The offseason schedule of Danny Duffy was once marked by extremes.
A typical day often involved slipping into sneakers and disappearing on 10-mile jaunts from his home in Lompoc, Calif. He ran until his toes touched the sand of the Pacific Ocean. The mini-marathons compensated for In-N-Out binges on Double-Doubles, animal style, that caused him to eat “like I was a 5-year-old kid,” he said.
The combination clicked — up to a point. Duffy ascended to the majors because his left arm was able to support a mid-90s fastball despite the frame of a distance runner and the diet of a drive-thru junkie. He emerged as a mainstay of the Royals’ pitching staff last summer. Then a ribcage injury reduced him mostly to a spectator during the club’s October escapades.
To avoid a repeat scenario, to become a pitcher capable of logging 200 innings, Duffy sought to reshape his physique. He refined his diet, reduced his running and reported to camp in a condition that caught the eye of his superiors.
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“He’s in great shape,” manager Ned Yost said. “He’s in, by far, the best shape I’ve ever seen him in.”
At this juncture of the season, there is no more banal cliché. Yet the Royals saw the changes as critical. Before the winter began, team officials instructed him to focus on increasing the muscle mass in his legs and his core. The result? Duffy said he weighed in at his physical on Friday at 212 pounds, a 17-pound gain over his usual size of 195.
Above the neck, Duffy still looks the same. He flaunted a mangy beard, complete with a bushy hairdo, a Biblical pairing he joked was fashioned after John the Baptist. But his offseason alterations allowed him to draw a comparison with Alex Gordon, the club’s pinnacle of fitness.
“I’m not trying to sit here and look like Gordo,” Duffy said. “But I’m definitely trying to be more filled out, and have a little more (strength) behind the ball.”
As the Royals forecast the coming year, they require increased contributions from Duffy and Yordano Ventura. Each excelled at times in 2014. Neither threw 200 innings. With the departure of workhorse James Shields, the burden shifts to the two youngest members of the rotation.
Less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Duffy tantalized with his performance in 2014. After he moved to the starting rotation in May, he posted a 2.55 ERA in 25 starts. He curtailed his walk rate to a career-best 3.2 per nine. He ranked second on the pitching staff in Baseball-Reference’s version of wins above replacement, a catch-all metric that measures a player’s value compared to a Class AAA equivalent.
“We’re very, very pleased with the way he pitched,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “More than we could have expected, actually.”
Yet there was still reason for concern. A bout of shoulder inflammation alarmed him in September. An MRI affirmed the structural integrity of his arm, but he still missed two weeks. In his last start of the season, Duffy felt a twinge in his side. He thought it was an intercostal strain. It turned out to be a stress reaction, a crack on the outside of the bones of his ribcage.
Neither Duffy nor the Royals revealed the injury until after the seventh game of the World Series. It created an uncomfortable scenario as team officials tried to explain why one of their best pitchers appeared in only three postseason games. Duffy never complained about his plight. Instead he resolved to ready himself for the coming season.
After the season ended, Duffy sat down with team officials. Eiland stressed the necessity of fortifying his lower half. Ryan Stoneberg, the strength and conditioning coach, scripted a program focused on his legs and abdominal muscles.
“As good an arm as he has, we just thought he was a little weak in those areas,” Eiland said.
Duffy embraced the changes, as painful as they might be. He admitted he saw himself as “frail.” His diet offered plenty of room for reform. Inside the clubhouse, a can of Red Bull is his consistent companion. His habits away from the ballpark were even less impressive. “Dude,” he said, “I used to crush fast food.” This winter, he insisted, he “could count on one hand” the number of times he indulged like that.
His eating did not affect his appearance because he conditioned himself like a cross-country competitor. Duffy views running as an emotional release, an outlet to distance himself from the stresses of everyday life. He understood he could no longer utilize this method.
He cut the distances of his runs to two miles, down from double digits. He ran every other day. He pushed himself by sprinting in intervals for a more functional workout. He bought a bike and rode hills in exercises designed to improve his explosiveness. Inside the weight room, Duffy again strove for a more practical purpose.
“It was light, but it was a lot of reps,” Duffy said. “Back when I was 22, 21, I would just try to max everything out, because I thought that was how you did things. But you need to slowly, but surely, ease into it.”
He took the same approach with his throwing. Duffy eased into the bullpen sessions he conducted at his alma mater of Cabrillo High School. When he starts throwing here this week, he said, he will still be “holding back.”
No longer does he need to win a job in the Cactus League. His goal has become loftier: To report for duty every fifth day and record 200 innings. Duffy believes his revamped physique can carry him there.
“I just feel healthier,” he said. “I feel, overall, just better. I don’t feel like I’m wiry anymore. I feel like I’m filled out and ready to go.”