Danny Duffy returning to Kansas City sounds fun, but should be avoided by the Royals

On Wednesday, the Royals announced the player they received in the Danny Duffy July Deadline deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers:

It is another reliever that the Royals added to the upper levels of their system, which should give the Royals some depth in the bullpen in 2022 and perhaps 2023 (the Royals also added Kasey Kalich from the Atlanta Braves in the Jorge Soler deal, and Kalich profiles very similarly to Willeman as a prospect). The Royals have seemed to identify good relievers from other clubs as of late, as Domingo Tapia (from Seattle), Joel Payamps (from Toronto), and Dylan Coleman (from San Diego in the Trevor Rosenthal deal) have all experienced some early success in Kansas City after being acquired within the last year.

However, I am not necessarily here to break down what Willeman’s outlook will be on the Royals in the near future, as many other Royals bloggers and writers are analyzing what Willeman did in the Dodgers system, and what he could offer the Royals in 2022 and beyond:

Instead, I just wanted to briefly touch on a possible Duffy return to Kansas City, which was explicitly mentioned by longtime Royals fan and former Grantland and Royals write Rany Jazayerli on Twitter shortly after the trade was announced by the Royals:

There is no question Duffy has meant a lot to this Royals franchise over the past decade. He is a fan favorite who has “bled” Royal blue throughout his professional career, even when he went through some ups and downs both on and off the field, especially with mental illness, during his first couple of seasons in Kansas City:

However, while Duffy will be a free agent this Winter, and most likely will come cheap after not pitching at all with the Los Angeles Dodgers after being traded, the decision to bring Duffy back to Kansas City will be a difficult dilemma for JJ Picollo and Dayton Moore.

Because the initial inkling will certainly be to “bring him back”…

That being said, if the Royals really examine the roster and payroll situation, and what Duffy could potentially bring to this Royals franchise next year and maybe in 2023, it would probably be for the best if the Royals avoid signing Duffy in free agency this offseason.

There is no question that, when healthy, Duffy has been a pretty productive pitcher the past couple of seasons. After posting a mediocre 4.88 ERA and 1.3 fWAR in 155 IP in 2018 as the Royals’ primary No. 1 starter, Duffy has produced more “efficient” campaigns, even if the innings-load hasn’t been as great. In 2019, he lowered his ERA to 4.34 and produced a 1.3 fWAR in 25 fewer innings. While he did see an uptick in ERA during the shortened 2020 campaign (4.95), he did increase his K/9 from 7.92 in 2019 to 9.11 in 2020, his highest K/9 since his breakout 2016 season (9.42 K/9; 2.9 fWAR). Last year, he continued to maintain not only the high K/9 (9.59) and a sterling K/BB ratio (2.95, his highest since 2017), but he also posted an ERA of 2.51, his best mark since the 2014 season.

A big contributor to Duffy’s success in 2021 was his ability to minimize the long ball, as his HR/FB rate of 8.2 percent was his lowest rate since 2017.

In 2019 and 2020, he posted HR/FB rates of 13 and 13.1 percent, respectively. Furthermore, in 2018, his HR/FB rate was 11.4 percent, which was still above his career norm (10.1 percent career HR/FB rate). Duffy is a pitcher who allows a lot of fly balls, as his GB/FB ratio was only 0.75 last year and 0.87 over his career (over 1 means a pitcher is groundball heavy; under 1 means they’re flyball heavy). So the fact that he was able to keep his fly balls in the yard was a positive sign in 2021, even if there were some fluky signs that regression may have been on the way, had he been able to pitch more innings last year.

For example, his strand rate of 83.8 percent was abnormally high (usually league average is around 73-75 percent, depending on the year). Add that with a sub-.300 BABIP, and it’s not a surprise that Duffy’s xERA (4.24) and FIP (3.40) were much higher than his ERA last year.

In addition, Duffy only pitched 61 innings this past season, and Royals fans have to wonder what his stat line would have looked like, had he not only pitched more innings, but also more during the “warm” Summer months, where the ball is more prone to fly out of the park. Here’s an example of Duffy benefiting from Kauffman’s spacious outfield space, the cold weather, and the apt defensive play of Michael A. Taylor in center field against Willy Adames of the Tampa Bay Rays during a night game in May:

That being said, while Duffy was experiencing some early “lucky” success on batted balls (which he wasn’t really getting the previous three years), Duffy was demonstrating more effectiveness with his pitches, especially the four-seamer.

Duffy has always primarily relied on his four-seam fastball throughout his career, especially the past few seasons. That being said, as evidenced by this chart from Baseball Savant, Duffy threw the pitch four percent more in 2021 in comparison to 2020:

To Duffy’s credit, throwing the four-seamer at an increased rate was a wise move. He posted career bests on whiff and K rates, as well as run value, on the pitch, as demonstrated in the run value data from Baseball Savant below:

(The data goes back to 2017, which was when Savant began recording run value data.)

A lot of the increased productivity from Duffy’s four-seam fastball could be credited to Duffy’s increased velocity on the pitch in 2021. After posting an average velocity of 92.3 MPH on the fastball in 2019 and 92.2 MPH in 2020, Duffy saw his average four-seam fastball velocity increase to 93.7 MPH, his highest average velocity on the pitch since 2016. It was also fun to see Duffy hit the mid 90’s on the pitch with decent frequency last year, something that hasn’t happened in a few seasons.

Here’s an example of Duffy getting Tampa Bay’s Manuel Margot to strike out swinging on a high fastball just out of the strike zone that clocks in at 95 MPH:

Thus, with all these positive signs, one would think that a one-year flier on Duffy wouldn’t be the worst thing, especially considering the injury issues and inconsistency from the Royals starting pitching staff in 2021.

However, bringing back Duffy, while good on a fan end, would continue to foster a problem that’s been haunting the organization since 2018, their current “rebuilding” period.

And that is being able to “move on” from the 2014 and 2015 seasons…

While Duffy certainly pitched well in his limited tenure in Kansas City in 2021, the fact of the matter is that Duffy only pitched 60 innings, which was roughly only five more innings than what he pitched during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. Could Duffy perhaps embrace the “veteran” leader role in the rotation who can mentor the young pitchers much like James Shields mentored him during the 2013 and 2014 seasons? Perhaps. But Shields pitched 228 and 227 innings, roughly, in 2013 and 2014, which produced a combined bWAR of 8.4, according to Baseball Reference. The most innings in a season that Duffy has pitched over his career is 179.2, and as of now, there doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that Duffy will be even able to pitch in 2022 to boot, which puts his baseball future in doubt:

If healthy, Duffy could be a nice redemption story, especially considering his ties and affinity for Kansas City and the Royals organization. However, signing Duffy would just be for “nostalgia” sake, and honestly, probably would not do much in terms of impacting the Royals on a “win” end in 2021.

Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the first time the Royals front office has done this, especially since the 2018 season.

Over the past couple of seasons, Dayton Moore has brought back Greg Holland, Jarrod Dyson, Wade Davis, Ervin Santana, and even Alcides Escobar (though he stayed in Omaha until being traded to the Washington Nationals, where he surprisingly produced). The moves generated some fan fare among Royals fans, which was much needed as Kauffman Stadium welcomed fans back in person during the 2021 season. That being said, it’s debatable if any of those signings brought much value back to the Royals, especially in 2021.

According to Baseball Reference data, Davis produced a minus-0.6 bWAR, Holland produced a 0.1 bWAR, Santana generated a 0.5 bWAR, and Dyson generated a 0.2 bWAR. Hence, the Royals essentially paid $7 million for four players deep in their 30’s who produced a combined bWAR of 0.2.

At the end of the day, that is not going to help the Royals be a playoff club in 2022, let alone even a .500 one. The Royals need to invest and giving playing time to their younger players in the system not just because it gives the organization the best “future” outlook, but it will also be the most efficient method too from a cost standpoint.

Small market teams like the Royals can’t burn seven million dollars on four players who can’t even produce half a bWAR combined.

And let’s be honest. If the Royals do bring Duffy back, it will cost them somewhere in the $1.5 to $3 million range at the very least on an AAV basis.

The Royals do need to upgrade their starting pitching this offseason, and look to bring in a veteran who can eat innings, produce some stellar metrics, and help mentor the Royals’ deep, but inexperienced rotation. It’s a very interesting list of free agent starting pitchers available, and even though the Royals are not flush with money, history has showed that Moore and the Royals will open up the pocketbook a little to acquire a starting pitcher who can be at the top of the Kansas City rotation.

A productive veteran starting pitcher can be the piece the Royals need to at least be competitive in the AL Central and perhaps get over the .500 mark record-wise, something the Royals have not done since the 2015 season (and Royals fans know how that year went, obviously).

But Duffy, even if he can come cheaply, isn’t the answer. He’s too much of an injury risk, and it’s unlikely the Royals will recoup any value from whatever contract they might possibly give him.

Duffy should be recognized for all he has done with the Royals. He certainly has an outside chance to make the Royals Hall of Fame, especially considering he ranks 22nd all-time in Royals WAR, according to Baseball Reference. I look forward to the day when Duffy returns to Kauffman Stadium and throws out the first pitch at a game, much like Alex Gordon did this past season in his first year of retirement:

But the sun has set on Duffy’s career in Kansas City…

And bringing him back would only stagnate the Royals’ “process” to becoming a wining club again in 2022 and beyond.

Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

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