It was the sort of ruse that might have worked had it been more believable. But this was a particularly hard sell. On Friday, Royals manager Ned Yost found starting pitcher Danny Duffy and delivered a small piece of news. It concerned his pitching schedule.
“You’ll be ready for the third game in Minnesota,” Yost said.
Duffy looked back at his manager, digested the words, and nodded his head slightly. “All right, cool,” he responded. A moment later, Yost offered the punch line.
“We’re playing with you,” Yost said. “You’re the opening day starter.”
Duffy nodded again, though it’s safe to assume that he quite never believed his manager. The Royals had planned since before spring training to have Duffy, 28, make his first opening day start on April 3 in Minnesota. He pitched on Friday afternoon, which put him on schedule to be on regular rest a week from next Monday. The official announcement from Yost finally came on Saturday morning.
“We knew exactly which way we were going to go before spring training even started,” Yost said. “But you got to go through the process, make sure everything pans out.”
As he unveiled Duffy as the opening day starter, Yost also set his starting rotation. As expected, right-hander Ian Kennedy will follow Duffy, while newcomer Jason Hammel will slot into the third spot. Left-hander Jason Vargas and right-hander Nathan Karns will round out the rotation.
With a day off following opening day, Duffy will return on regular rest for the fifth game of the season, taking the mound April 8 against the Astros in Houston. Karns will make his debut in the series finale in Houston. Kennedy is scheduled to start the Royals’ home opener against the Oakland A’s on April 10 at Kauffman Stadium.
For Duffy, the assignment represents another career milestone after a breakout performance in 2016. After posting a 12-3 record and 3.51 ERA last season, he signed a five-year, $65 million contract extension in January. This month, he represented the United States at the World Baseball Classic and helped the country win gold for the first time.
As he returned to the Royals clubhouse on Friday morning, he hung his gold medal from a hook in his locker. A few hours later, he received the news. Next Monday, he will start opposite Minnesota’s Ervin Santana at Target Field.
“This week hasn’t sucked, man,” Duffy said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
As Duffy moved about the clubhouse on Saturday morning, he wore jeans and a dark “Waffle House” T-shirt. As he spoke to a group of reporters, he called the assignment a “huge honor,” though he noted that it was just one of “35 starts.”
“We have faith in his abilities,” Yost said.
Duffy will become the Royals’ seventh different opening day starter in eight years. Only James Shields held the role for consecutive seasons. The list also includes Zack Greinke (2010), Luke Hochevar (2011) and Bruce Chen (2012). Yordano Ventura made one Opening Day start in 2015 before giving way to Edinson Volquez last season.
For the Royals, the decision was elementary, even if the announcement was delayed for most of camp. After beginning last year in the bullpen, Duffy emerged as a front-line starter in 2016, his sixth major-league season. In addition to the gaudy record and 3.51 ERA in a career-high 179 2/3 innings, Duffy put up the best peripheral numbers of his career. He struck out 188 batters, besting his previous career high by 75; he cut his walk rate to just 2.1 per nine innings.
For moments, Duffy was one of the most dominant starters in baseball, striking out a franchise-record 16 batters during a victory over Tampa Bay in early August. He also notched the first complete game of his career, conquering the pitch efficiency issues that dogged him early in his career. Now he will attempt to build on his 2016 with more innings and greater consistency.
“He’s come a long way,” Yost said.
A former third-round pick in 2007, Duffy made his major-league debut on May 18, 2011. He underwent Tommy John surgery a year later, an elbow injury limiting him to just 11 starts in 2012 and 2013. Once back to full health, Duffy posted a 2.53 ERA in 149 1/3 innings as the Royals returned to the playoffs in 2014. A cracked rib robbed him of the opportunity to join the postseason rotation.
In 2015, Duffy posted a 4.08 ERA in 136 2/3 innings, a step back that included a late-season shift to the bullpen. But a series of adjustments in 2016 would put his career back on track. He began throwing a slider. He started working solely out of the stretch. He continued to incorporate a deceptive slide-step.
The results were masterful and emboldened the Royals to invest in Duffy for the future. The performance will now lead to his first opening day start.
“Obviously, it means a lot,” Duffy said. “This is my first one. I’ve worked really hard to get to this point. I’m definitely honored. There’s five of us that are capable of doing that, and the fact that they chose me says a lot. I’m very humbled by it.”