Danny Duffy knows they are watching as he walks off the mound. Fans. Coaches. Television cameras. He has come to understand he will be judged not just by his pitches, but his emotions. That part has been hard, particularly lately.
This makes three bad games in a row for Duffy. At least this time, there were glimpses of promise. He didn’t give up a hit until the fourth inning. Had better feel. But he walked four, and needed 113 pitches to get through five innings.
By the time it was over, Duffy had given up four runs, and his team was a 5-1 loser to the Yankees at Kauffman Stadium on Saturday. It’s bad when it needs to be asked whether a pitcher will stay in the rotation. It’s worse when the manager can’t give a direct answer.
“We just got through with the ballgame,” Ned Yost said. “Any decision that we’re going to make about anything ain’t going to be made tonight.”
The Royals dropped into a first-place tie with the Tigers. They have a lot to be proud of as the season approaches the quarter pole. Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer are playing like stars, the bullpen is even better than expected, and they’ve huffed through a nasty run of injuries and suspensions.
Duffy is the club’s most serious concern. Everyone in the organization saw this as a particularly important start for him. He was supposed to be past these prolonged struggles. He is 26 years old. His big-league debut came four years ago Monday. For long stretches of last season, he was the Royals’ best pitcher and one of the best lefties in the American League.
Now, he is something else entirely. Too important to easily discard, too talented to be struggling like this, too experienced to wave it off as a young pitcher finding his way.
“I can’t recall a stretch like this in the last three, four years for me,” he says. “But you have to stay even-keeled. I’m the last person that’s ever going to make any excuses. I feel great. Strong as ever.”
That last part is critical. Duffy and the Royals hid an injury during the postseason, but every indication here is that both player and team believe this is mental, not physical. There are mechanical checkpoints they want him focusing on, like keeping his chin down during his delivery, but these are something like tricks to free his mind.
The organization believed Duffy had graduated from these types of stretches. Not just the results, but all of it. He has a natural tendency to throw too hard. It is not all coincidence that his four worst starts — these last three, and his first — are the four with his highest average fastball velocity.
Duffy is a complicated case. Talent has never been the problem. When he talks about pitching, he will often talk of needing to relax, to trust that he doesn’t need to make his pitches better than they already are. Guys sometimes talk about putting a little extra into a pitch in a key spot. For Duffy, that becomes counterproductive.
He is conscientious, and puts a lot of pressure on himself, particularly in the context of being on a team. There is worry in some corners of the organization about how stretches like this weigh on his mind.
“Keep pitching, keep doing what I do,” Duffy said when asked where he was mentally. “Work, work, work, work. Trying to stay in my delivery.”
This was nearly a happier story. He had weaved through four innings, somehow giving up just one run despite seven base runners. He knew the fifth inning would be his last, and he got the first two men he faced without trouble.
Then he got behind Mark Teixeira, and gave up a single. Carlos Beltran hit an elevated fastball for a single. That’s when pitching coach Dave Eiland came out to visit, but the message did not take. Duffy got ahead of Chase Headley with an 0-2 count, then threw three straight balls and a hung change-up that shot off Headley’s bat and into the Royals bullpen for a three-run homer.
He nearly got out of it. Instead, he remains waist-deep in it.
Judged against his last two starts, this was marked improvement. But that’s hardly the standard. Duffy has now walked ten men over 8 2/3 innings in his last two starts. On Saturday, he threw a first-pitch strike to just five of the first 15 batters he faced.
The Royals are no longer in a place where they can wait around for problems to be fixed, but Duffy is so valuable that they can’t go the other way too quickly. They need to get him right again. Or maybe Duffy needs to get himself right. Either way.
As Duffy walked those steps off the mound after he threw his last pitch, he kept his head down. When he was gone from view of much of the stadium, he tossed his glove toward the back wall and walked away shaking his head.
These are mostly the same issues he’s fought with throughout his career, a battle he won with encouraging regularity last year. At the moment, the best strategy remains support and belief.
How long that remains true depends largely upon what happens in those moments Duffy is away from view.