The Kansas City Royals roster is loaded with youngsters who were baptized by fire during the 71-91 campaign of 2011. Hopes were soaring high in September, as nearly every one of those pups seemed to be putting it together.
But for the team to take the next step to contention, nearly every one of those youngsters will need to improve on what he’s shown thus far (save perhaps Alex Gordon, who may not be able to improve on his great showing).
While improvement from the likes of Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar is essential, and while Lorenzo Cain and Johnny Giavotella must prove they can do it over a long haul, the biggest improvement is probably needed from pitcher Danny Duffy.
Duffy was given a crack at the starting rotation perhaps because the Royals realized no one could do worse than the starters they were running out to the mound.
Duffy was called up the day after Kyle Davies broke down in the first inning of a start against the Indians. What followed was legendary. Vin Mazzaro proceeded to give up an unthinkable 14 runs in just 2.1 innings of relief.
So the bar couldn’t have been much lower when Duffy joined the club. Still the jump from Omaha to KC was a big one. Duffy was rolling along with a 2.96 ERA and 84/19 K/BB ratio in 76 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. But the big leagues aren’t called “the big leagues” for nothing.
“It’s night and day. Everybody up here is up here for a reason,” Duffy said this off-season about the difference between the minors and majors.
Duffy went 4-8 in 20 starts, but he rarely gave himself a chance to pick up victories. When he wasn’t giving up big leads, he was racking up so many pitches that he had to be pulled early.
Duffy didn’t make it to the fifth inning five times. That means that in one of every four starts, Duffy didn’t even finish the fourth inning!
The rookie never led the team deep into games – he only pitched past the sixth inning three times.
For all his troubles, there’s no denying Duffy’s strike-out stuff. Armed with a mid-90s fastball and knee-buckling curve, the Royals believe Duffy doesn’t have to continue beating himself.
Former Royal pitcher and current broadcaster Jeff Montgomery, for one, sees hope for Duffy.
“Consistency will be the key for Danny,” Montgomery said recently. “It’s really important for him to go out and be a more consistent pitcher. He’s got to learn how to become more of a pitcher than a thrower.
“He’s got great stuff, great ability. If he’s able to capture that magic and learn how to get people out and that he doesn’t have to get everybody out himself, allow the hitters to get themselves out occasionally, he will improve.”
Montgomery seemed to see some of that kind of improvement in Duffy during the season. The former closer said recently that he saw Duffy trying to make the necessary changes as the season went along.
“One thing I saw in him last year that I was very impressed with was that every time he had a failure or a struggle, he made adjustments,” Montgomery said. “And it’s a system of adjustments that you have to make before you finally become a quality plug-in guy that you can go to every day.”
Duffy was just 1-4 at the All-Star Break, and he did improve with a 3-4 mark after the break. But the quality of his starts seemed to remain about the same. A closer look doesn’t exactly show that Duffy got better from the “adjustments” Montgomery alluded to.
Judging by a split of the first half and second half, Duffy didn’t really improve in two key areas – earned runs per inning, and walks per inning.
Duffy pitched 52 innings in the first half of the season. In that half, he gave up 28 earned runs and 25 walks.
In the second half of the season, Duffy was shut down after 53.1 innings. In the second half, he allowed 38 earned runs, while walking 26.
Duffy is not unaware of the fact that he didn’t get it done last year. He knows that he was allowed to stick in the rotation in spite of his dismal performance because the team was determined to let him grow into the role.
He said he’s been focused and disciplined in his effort to be better. He knows his big-league livelihood is at stake.
I think this off-season I’ve done everything I can to be what it takes to stay up here,” Duffy said. “I’ve watched a lot of video and I’m doing a lot of stuff, even in the mirror, with my delivery to improve. I just want to get out there and prove that I belong up here.”
Duffy may not have long to prove he belongs. Not in the starting rotation at least. He’ll most likely start there, but he might not stay there. He’ll have Mike Montgomery breathing down his neck, and Jake Odorizzi, Chris Dwyer and John Lamb not far away. Add those calling for Aaron Crow to be given a shot at starting, and there are plenty waiting in line, should Duffy continue to sputter.
But Duffy is trying to not let the pressure bother him.
“Everybody needs to have a progression in their career, and I feel like I’m getting to that point where I’m going to be consistent,” Duffy said. He admitted he’s aware of the talk about his struggles.
“I know there’s a lot of critiquing going on about my walks and my pitch counts, but I think this year I’m going to conquer that,” Duffy said. “I’ve really worked hard to get strong enough to repeat my delivery every pitch, and I feel that once you get that delivery repetition, you start putting the ball where you want.”
Duffy knows he’s not guaranteed the fifth spot in the rotation come spring. But he says he’s not going to get hung up on his role.
“I’m going to just fill in wherever they need me,” he said. “I can’t get ahead of myself. I’m just happy to be lucky enough to be a part of the squad.”