The pitch began as an experiment, a curious blend of desperation and preservation, a pitcher looking for something to spark a career. It was a quiet afternoon last October, during the early days of the American League Championship Series, and Danny Duffy stood in the Kauffman Stadium outfield, cuffing a baseball in his right hand. He re-adjusted his fingers and he let his mind go blank, and as he played a simple game of catch, an exercise he had done thousands of times in his life, he decided to try something different.
This is how he remembers an afternoon that helped change his baseball life, a day that became part of a career breakthrough and accelerated a dark horse Cy Young campaign in 2016. This was the day a homegrown ace began to evolve.
This is not to say Duffy wouldn’t have become one of baseball’s most dominant starters anyway. Baseball is funny that way, he says. There are no cure-alls here. There are few “Aha” moments. There are rarely any clean narratives. In baseball, where failure is an expectation and adjustments are currency, progress can often be defined by incremental steps, by trying this or that, by the process of breaking a few eggs. The path to dominance is a messy one, littered with small moves and random games of catch.
So it was that Duffy found himself throwing with teammate Kris Medlen last October, toying around with a new breaking ball. For years, Duffy had subsisted with a loopy breaking pitch, a classic 12-to-6 curveball. He began crafting it when he was in high school in Lompoc, Calif., and he held onto it during his rise through the minor leagues. The pitch was there in 2014, when he posted a 2.53 ERA in 149 1/3 innings, helping the Royals to their first playoff appearance in 29 years. And it was there last year, too, as Duffy suffered through his worst season since his rookie year in 2011. Some days, the pitch could be effective. Other days, it would fall apart, leading to another inconsistent performance. By late September, Duffy was relegated to a role in the Royals’ bullpen.
“It wasn’t really a consistent competitive pitch,” Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland says.
There was also the physical toll. In the years after Duffy underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012, a mental block formed around the pitch, he says. To snap off a breaking pitch at 79 mph, he had to expose his reconstructed elbow ligament to a host of external forces. Every time Duffy threw the pitch, a measure of doubt crept in.
“It was hard to grasp that it wouldn’t break my arm,” Duffy says.
His future as a starting pitcher uncertain, his career at a plateau, Duffy stood in the outfield grass, looking out toward Medlen, some 60 feet away. He gripped the baseball like a fastball, and he chucked it like a football, and even now, one year later, the moment still kind of blows him away.
“It literally was one of the nastiest breaking balls I’ve ever thrown,” Duffy says.
The baseball broke late and darted down, popping into the glove of Medlen. The pitch resembled a slider, and as Medlen caught the ball, he looked back toward Duffy.
“Dude,” Medlen said. “You got to use this in the game.”
Ten months later, Duffy stands in the bowels of Comerica Park in Detroit on a recent afternoon and finishes the story. The confidence in this new pitch would come later, he says. So would the polish. The mastery would come last. But as he returned to the clubhouse that day, he placed his glove in his locker and pondered the experiment, the feeling of a new weapon in his arsenal.
This, he thought, could be useful.
Ten months later, so much has changed. Danny Duffy is no longer the promising starter who could not harness his potential. He is no longer the top prospect plagued by fits of poor command and mental blowups. He is 27 years old, transformed from rotation enigma to shutdown reliever to one of the best starters in baseball in 2016. On Sunday, he will take the mound against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium, and his numbers will illustrate a story of excellence.
Among American League pitchers who are qualified for the ERA title, Duffy ranks second in ERA (2.73), first in WHIP (0.98) and third in strikeouts per nine innings (9.75). He is on pace to become the first Royals starter to have an ERA under 3.00 since Zack Greinke in 2009 (2.16) and just the third since 1990 (Kevin Appier, being the other). Duffy could become the first Kansas City left-hander to post a sub 3.00 ERA since Charlie Leibrandt in 1985.
Inside the clubhouse and all around baseball, people have begun to take notice. First baseman Eric Hosmer calls him an ace. Royals manager Ned Yost calls him dominant. Toronto manager John Gibbons calls him one of the “better young starters in baseball.”
“He’s come a long way,” says Gibbons, a former bench coach in Kansas City.
The transformation of Duffy has kept the defending World Series champions on the fringe of the playoff race and reinvigorated the franchise’s hopes for another run in 2017. But the journey from also-ran starter to homegrown stud began last fall, during the final weeks of a frustrating 2015 season. In the span of the last year, Duffy has added a new breaking ball and used a sojourn to the bullpen to simplify his delivery. He has ditched the windup, opting to pitch solely from the stretch. The result is a pitcher who can finally repeat his delivery with consistency and command his devastating repertoire.
“He’s keeping it simple,” Eiland says. “It’s understanding who he is. You’re a power left-handed pitcher.”
In 2016, Duffy has cut his walks in half, issuing just 1.8 per nine innings, while his strikeouts have spiked. One season after discovering a new breaking ball — formally, he calls it a slider — Duffy has become a different pitcher. In 2015, he induced swings and misses on just 8.4 percent of his pitches, according to numbers at FanGraphs.com. This year, the number has ballooned to 13.5, the sixth best mark in baseball. A year ago, he struck out just 6.7 batters per nine innings, a number that never seemed to correlate with his power stuff. This year, the number is 9.75.
The secret, Eiland says, is the way the slider resembles Duffy’s fastball.
“They have to respect the fact that it’s coming out of the same grip, the same slot, the same plane as my fastball,” Duffy says. “But it’s got a last-second drop to it.
“My curveball had a different kind of effect because it was loopy. It would stay up sometimes. For one, it was extremely frustrating. And two, it wasn’t very effective.”
As spring training began in February, Eiland sensed that Duffy was positioned for a rebound year after 2015’s disappointment. But perhaps nobody could predict what happened next. After re-joining the rotation in May, Duffy has logged a 2.68 ERA in 18 starts. In four outings in August, he has allowed just four earned runs in 31 1/3 innings. And then there was Aug. 1, a Monday night at Tampa Bay. As the Royals faced the Rays, Duffy displayed the sheer potency of his stuff, finishing with a franchise-record 16 strikeouts while allowing one hit across eight innings.
“He’s been in some kind of zone,” Royals starter Ian Kennedy says.
In fact, Duffy has been so effective, so dominant for long stretches, that it’s easy to wonder: Why wasn’t he starting all along? Well, there’s an answer for that, too.
As the Royals convened at spring training in February, club officials sought to script out a rough sketch for their starting rotation in 2016. In the winter months, Royals general manager Dayton Moore had attempted to create depth in the rotation, looking for eight or nine starters who could potentially contribute. Duffy was among them, but his role was still uncertain.
The team had re-signed right-hander Chris Young in the offseason and club officials were banking on a strong year from Medlen, who had returned from his second Tommy John surgery in 2015. And there were other factors to consider: After a strong finish in the bullpen last year, Duffy expressed a preference for a return to relief work this season. Club officials were also skeptical that Duffy could handle 200 innings.
So the front office, Moore says, envisioned the following scenario. Young and Medlen would begin the season in the rotation in April, and if everything went to plan, Duffy could be ready to join the rotation in June or July.
“We all looked at him, as a potential to be an impact starting pitcher,” Moore says. “But Danny will tell you, I’m sure, that he preferred to be in the bullpen. That’s what he wanted to do.”
While some in the organization were convinced that Duffy’s future was in the rotation, Yost concedes he was not so sure. For five years, he had watched Duffy battle command issues and inconsistency. As he pondered Duffy’s potential in the bullpen, he thought back to the career paths of Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar, two pitchers who had struggled as starters before taking off in the bullpen. Maybe, Yost thought, Duffy was just more suited for the pen.
“Up until that point, he was a 100-pitch pitcher in five innings,” Yost says. “He just wasn’t a guy that would go consistently into the seventh inning. His pitch counts would get high. He would be very erratic and inconsistent in terms of coming out and throwing a good game and then throwing another good game and then have a clunker. It was all predicated around his command. So it was like, ‘All right, let’s just put him in the pen, take that freaking 97 mph fastball — like Hoch did, like Wade did — and just go with it.’ ”
The script, of course, would not go to plan. Young and Medlen crashed out in early May, each suffering injuries after some early struggles. The Royals were in desperate need of starters. As the front office mulled decision, Moore pulled out his phone and scanned the text messages from scouts and officials in the organization. The consensus was clear. It was time to put Duffy back in the rotation.
“We’ve always felt as a baseball operations department that he needs to be a major-league starter,” Moore said. “He’s got three good pitches. It was just a matter of repeating his stuff. The only way you’re going to learn to repeat your stuff is to go out there on a continuous basis and gain the necessary experience.”
In some ways, the path back to starting was unplanned. But Yost remains convinced that Duffy’s time in the bullpen changed his career, remains convinced that it showed him a new way to pitch.
For years, Eiland says, Duffy had a habit of trying to pace himself during starts. He would hold a pitch back during the early innings. He would try to save some velocity, throwing his fastball in the 93 to 94 mph range when he had 96 in the tank.
“Maybe back then I was trying to do too much without knowing enough,” Duffy says. “I still don’t think I know much. But back then, I think I was trying to be a little bit too fine. I’d throw one or two pitches through the first one or two innings and not even think about throwing my third or my fourth pitch.”
When he headed to the bullpen, that mentality washed away. In some cases, he had one inning to pitch. There was no sense in holding back, no sense in not attacking from the start.
“That’s when the light bulb kind of went on,” Yost says. “‘I got a good fastball. I can get guys out.’ ”
In some ways, of course, the parallels here are too obvious. This is not the first time the Royals have possessed a homegrown frontline starter, one who needed a stint in the bullpen to understand how great he could be. In his early days in Kansas City, as he laid the foundation for a champion, Moore witnessed the same career transformation with Greinke, the prodigal starter who turned into a Cy Young winner. This time, it was Duffy who learned to stop worrying and let go.
“Zack Greinke realized he could be a dominant pitcher,” Moore says. “Danny Duffy, by being in the bullpen, realized he could be dominant. And I think that does a lot for the mentality of a pitcher.”
Here is a Danny Duffy story. On a recent night in Minnesota, the lefty stood inside the dugout at Target Field as rookie left-hander Matt Strahm completed a scoreless eighth inning. Strahm, 24, had grown up in West Fargo, N.D., a young Twins fan during the franchise’s glory years in the 2000s. As he finished off the eighth, he struck out Joe Mauer, the venerable face of the Twins.
As Strahm scooted back to the dugout, he looked for a seat and prepared to return for the ninth inning. Moments later, Duffy appeared.
“Dude!” Duffy said, “you just punched out your idol!”
Standing a few feet away, Wade Davis heard the exchange.
“Duff,” Davis said, “he’s still in the game.”
This, of course, could be described as a Duffy moment. For inside one of the most talented left-handed pitchers in baseball is an existential goofiness, a comedic timing that compels him to don a bear suit during a championship celebration, play “Feliz Navidad” on the clubhouse stereo after a victory or wear a T-shirt featuring a cat and the phrase: “Dude, You’re Freaking Meowt.” There is also an innate kindness, teammates say, a temperament that belies a raging inferno of competitiveness.
Back in June, after a start at Citi Field in New York, Duffy listened as a New York reporter stumbled through a question about an emotional outburst on the mound earlier that night. Duffy had made a mistake and screamed into his glove after allowing a run. The reporter asked if he would share the contents of his four-letter venting. The moment irked Duffy, who politely declined, which led to a somewhat hilarious back-and-forth, the reporter twice apologizing as Duffy’s latent instincts took over.
“You’re all right,” Duffy said, gesturing softly with his hands. “You’re all right. It’s cool. It’s cool. It’s OK. ”
The stories offer a window into the Tao of the Duffman. But they also help explain a deeper connection to the only organization he has ever known. After six seasons in Kansas City, Duffy has found a comfort level here. There is a comfort, he says, with the franchise and the front office that stood by him when he briefly walked away from baseball in 2010. There is a comfort with his teammates. There is a comfort knowing that he can be himself here.
“I don’t picture myself wearing anything but a Royals jersey,” Duffy says. “Obviously, baseball is a business, and I get nervous every year come July, because you never know. All of us do, all of us get nervous come July, because of the sole fact that all of us want to be playing together for as long as we can.”
In the offseason, Duffy will enter his final season of arbitration. He could enter free agency for the first time after the 2017 season. For now, the future is uncertain. But Duffy does have a preference.
In an interview with The Star last week, Duffy expressed a desire to sign a long-term deal in Kansas City.
“I’m not trying to pull out the violin, but I want to be here,” Duffy says. “They’ve been really good to me, good to my family. And it would just be absolutely devastating if I ever had to leave. In a perfect world, I would be here forever.”
For now, the Royals and Duffy have not engaged in any talks about a possible extension following this season. Moore said conversations on those matters would take place “at the appropriate time.”
“Danny has been a very important part of our organization and our pitching staff,” Moore said. “And we’ll work very hard to keep him a part of what we’re doing going forward.”
It is not uncommon, of course, for players to publicly express a willingness to sign a long-term with their current team. But Duffy maintains that his sincerity is heart-felt. He feels a measure of loyalty toward the front office, he says. They stuck by him and nurtured him and allowed him to grow into a Cy Young contender.
“I could sit here and talk about this all day,” Duffy says. “Dayton Moore is one of a kind. I’m extremely fortunate to have him running the ship since I’ve been here. Lord knows I’ve tested him a lot with my performance and where my mind used to be. I just appreciate him for who he is, top to bottom.”
In the end, of course, the decision will come down to economics and business and leverage. But for the moment, Duffy is content with where he is. A year ago, he was pitching his way out of the starting rotation and looking for answers. In 2016, he has found them. He found a pitch that unleashed a beast. He found a delivery he could repeat. He found a way to be himself.
“I want to be in Royal blue,” he says. “That’s really all I’m about. I was talking to Kelvin (Herrera) … like ‘Dude, how sick would it be to spend more of your life in a Royals jersey than the other part of your life that you haven’t?’ It would be pretty sick. I got drafted at 18. It would be pretty awesome to hang your hat on it and have that kind of career.”
Danny Duffy year-by-year
The Royals left-hander is on track to set career highs in several categories in 2016: