The Developing Ace of the Royals

Let’s make one thing absolutely clear: The Royals don’t have an ace, not by major-league standards. By whichever measure you pick, the Royals have had one of the worst starting rotations in the game, and the closest thing they have to an ace starter is probably their group of pitchers who aren’t starters at all. Each and every game is almost like a race to the bullpen, and the Royals are aware of it. This is part design, and part bad luck.

It’s also part bad Yordano Ventura. For what we can term a variety of reasons, Ventura has yet to ascend to the performance level his repertoire would suggest. If any Royal were to blossom into a relative ace, you’d think Ventura would be the one. And he might still get there, but he’s not the guy presently on course. No, the guy emerging right now is Danny Duffy, and though Duffy isn’t the only respectable member of the staff, he’s become perhaps the most exciting. That is, if you find good pitching more exciting than brawls.

I know there are reasons to be wary of Duffy. And I will get to those, but first, let me set the table. Understand that, if you’re looking for a really interesting pitcher in this Royals rotation, you have to lower your standards. I’m doing that by lowering my innings minimum. Duffy has started just six times, narrowly clearing 30 innings. I looked at all the starters with at least 20 innings. Here are some facts that I’ve selected:

  • Danny Duffy ranks No. 1 in first-pitch-strike rate
  • Danny Duffy ranks No. 3 in contact rate
  • Danny Duffy ranks No. 2 in in-zone contact rate

It’s just three facts, but already you can tell two things: Duffy has gotten ahead, and Duffy has been difficult to hit, even when he’s thrown strikes. Of course, the two are related, as the latter gets to play off the former. But that’s why a pitcher wants to take control of the count. Everything looks better when the pitchers gets to pitch while ahead.

The reasons to be wary: It’s six starts. In a way, it’s not even six starts; he threw 48 pitches in the first. He’s topped out at 88, as the Royals have gradually built up his arm after he was relieving. And then, three of those starts have come against the White Sox, with the others against the Braves, Rays, and Orioles. It’s not a representative sample of opponents. I’m certainly not suggesting that Duffy is as good as his current statistics.

There just does seem to be something going on, and this is why I believe that. What does a pitcher want to do? Throw strikes and miss bats. Here’s Duffy as a starter in the majors, the plot showing six-start rolling averages:


Duffy has flirted with a good strike rate before, but never while limiting contact like this. Over Duffy’s six starts, he’s thrown 71% strikes, while allowing 71% contact. You do have to think about the hitters he’s faced, but those are two lines you don’t expect to intersect. I’ve never even though about those lines intersecting before. Which is not to say that they don’t, or haven’t, but I know it’s uncommon. Duffy has been more in control than ever.

He’s relieved, and he’s started, and the Royals have had him do both before. That only happens with pitchers who don’t seem to be able to handle the rotation. Now we can wonder if Duffy will ever go back. Here now is a big table of numbers, and this shows Duffy as a big-league starter. This might be more easily consumed as a graph, but it’s hard to get all those numbers in there at once. So, just, take a moment with this one:

Danny Duffy as a Starter
Season Strike% F-Strike% FBv K% BB% O-Swing% Contact% ERA- FIP- xFIP-
2011 62% 52% 93.3 18% 11% 25% 82% 136 120 112
2012 60% 52% 95.3 23% 15% 26% 78% 95 97 116
2013 60% 55% 93.7 21% 14% 23% 77% 46 79 116
2014 64% 59% 93.1 18% 9% 26% 85% 66 105 119
2015 64% 57% 93.6 16% 9% 28% 83% 107 117 119
2016 71% 71% 95.2 31% 4% 36% 71% 69 85 80

Compare 2016 to the previous seasons. Duffy is easily at his highest strike rate. He’s easily at his highest first-pitch-strike rate. His fastball is back to where it was in 2012. Strikeouts, of course, are up, and walks, of course, are down. And so on and so forth. Duffy isn’t running his lowest ERA ever, but this low ERA seems the most sustainable, provided Duffy keeps doing what he’s done.

As far as that goes, you hope he can stay healthy. Duffy has already had his ligament replaced, and he’s had other scares. There was an elbow strain. There was soreness in the shoulder. There was biceps tendinitis. Duffy also just hasn’t proven durable enough to stick as a starter, and with the Royals stretching him out, they know they’re taking a chance. They also have to know they don’t have many other desirable options, and maybe this is the time Duffy’s body will cooperate. Maybe he’ll benefit from his simpler delivery? This is the easiest explanation for Duffy’s emergence. His velocity is up, but also, he’s working exclusively from the stretch. He didn’t do that before. Look at this nice, smooth, boring delivery out of the stretch.

The idea is that perhaps Duffy just needed to simplify. There’s definitely less going on when you pitch from the stretch, and there’s no arguing with the results to date. So Duffy has brought something from the bullpen to the rotation, much in the way that Carlos Carrasco did when he returned to the Indians rotation after working in relief. Carrasco simplified and went to the stretch full-time, and he’s become a quality starter. It’s not a 1:1 relationship, but you never know which tweak will be the big one. Duffy feels like he has better location, and the numbers indicate as much. You’d like to see longer starts, or starts against better opponents, but Duffy is doing a better job of elevating his fastball while locating his changeup. That changeup has been important for him, and Danny Duffy + changeup + health = quality starter. The Royals need to be hoarding their quality starts.

I don’t think Danny Duffy is on his way to being an actual ace, and I still need to be convinced that Duffy can handle a full workload of games. But the bar is lower when you’re talking about the potential staff ace of the Royals, and Duffy is a challenger for that particular title. In the early going as he’s gotten stretched back out, he’s thrown a ton of strikes while limiting opposing contact. This isn’t a new Danny Duffy, but it’s a better Danny Duffy, and he’s helping the Royals to weather what’s been a tremendously difficult storm.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

As a believer in karma, I really hope that Ventura does not become an ace. He’s one of the nastiest people in baseball, at least from a fan’s perspective. Throwing a deadly weapon at an opponent, with intent to harm, just because you’re in a pissy mood, is more than bad sportsmanship. It should literally be a crime.

OddBall Herrera
6 years ago
Reply to  scooter262

This is the part I don’t get – just being on the field of play doesn’t mean that legality is not an issue. Some behaviors are accepted parts of the game (ex: until this year at least, takeout slides), but some are totally outside the bounds of regular play. Just like Draymond Green punching people in the nuts or Albert Haynesworth stepping on peoples’ heads, I don’t see why players should get a free pass for what would, for ‘normal people’ at least, get you an assault charge.

Bobby Ayala
6 years ago

If you try to make on the field incidences criminal, you get into some dangerous territory trying to determine intent. What if a fastball gets away from a pitcher, complete accident, but you think it’s intentional? An assault charge is pretty serious and has pretty serious ramifications. And does someone like Arrieta get less leeway because we perceive him less capable of mistakes? Criminalizing on field stuff is a terrible idea.

OddBall Herrera
6 years ago
Reply to  Bobby Ayala

Intent is an element of almost any crime, and establishing whether or not an individual intended or didn’t intend to do something is part of what the court system does. This is nit an unreasonable hurdle.

I’m not saying this should be SOP, I’m saying that this should at least be held up as a credible threat if there is a deliberate pattern of endangerment. Skipping games and fining millionaires a few thousand just doesn’t do the trick with some people, and, say Ventura goes out next week and gets mad, but this time accidentally hits a guy in the head instead of the thigh, you’re getting to the point with him where MLB is developing culpability by slapping him on the wrist over and over and not adequately policing itself. When do we reach the point where it’s irresponsible to let the guy keep doing this, and if he keeps playing beyond that point, does MLB have protection from liability should he hurt someone?

6 years ago

As a law student, Oddball is right about intent (aka mental state, culpability, or mens rea) being an element of almost every crime. Crimes also generally must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt”, which is the most rigorous possible standard. My best guess at to the reason why professional athletes seemingly do not face prosecution under the criminal law for throwing at hitters, stepping on players, etc. is that players union lawyers insist on limiting players’ criminal liability for any on-field actions taken during the course of normal physical activity for that sport in the CBAs (Collective Bargaining Agreements).

6 years ago
Reply to  johansantana17

I mean what johan said, and that literally any tackle in football, made randomly on the street, is assault. Hell, applying a hard tag is probably illegal, to a random person on the street.

Essentially, it’s not a crime because both parties consent to a certain level of risk beyond even the normal course of play – just like sparring in a gym is not a crime, even if you slip, and punch a guy in the throat.

No prosecutor is going to attempt to draw a brightline about acceptable vs. criminal violence in sport. Is a racehorse breaking a leg because the grounds crew didn’t perfectly level a track animal cruelty? Negligence? Essentially, the waiver you sign to play professional sports encompasses more than even normal gameplay, either legally or de facto.

Shirtless George Brett
6 years ago
Reply to  scooter262

I like how people seem to ignore the fact that Machado was the one who actually started that incident. He started yelling at Ventura on his way to first base because he didnt like that Ventura threw inside (after he stood and watched a ball that turned out to be a fly out). Generally speaking if you start yelling at a pitcher on the field, it shouldn’t be a surprise if you get hit in your next AB.

But I guess that doesnt fit the “Ventura is a psychopath who wants to murder your family” narrative that everyone likes so we are just going to pretend it didn’t happen.

Let the down votes flow.

6 years ago

Nobody is saying Machado is blameless–at least no reasonable people. But the response is way out of proportion with what Machado did. Strike the guy out. Throw inside again–without hitting him. Yell back. Those are all measured, reasonable responses. Even hit him in the butt with a 75 mph curve, rather than trying to kill him by throwing your hardest.

And I think people are also mad that Ventura gets essentially a 1 game suspension and Machado got 4 games.

6 years ago
Reply to  scooter262

Machado: 4 out of 162 games, or 2.47% of his season.
Ventura: 1 out of 32 starts, or 3.13% of his season.
So Ventura has a 25% longer suspension and loses twice as many game checks, seems fair

Jason Bmember
6 years ago

Well, at least you’re an objective observer! I suspect the following people would respectfully disagree:

Brady Anderson’s sideburns
Sidney Ponson’s love handles
Tony Batista’s odd batting stance
Armando Benitez’s everything

Shirtless George Brett
6 years ago
Reply to  Jason B

Im actually an Expos fan. The name is a joke from a long time ago (and has been parodied a number of times on FG even)

But whatever makes you feel better. At least you didnt compare Ventura to the stanford rapist this time.