The next time you’re at a baseball game, do what the ballplayers do: watch the starting pitcher throw warmups from the game mound. Pitchers get eight pitches between innings to warm up and when the starting pitcher comes in from the bullpen, he uses those eight pitches to get used to the mound.
Even in warmups the catcher has to know what pitch is coming, so the pitcher signals what he’s about to throw. If he wants to throw a fastball, he points his glove at the catcher palm down. For a slider he makes a diagonal motion with his glove. If it’s a changeup, the pitcher points his glove at the catcher but then pulls the glove back toward himself; he’s taking something off what will look like a fastball.
Opposing hitters — at least the smart ones — pay attention to these warmup pitches because they want to know what the pitcher can throw for a strike. If the only warmup pitch that hits the mitt is the fastball, the hitters have learned something important; whenever the pitcher has to throw a strike, the fastball will be the most likely pitch.
On Saturday afternoon, Danny Duffy faced the Philadelphia Phillies and threw a fastball, slider and changeup as the Royals won 6-2.
Keep in mind that pitchers don’t always want to throw strikes (a chase pitch or set-up pitch out of the zone can be useful), but the majority of the time Duffy was throwing his changeup and slider for strikes.
That meant the Phillies hitters could not eliminate pitches; when Duffy had to throw a strike he had shown the ability to control all three pitches — the Philadelphia hitters could not count on getting a fastball in fastball counts. That’s one of the reasons Duffy gave up seven hits and two runs over 8 2/3 innings.
Now here’s another…
Duffy stayed on the attack
Duffy faced 35 batters and threw a first-pitch strike to 20 of them. If he started the hitter with a ball, Duffy immediately threw a strike. (Carlos Ruiz was an exception; he saw ball one and then got hit by the next pitch).
When a pitcher is throwing strikes right away, it forces the hitters to swing early in the count; if hitters are passive they’ll fall behind in the count and once they get to two strikes they’ll have to swing at anything near the zone.
So a pitcher who throws strike one can then expand the zone and get hitters to chase his pitch.
Because Duffy stayed on the attack, Phillies hitters saw an average of just slightly more than three pitches per at-bat and that helped Duffy go deep in the game. And Duffy didn’t walk anybody — another great way to keep your pitch count low.
How going to the bullpen helped
This season Duffy is walking fewer batters and it might be because Duffy spent time in the Royals bullpen.
Pitchers can learn something about themselves by throwing as a reliever; they don’t have to go through the order three times, they don’t have to pace themselves, they don’t have to be too fine. If they’re only going to throw one inning they can step on the gas and as Duffy says, “Empty the tank.” Here’s my best stuff; let’s see if you can hit it.
It appears Danny Duffy learned just how good his fastball is and that he can go right at the hitters. Throw your best stuff until the tank is empty and see where that gets you — and so far this season Duffy has a 4-1 record and an ERA of 3.11.
So why didn’t Ned Yost let Danny Duffy finish the game?
Duffy had never thrown a complete game, so when he finished the eighth inning with a pitch count of 96, Ned Yost let him go out for the ninth — but Ned did not want Duffy going past 110 pitches. A fan might wonder why; is a pitch count of 120 that much worse than a pitch count of 110?
Yes, it is; a pitcher can be healthy at 110 pitches and hurt 10 pitches later.
Every pitcher has a limit to what he can before he hurts himself, but nobody knows exactly where that limit is. As a pitcher goes deeper in a game — as he tires — his mechanics can change in some very subtle ways. He might be getting less out of his legs and putting more stress on his arm. He might be slightly dropping his arm angle, getting on the side of the ball and trying to make up for that by applying more torque on a slider.
As his mechanics break down, a pitcher can hurt his arm in his last few pitches.
The point is nobody knows for sure when that might happen, so it’s always better to stop pitching too soon than stop pitching too late. Sure, Duffy wanted to throw a complete game, but keeping Duffy healthy is much more important.
Right now the Royals starting pitching is ranked 12th in the American League, which is exactly where it was ranked in 2015. So the Royals starting pitching doesn’t need to be awesome, but it does need to pitch well enough to give the bullpen, offense and defense a chance.
And on Saturday afternoon, Danny Duffy showed exactly how that’s done.