Three metrics to notice from Danny Duffy’s 2020 starts

It was pretty much deja vu for the Royals on Wednesday night, as the Royals got off to a 4-0 lead early, only to see it evaporate into a 5-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers in game three of the four-game slate. Furthermore, it was another tough start for Danny Duffy. Much like Opening Day, the Duffman looked great through four innings, but much like his Opening Day start against the Indians, Duffy struggled in the fifth, which included this home run to Jonathan Schoop which tied the game at 4:

And thus, with the Royals now 2-4 for the year, Royals fans are understandably frustrated about their postseason hopes, which doesn’t look good considering this slow start and their own injury and COVID issues, especially in regard to the pitching staff. Even Duffy remarked his own frustration about this latest start, as he felt his stuff was working well until that fateful fifth inning at Comerica Park:

“I felt confident with what I was doing out there,” Duffy said. “It just didn’t go our way. To have that kind of stuff tonight, I have to go deeper in the game. It’s brutal. I got to go deeper.”

“Missed opportunities ‘brutal’ for Duffy, Royals” by Jeff Flanagan;

As of now, Duffy and Singer are the only two starters that Mike Matheny can rely on in the rotation until Brad Keller and Jakob Junis return from the IL. And thus, it is important to think about this: how is Duffy doing, and what can Royals fans expect from the Royals veteran over the remainder of the 2020 season?

In this post, I take a look at three metrics from his last two starts that could give some indicators of what Royals fans should expect from Duffy in his starts this season.

.679 wOBA vs 3rd time through order

It’s a small sample size (only three total batters faced), but Duffy’s struggles early on when facing hitters the third time around is something Royals fans should be paying attention to over the course of the season. In addition to a .679 wOBA, Duffy is also posting a 40.50 ERA, though the home run he allowed to Schoop is a big reason why those metrics are so high. When facing hitters the first time around, he is posting a wOBA of .229, and against hitters the second time around, he is arguably even better, with a wOBA of .209. However, if Duffy wants to be the No. 1 guy for the Royals, he will at least need to be somewhat average against opposing hitters when he faces them a third time.

The Royals need Duffy to have the potential to go 6-7 innings every start, especially considering how over-worked the bullpen has been thus far this year, and their starting pitch depth issues. If Duffy wants to see that become a reality, he will need to see a regression in that wOBA, as well as a better job with his command during the 5th inning on. So far, that hasn’t been the case for Duffy from his first two starts, but his second start was better than his first, so there is some hope that Duffy can see that wOBA against hitters the third time around could regress in the next couple of appearances for the Duffman.

65.8 percent first strike rate

One of the keys to Duffy’s success in the first-through-fourth innings of his two starts this year has been Duffy getting ahead in the count against opposing hitters. This year, Duffy is throwing a first-pitch strike 65.8 percent of the time, a six percent increase from 2019. After posting first-pitch strike rates over 62 percent in 2016 and 2017 (his best seasons), Duffy saw those percentages drop below 60 percent in 2018 and 2019. Thus, it’s not surprising that Duffy had regressions the past two years: it’s a huge disadvantage for a pitcher when one is constantly in hitter’s counts (i.e. 1-0, 2-0 counts).

Duffy’s early command against hitters is a good sign, though as noted, it’s only two starts. That being said, if Duffy can see that first-pitch strike percentage hover around 62 percent or higher, that could be a good sign that Duffy can return to that 2016 and 2017 self, in which he posted 2.9 and 3.6 WAR campaigns, respectively. His ability to throw strikes on the first pitch with regularity already has had a strong effect on his K/BB ratio, as he is posting a 10.00 K/BB ratio through his first two starts. That is a promising indicator that Duffy could perhaps improve on his 2.01 an 2.50 K/BB ratios in 2018 and 2019.

28 percent soft contact rate

Duffy’s GB/FB ratio sits at 0.62, which is pretty typical for him (he has a career ratio of 0.88). Duffy is a flyball pitcher, which is not necessarily a bad thing in a pitcher-friendly park like Kauffman Stadium. However, this has gotten Duffy in trouble, not just in hitter-friendly parks, but also when hitters are making hard contact against him regularly. Case in point: Duffy struggled at times the past two years due to him giving up hard contact rates of 37.9 percent and 39.1 percent in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Those hard hit rates also led to high HR/FB rates of 11.4 and 13.0 percent the past two years, respectively, as well.

However, even though Duffy is giving up more flyballs this year (he is 0.24 points lower in GB/FB rate in comparison to last year), he is not giving as much hard contact, as his hard hit rate sits at 32 percent, and his soft contact rate is 28 percent, with the latter being 13 percent higher from 2019. And thus, if Duffy can induce hitters to not only hit the ball in the air, but weakly as well, that could go a long ways in terms of him succeeding in 2020.

Granted, 28 percent is not sustainable (he’s never had a soft contact rate over 22.4 percent and that was his rookie year in 2011). But, if Duffy can somehow get that rate in 17-19 percent range, much like 2016 and 2017, that could help boost his performance and keep fly balls in the ballpark, especially when he’s at home at Kauffman. Right now, it would be nice to see Duffy keep his HR/FB rate under 10 percent, which he hasn’t done since 2017. In order to accomplish that, he’ll need to limit the hard contact when he’s on the bump.

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