On an early winter morning this offseason, Danny Duffy rose from his bed, pulled on a pair of running shoes and headed out for a jog on the gridded streets of Lompoc, Calif., a blue-collar hamlet that sits in the valley of the Santa Ynez River.
As Duffy hit the pavement, his full route was uncertain. As a teenager, Duffy would embark on grueling runs through his hometown, winding jaunts that could last all morning. Sometimes that meant a casual sprint through Miguelito Canyon. Sometimes that meant a 15-mile trek to the beaches along the Pacific Coast. Sometimes that meant a trip to the track at Cabrillo High, where Duffy would trade out his usual 5-minute, 30-second mile pace for something a little more challenging.
Duffy calls running his pastime, a no different than watching Netflix or playing golf, but as a major-league pitcher, the hobby has always led to a delicate balance. A year ago, as Duffy entered his fifth season with the Royals, he cut down his running regimen in hopes of adding bulk to a sinewy physique. The plan resulted in more muscle and a stronger core, but more pitching success didn’t follow. So when Duffy came home to Lompoc in the days after the Royals’ World Series victory parade, he returned to the routine that propelled him to the big leagues.
His career at a crossroads, his future in the Royals’ starting rotation uncertain, Duffy hit the road again. The regimen, Duffy says, did not include the marathon jogs from his youth. At age 27, his knees can only take so much pounding. But much of his offseason was spent tackling a pair of hills near his offseason home.
“I challenged myself,” Duffy says. “And I guess when I’m running, I just tell myself: ‘C’mon. Keep going. Keep going. Let’s go. You got 30 seconds left.’ ”
As spring training began, Duffy’s latest challenge continued. Here in Surprise, as the Royals brace for their first World Series title defense in 30 years, the question of Duffy looms as one of the most pivotal of this camp. Two years ago, the left-handed Duffy posted a 2.53 ERA while starting 25 games, a bonafide breakout as the Royals earned their first postseason appearance in 29 years. One year later, his ERA sagged to 4.03 and he found himself relegated to the bullpen in late September as the Royals began their championship run.
The sojourn to relief pitching was a release of sorts — both mentally and physically. In 14 1/3 innings during September and October, Duffy posted a 2.51 ERA and racked up 21 strikeouts. His average fastball added 2 miles per hour, jumping from 94 to 96. He harnessed his emotions, relished the daily routine and found success on the game’s greatest stage.
“He went in the bullpen last year and really got comfortable down there quickly and really took off,” Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland says. “He took a liking to it as well. Now that’s all well and good. But (he’s) probably still going to start at some point. But we just don’t know how it’s all going to shake out.”
On a late morning during the first week of camp, Duffy finished a brisk workout and found a seat in front of his locker inside the Royals’ clubhouse. For the moment, Duffy says, he still views himself as a starter, and he likely will for some time. But his immediate future could reside in the bullpen, where his combination of upper 90s fastball and breaking ball could make him a force. Eiland and Royals manager Ned Yost say they are open to all possibilities. Duffy says he wants to help his club win — no matter the role.
“I believe in my abilities,” Duffy said. “And I know they do as well. We wouldn’t be talking about it if they didn’t. The fact of the matter is there are a lot of people that could fill that void — that inning-eater void, and I’ve only had small sample sizes of proving that I can do that.
“In 2014, I went out there and I felt like I could get anybody out. And I did for a lot of the year. Last year, there were parts where I felt I could do that, and parts where I couldn’t hit water if I fell out of the boat.”
The issues, Eiland says, were often three-fold. His breaking ball needed sharpening at times. His delivery lacked consistency, leading to problems with command. His body failed him again, and he did a midseason stint on the disabled list for biceps tendinitis.
The injury issues prolonged a theme. In five seasons with the Royals, Duffy has been beset by injuries and missed time. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012 and missed half of 2013. He has never thrown more than 150 innings in a season.
“That’s the thing, too,” Eiland says. “We got to know what we’re going to get, outing to outing. You’re going to have outings here and there where you stub your toe — everybody does. But we want to have a pretty good feel when we put you in the game.”
As the Royals open their spring schedule Wednesday, Duffy will be stretched out like a starter and compete with right-handers Chris Young and Kris Medlen for one of the final two spots in the rotation. The rest is less certain.
“Everything is in place for him,” Eiland says. “His pitches are in place. He’s one more year removed from the Tommy John. Everything is in place. Now it’s just: ‘Go out and do it. Go out and get it done.’ ”
As Duffy arrived at spring training, he repeated the sentiment. After years of worrying about his fate, and years of pondering his role, Duffy believes he has wrapped his mind around the complex mental side of the sport. He has learned to embrace process, he says. He has learned to accept the game’s failures. He has learned to measure success in a different way.
Duffy offers a story. Two years ago, a ribcage injury knocked him from the starting rotation for the 2014 playoffs. Opting for a competitive advantage over transparency, the Royals did not reveal the injury, and Duffy was left to dodge questions about his health for the next month.
The injury was painful, Duffy says, but so, too, was the perception that the Royals couldn’t trust him to take the ball in the playoffs.
“It was tough for him to not say: ‘I’m doing my best, damnit, I got a cracked rib,’ ” Eiland says. “He handled it extremely well. But it bothered him that he couldn’t pitch as much as he would have liked.”
Two years later, Duffy sees the 2014 playoffs as a pivotal moment in his development. Another moment came during the struggles of last season. On a summer day last August, he sat inside the visitor’s clubhouse at Fenway Park in Boston and delved into a long talk about pitching with Medlen, a veteran returning from his second Tommy John surgery.
“If you prepare and focus on process, you can’t be frustrated with the results,” Duffy says, recalling the conversation. “That’s a simple concept. But it’s hard to get a grip on it. Because you want to succeed so badly.”
When Duffy returned home to Lompoc during the offseason, Duffy internalized the messages. In most ways, Duffy says, his hometown is a gritty little town in central California, a “very humble little city with five hotels, a penitentiary and a couple missile launching pads,” he says.
Duffy always felt a connection to the place, so four years ago, he decided to join the local economy by opening a barber shop with a best friend from back home. Duffy had known Robert Valles since their days at Cabrillo High, when Duffy was a scrawny 5-foot-4 freshman who loved K-Swiss tennis shoes and sharing McDonald’s ice cream cones with his friend.
When Duffy was drafted by the Royals in 2007, Valles soon headed off to barber college, and the two friends remained close. By 2012, Valles was interested in opening his own shop, but he didn’t have the funds. Duffy, who had debuted in the big leagues a year earlier, stepped forward and bet his baseball money on his friend’s talent.
“I wanted to do it on my own, but Danny kept insisting,” Valles says. “Danny is a very caring person. He threw out the idea immediately.”
Four years later, the Barber Shop on H Street is thriving, Duffy says. Valles has a Royals hat hanging on his barber station. On another wall, there’s a photo from a trip to Kauffman Stadium, an everlasting tribute to friendship.
“He’d helped me achieve my goals,” Duffy says. “So I helped him achieve his.”
As Duffy hit the pavement this offseason, returning to his long-distance routine, his route was ever-changing. Some days, he went lost. Other days, he kept the workout brief. But on most days, he had at least one common destination — the Barber Shop on H-street.
“He’ll run in the front door,” Valles said. “He’ll just stay for hours, just watching the television and catching up. We don’t even ever really talk about baseball. It’s just a place where he can be himself.”