stabilize the Royals rotation.
If Duffy can give the same kind of mentoring to Singer for example, as Shields did to him? Well, I’m sure GM Dayton Moore and the Royals will be excited about the results not just for Singer, but Duffy as well.
Because after all…Shields was pretty good in KC.