When spring training began, the Royals were basically having an open competition for the fifth starter role. The candidates were Wade Davis, Danny Duffy, Luke Hochevar, Brad Penny and Yordano Ventura. Hochevar is now out for the year, Brad Penny has been released and Wade Davis has already been ticketed for the bullpen, partially due to the Luke Hochevar injury creating a hole in the bullpen. So it’s now down to Ventura and Duffy, but all indications are that it’s a competition in name only because Ventura has already all but won the job. The Royals say that they’ll send the “loser” of the competition down to AAA to continue starting rather than going into the bullpen.
There’s no question that if a pitcher can be successful as a starting pitcher, that’s where his value lies. I was listening to the Royals game yesterday and Ryan Lefebvre mentioned that he thinks in some cases an eighth inning reliever is more valuable than a fifth starter. That’s just not the case. A guy may be better suited for the eighth inning, but there is no world where a pitcher who throws 60 or 70 innings is more valuable than a pitcher who throws 180 innings. Now, that’s not to say that an individual pitcher can’t be more valuable as a reliever. Luke Hochevar is the perfect example of that. The question is whether or not Duffy is another example of that.
One thing about Duffy that is interesting is that he seems to want to be a reliever.
I think that my game would play very well out of the bullpen, but that’s just my opinion that I’ve had for my whole career,” said Duffy. “I’ve stated my case for that a few times.”
It sounds like Duffy not only would like to pitch out of the bullpen, but has told the team that and they haven’t listened to his requests. To that I say good for the team. Like I said above, no matter how good a guy is out of the bullpen, if he can be even an average starter (especially while still on pre-arbitration contracts), he provides far more value as a starter. To this point in his career, Duffy has shown that he can throw left-handed (that’s big) and that he can get strikeouts (that’s bigger). He has his warts for sure, but the time hasn’t yet come to give up on him as a starter, even if that might be both what he wants and what ends up happening in the future.
Of course, the knock on Duffy is pitch efficiency. In his career, Duffy has averaged 18.8 pitches per inning. That’s bad. What you’re looking for from a big league pitcher is about 15 pitches per inning. That gets you 105 pitches in a seven inning game, which in today’s baseball is a good benchmark of a really good pitcher. The bad news is that the pitch efficiency isn’t getting any better. His pitches per inning have actually gone up in each of his three years in the big leagues, though the last two years have totaled just over 50 innings and were obviously marred by injury. In his first 31 big league starts, he’s recorded an out in the seventh just six times. Duffy knows he has a problem, but he just doesn’t know what to do about it.
“Pitch efficiency has been something that I’ve been battling with my whole career and I just can’t seem to fix it at times,” he said.
With that in mind, coupled with his apparent desire to be a reliever, you have to wonder if that might be the best role for him both now and in the future. He just seems to have trouble putting hitters away. He mentioned to me how frustrating it can be to get to two strikes on a batter and then see so many foul balls hit before the at bat finally comes to a close with some sort of resolution. He also talked about the fact that sometimes his big curve can fool an umpire into thinking the pitch stayed up and out of the strike zone when it really dropped right into the zone. Moving to the bullpen might allow his already really good stuff to tick up a little bit and be able to get that extra little bit behind his pitches needed in order to not deal with those foul balls with two strikes.
Duffy says that he can see the writing on the wall in regard to the rotation, and really just wants to be a part of the big league roster.Â “I know that I could help the big league team right now,” he said. That’s my opinion. I think my opinion, for that matter, is fact.”
Personally, I think Duffy is right. I love what he brings to the table even if he does have a little trouble putting hitters away and keeping his pitch count low enough to get deep into games. I think if you put Duffy into the bullpen and take away his curve, you have a huge weapon in the back of the bullpen who might even make it feasible to shop Greg Holland this off-season before he gets expensive. I also believe that Duffy’s temperament and mindset is perfect for the bullpen.
But I’m not ready to put him there just yet. I don’t think he’s going to win the fifth starter job. I think that means he ends up back in Omaha to start the 2014 season and will be ready to go if someone goes down with an injury or midnight strikes for Bruce Chen. And I do think that at some point, he’s going to be very successful as a starter. It helps that he’s been working on his slier, which he says stems from his cutter that wasn’t so good last year. If the Royals were a team on the fringe of contention but had bullpen troubles, I think I’d be all for Duffy being a reliever in 2014, but since the Royals bullpen has more quality arms than it can hold, I want Duffy starting, whether it’s in the big leagues or in AAA. There’s plenty of time in his career to become a reliever, even if that’s what he wants. For now, his best role for the 2014 Royals is to start.
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