Danny Duffy will be the Royals’ Opening Day starter, but could it be his last?

The most recent week of live-streamed intrasquad scrimmages have definitely piqued the interest of many Royals fans who have been yearning for baseball to return to Kauffman Stadium all summer. Furthermore, the intrasquad scrimmages got a bit of a boost on Tuesday as catcher Salvador Perez, who was the first Royal to test positive for COVID, returned to the field for his post-COVID stoppage debut with the Royals:

In addition to the return of Salvy, the Royals also announced this news in preparation for Opening Day, which will be on July 24th against the Cleveland Indians on the road:

There was already talk from manager Mike Matheny going into Summer Camp that Danny Duffy would be competing with last year’s Opening Day starter, Brad Keller, for the coveted 2020 spot. However, with Keller still out-of-commission due to a positive COVID test (though it will be interesting to see when he returns, just judging by how quickly Salvy came back after testing positive on July 4th), it was easy for Matheny to give Duffy the nod. Barring a freak injury, this will be the third Opening Day start for Duffy in his career, which ties him for third-most in Royals history, as evidenced in the Tweet below:

The decision to make Duffy the Opening Day starter is a no-brainer, mostly because he’s probably the Royals’ best option beyond Keller, and he is the most veteran starting pitcher in the rotation as well. That being said, Duffy is 31 and will be entering his 10th year in the Majors, all which have been with the Royals organization (he was a third-round pick of the Royals in 2007). In fact, he is one of the few remaining holdovers from the 2014 and 2015 squads, and it is likely that he will be seen as an important veteran pitcher in the clubhouse this year, especially when it comes to mentoring young prospects such as the “Core Four” (Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Kris Bubic) who are not just up with the Royals for “Summer Camp” but also likely to debut either this year or next (all at different times of course). Duffy benefited from James Shields mentoring him in 2013 and 2014 when Shields came over from Tampa Bay, and it makes sense that Duffy would do the same for any of the young aces coming up from the Royals’ Minor League system.

However, Duffy and his career will be at a bit of a crossroads by the end of 2020. The Duff-man only pitched 130.2 innings in 2019, his lowest IP since the 2013 season, where he only pitched 24.1 innings. While he did lower his ERA from 2018 (4.88 to 4.34) and WHIP (1.31), Duffy’s struggles in 2019 with minor injuries and a higher-than-expected FIP (his 4.78 FIP was actually higher than his 4.70 FIP in 2018) have made Royals fans and experts wonder if Duffy may be better suited for the bullpen either by the end of this season or perhaps the start of 2021.

And if that may be the case, it will definitely make Royals fans wonder: could this be the last time Royals fans see Duffy take the hill again on Opening Day?

There is no question that there has been no starting pitcher more valuable to the Royals over the past decade than Duffy. From 2012-2019, Duffy led Royals starting pitchers with 100 or more IP in WAR with a 12.6 mark. The second-closest was Shields who posted a 7.5 WAR, but only pitched two seasons with the Royals before he left Kansas City for San Diego in free agency after the 2014 campaign. Duffy came up in the Royals system with a pretty impressive crop of Royals pitching prospects at the time. In 2011, according to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook, he was rated as the seventh-best prospect in the Royals system, ahead of left-hander Chris Dwyer (8th), but still trailing pitchers such as John Lamb (4th) and Mike Montgomery (5th) at the time. (Furthermore, after publication, the Royals made the Zack Greinke trade to the Brewers, and pitcher Jake Odorizzi, who was acquired from Milwaukee, was the Brewers’ top prospect overall, according to the Handbook).

However, despite the competition around him in the Minors, Duffy probably had the most successful career of his prospect classmates, as Montgomery has found mostly success as a setup/swing man (though the Royals are hoping he can give them some successful innings as a starter), and Lamb and Dwyer didn’t really have success at the Major League level. Duffy’s best season came in 2016, as he posted a 4.0 WAR and a 12-3 record and 3.51 ERA in 179.2 IP. The stellar year earned Duffy a 5-year, $65 million extension after the season, one of the most lucrative deals the Royals have ever given a starting pitcher in the Dayton Moore era (only Gil Meche and Ian Kennedy’s deals come close).

Despite the Royals paying Duffy to be an ace in Kansas City for years to come, the Duff-man has struggled to hold that role. His ERA (3.88) and record (9-10) regressed in 2017, and he also only pitched 146.1 innings as well, a 33.1 IP decrease from the previous year. And in 2018, Duffy really struggled in year one of the Royals’ official “rebuild” as his 4.88 ERA and 9.3 H/9 were his highest marks since his 20-game rookie debut in 2011 (he posted a 5.64 ERA and 10.2 H/9, respectively). Things got bad to the point in 2018 that he moved entirely to the stretch later that season, suspecting that he was “tipping pitches” to opposing hitters out of the windup.

While Duffy’s 2019 was a bit of an improvement in terms of ERA and WHIP, there still were some concerning signs from last year that hint that a move to the bullpen may be in Duffy’s best interest going forward. His HR/FB ratio was 2.4 percent higher from 2018 (13.4 to 11.0 in 2018), and it was the first time in his career he had back-to-back season with double digit HR/FB ratios. Furthermore, Duffy increased the use of his slider (from 16.3 percent in 2018 to 26.4 in 2019) while decreasing his usage of his changeup (18.6 in 2018 to 11.6 percent in 2019) and fastball (55.7 in 2018 to 53.0 percent in 2019). The regression in the fastball made sense, as the velocity on that pitche also regressed from 93.1 MPH in 2018 to 92.4 in 2019. Hence, Duffy needed to rely more on his breaking stuff than his fastball to get batters out last season.

If 2019 is a guide, it may be a time where Duffy is starting to become a three-pitch pitcher, as the increased usage of his slider, and massive decline in his changeup usage, may be a sign that Duffy is consolidating his repertoire. And if that’s the case, then Duffy’s pitching set may be better utilized in the bullpen in the future. Considering Duffy still works primarily out of the stretch and had one of the slowest paces of Royals starting pitchers last year (he had the slowest pace of any Royals starter with 100 or more IP), it is likely that 2020 may not only be one of the final seasons for Duffy as an Opening Day starter, but perhaps one of his final years as a starter period. His approach and skill set scream late-innings guy, not a top-of-the-rotation starter, unfortunately.

While Duffy’s future may be in the pen after 2020, Duffy may be the most important starter for the Royals this year, as I wrote about before on this blog. It will probably be another year before any of the “Core Four” pitchers make any real impact, and right now, besides Keller and Duffy, many of the Royals starters are huge questions marks. Jakob Junis, Mike Montgomery, and perhaps Jorge Lopez all have their positives and have demonstrated flashes of brilliance in their tenures as Royals. However, it seems like their negatives outweigh their positives most of the time, especially based on last year’s metrics for them as individual pitchers. If the Royals want to have any hope of competing in the AL Central, the Royals will need Duffy to be closer to his 2016-2017 version rather than his 2018-2019.

And furthermore, they may also need flashes of performances like this one below in Tampa Bay back in 2016 when he set the Royals strikeout record:

Of course, that may be wishful thinking, especially in what could be Duffy’s last year as a regular starter. With his contract due to expire after the 2021 season, and with the “Core Four” and first-round pick Asa Lacy going to be in the Majors in some shape or form by 2022, it would make sense for Duffy to make that transition to then pen sometime in 2021. Being a dominant performer in the late innings could give him some additional value, and perhaps sway Moore and the Royals into giving him another extension, though it’s highly doubtful that he’ll match that $65 million deal again.

Duffy has been an icon for the Royals in their World Series and even Post-World Series era. He’s been loyal to KC, and for the most part, the Royals fanbase has been loyal and supportive to him, despite his injury and on-field struggles at times. (I mean who could forget the Bear Suit from 2015?) If Duffy does transition to the bullpen, it is likely that he will have backing from the Royals fanbase. As long as he is not blocking the promising prospects in the Royals system, he should have a spot on this team, and it’s possible he could find new life as a Will Smith-esque reliever in KC next year and beyond.

And thus, it seems like Duffy’s Opening Day start streak will most likely end at three, and Dennis Leonard will continue to stay alone in second with four (it is unlikely that anyone will match Kevin Appier’s mark anytime soon). And that’s not a bad thing. The life of a Major League pitcher requires one to evolve, and this may be the next stage of Duffy’s evolution. It may not happen until a year from now, but it seems likely that Royals fans will need to expect to see Duffy coming out from the right field pen in the middle of games instead of throwing the first pitch of games at Kauffman Stadium in the future.

It will be fascinating to follow Duffy during this shortened 2020 season. The Royals rotation will need him to be successful, especially if Keller cannot be back and ready once the season starts in 2020. This team won’t be competing for a playoff spot if Glenn Sparkman and Lopez have to throw starter’s innings again in 2020.

Hence, let’s see how much Duff-man has in the tank as a starter this year during this 60-game campaign (which should save his arm a bit). Hopefully, he can give Royals fans one last good season of starting pitcher memories before he eventually makes that transition to a relief role in 2021 or 2022.

4 thoughts on “Danny Duffy will be the Royals’ Opening Day starter, but could it be his last?

  1. […] Duffy was named the Royals’ Opening Day stater by a process of elimination: due to COVID and injuries, it was between him and Mike Montgomery for the Opening Day slot. Duffy had a better season in 2019 in comparison to 2018, but it’s obvious Duffy is on the downswing of his career, especially considering he’s 31-years-old and entering his 10th season with the Royals. Duffy is far from his 2016 self, which earned hims a 5-year extension at the conclusion of the season. That being said, Duffy showed promise in 2019, and there is hope that he can be a dependable starter for the Royals this year in a shortened campaign, which would be much needed considering the question marks regarding their staff overall. […]

    Liked by 1 person

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