Danny Duffy was tabbed with the first Opening Day start of his career on Monday against the Twins, fresh off signing a five-year, $65 million contract extension last winter to stay with the Royals. He did not show any complacency, instead picking up where he left off with a fantastic performance that should encourage a lot of Royals fans.
Duffy went six innings, striking out eight hitters, tying a franchise record for Opening Day set by Wally Bunker in 1970. Duffy walks three and allowed just three hits and one run. He really made just one mistake all day, a solo home run clobbered by Twins slugger Miguel Sanó. By Game Score, it was the tenth-best Opening Day start in Royals history, according to Baseball Reference.
Bet you forgot Bruce Chen ever pitched well!
There was reason to be skeptical that Duffy could take on an Opening Day assignment. His inconsistent track record left doubts that perhaps his 2016 season was a fluke. He has never made more than 26 starts in a season. There were also concerns that perhaps Duffy’s emotions would get the best of him on such a big stage. There was the possibility that Duffy would be too amped up and try to throw 200 mph, only to burn himself out after four innings.
But what we saw on Monday against the Twins was a much more mature approach from the 28-year old left-hander. For starters, his velocity was actually down. Duffy averaged 95 mph after becoming a starter last year. On Monday he averaged just 93 mph with his fastball, and he may have not even been throwing that hard since the radar guns record velocities differently this year.
Last year the American League average swing-and-miss percentage was 10.2%, according to Fangraphs. Duffy was well-above average, finishing fifth among qualified starters in swing-and-miss rate at 12.9%. On Monday, Duffy got Twins hitters to swing-and-miss 16 times in 100 pitches, according to Brooks Baseball. He is well on his way to finishing near the top of that leaderboard again.
It was fun to watch Duffy really work against Robbie Grossman, who was a pesky hitter for the Twins last year. In the first inning, Duffy begins by missing up with a fastball. A slider on the outside corner to the right-handed Grossman makes it 1-1. Again a slider that paints the outside corner makes is called for strike two. Grossman is probably looking for a slider even further off the corner, or perhaps something below his knees. Duffman instead blows him away with a 95 mph heater.
In the fourth, Grossman is up again, this time with a runner on first, but with the memory of those sliders on the corner in his mind. Duffy against starts him off by missing high with a fastball. This time, however, Duffy gives Grossman a taste of the changeup, which Grossman swings right over. Grossman takes another change right down the middle for strike two. Grossman has now seen three plus pitches from Duffy.
Duffy only gets his heater up to 92 this time, but it is enough to get Grossman up in the zone.
The pitch that was really working though was the change up - primarily against the right-handed hitters. Duffy threw the change 26 times. Hitters swung at it 12 times and missed seven times. So 26% of the time (7 out of 26) Duffy threw his change, he was getting a whiff.
The best-looking one came in the fifth against young Twins phenom Byron Buxton. Duffy worked an 0-2 count with two sliders that Buxton swung over, one of which was in the dirt. Instead of bouncing another one in the dirt, or trying to bust him inside, Duffy instead paints a change up on the outside, getting Buxton to whiff.
Duff was pretty amped over that.
If there was any downside to Duffy’s performance other than the one pitch destroyed by Sano, it was the three walks, but even that was the product of a small strike zone. The green triangles represent balls called for Royals pitchers, while the red triangles are strikes called for Royals pitchers. Home plate umpire Gerry Davis missed more than a few for Royals pitchers, only giving them a few on the outside corner.
You can see where that cost Duffy. A ball three to Jorge Polanco in the second that led to one walk was probably a strike.
Ball four to Jason Castro in the fourth was a strike on the corner.
And ball four to Robbie Grossman in the fifth looked like a strike.
If Duffy gets those calls, maybe he is able to work deep into the seventh and the game plays out differently. Who knows. The important thing is that Danny Duffy stayed within himself and it was a sight to see. He worked the corners, he changed speeds, he hit his spots, he played with hitters - this is what aces do. The Royals will need him to be an ace this year if they want any hopes of contending. Hopefully the rest of the team is able to show up in his next start.