The Developing Ace of the Royals by Jeff Sullivan June 13, 2016 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.