Danny Duffy’s emergence as the anchor of the Royals’ largely inexperienced rotation has been one small slide step for Duffy and a significant leap for a pitching staff in need of stability.
Before the left-hander re-entered the starting rotation on April 26, there was a reasonable case that Duffy’s impact would’ve been felt more if he pitched out of the bullpen.
However, the bullpen has stabilized for the most part.
Sunday marked Duffy’s fifth start and third win since he started the season on the injured list and spent the first few weeks throwing extended spring training outings in Arizona. A healthy shoulder and a small adjustment made in Arizona may have played a big part in the 30-year-old’s fast start.
After Sunday’s win in his home state of California, Duffy has won three consecutive starts. Each of his wins has come after a Royals loss and prevented a streak from starting or extending. He’s 3-1 with a 3.45 ERA in five starts.
“It’s as consistent as he’s been in the last couple of years,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “The reason for it is he’s healthy. He feels good. He feels strong. He’s commanding the ball well. He’s pitching extremely well.”
Last season, Duffy went 8-12 with a 4.88 ERA in 28 starts while pitching with a shoulder impingement for much of the season. Though he didn’t go onto the disabled list until last August, he’d thrown a large chunk of the season feeling like his shoulder was “in a vice grip.”
When Duffy joined the team in Tampa Bay last month after a minor-league rehab assignment, he displayed a renewed enthusiasm and spirit based solely on the way his body had bounced back.
During spring training, Duffy and pitching coach Cal Eldred also made a small tweak to Duffy’s delivery this year which thus far has seemed to pay off.
In the past, Duffy has worked exclusively out of the stretch as opposed to pitching out of a windup.
Whereas most pitchers will switch to the stretch with runners on base, Duffy has pitched out of the stretch full-time.
Now, he’s working from the stretch and has gone to a slide step and eliminated the leg kick that had previously been part of his motion.
“I think less motion is better,” Duffy said. “I think more down the hill is really what’s been pertinent for me to get the ball where I need it to go. Slide-stepping almost exclusively has really been good for me. That was Cal’s idea in spring training.”
Duffy’s comfort with his lightly new-look delivery increases with each start, and it apparently has simplified his mechanics and made his delivery more consistent.
“I’ve got to give Danny a lot credit for that,” Eldred said. “He’s done it in the past to where he’s solely out of the stretch. When he’s in the stretch and he uses his slide step, it’s using the slide step term loosely. Usually guys are just trying to be so much quicker to home plate. For him, it just really times him up well.
“There’s not a lot of guys in professional baseball that do that, especially at the major-league level. He is exceptional at it. So it’s timing, it’s repeatability, it’s using something that he’s extremely good at. It takes talent to do that.”
While it’s still relatively early in the season, the MLB Statcast data (baseballsavant.mlb.com) shows that Duffy’s curveball and slider have been more significant parts of his arsenal this season.
In 2017, Duffy got away from the curveball — he threw just 15 that season — in favor of the slider.
Last season, he threw the curveball 9.5 percent of the time and threw it for a strike 39.4 percent of the time. Meanwhile, the slider he threw 16 percent of the time was in the strike zone 46.1 percent of the time.
This season, he’s throw the curve more often — 16.4 percent of the time — and more frequently for a strike (48.8 percent). He has paired that with having thrown the slider more frequently (24 percent), and he’s kept batters guessing by throwing the slider for a strike slightly more often (50.8 percent) than throwing it out of the zone.
“I think he’s in a good spot,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said of Duffy a week ago. “He’s focused. He’s making pitches. He’s been very consistent. I think it was the (third) outing. The strike zone percentage with his breaking ball was really good. He was above league average. When he’s doing that, he’ll be successful.”