Spring training is full of proclamations about “renewed focus” and “tweaked mechanics” for pitchers around the country. If you didn’t know any better you might just get the idea that every young pitcher around baseball is ready to make “the leap”. Danny Duffy, the 23 year-old starter for the Kansas City Royals, is no different, at least not in that regard. But Duffy is different in many ways, and that may just turn him into a star if he figures out how keep the ball in the strike zone.
After being drafted by the Royals in the 3rd round of the 2007 draft, Duffy spent the next two and a half years looking like every bit the star Royals hoped he would become. In rookie ball the 18 year-old struck out 63 in 37 1/3 innings while compiling a 1.45 ERA. In 2008 he moved up to low-A Burlington and after initially struggling, finished the year with a 0.99 ERA over his last 54 innings. 2009 saw a slight uptick in his ERA and a lowering of both his K/BB and K/9 innings ratio, but still he was a 20 year-old in high-A with a sub 3 ERA. At that point in his career you could see so many possibilities, but probably not what came next.
On March 23, 2010 Duffy took a leave from baseball. Fans in Kansas City did not exactly react well. There were questions about his heart and rumors that a girlfriend was responsible. I’m not here to speculate on rumors, but I would like to think the reaction was more evidence of our longing for a winner than a statement on the decency of our fans. Regardless, it seems the Royals handled the situation perfectly and Duffy returned on June 2 to resume his career. For many players, 2010 might have been a lost season after such a rocky start but Duffy finished the year by pitching the AA Naturals to a Texas League Title with a 1.69 ERA in postseason starts. He was back.
We all know what happened last year, when Duffy looked like he may have the best stuff on the this staff at times, and struggled to find the strike zone at others. He was the quintessential nibbler, and he got bit. Still, it would be foolish to think that he has control problems. In 5 minor league season he walked 2.8 batters per 9 innings. That number shrunk when combining only AA and AAA to just 2.05. Control is one thing Duffy has never struggled with, which should bode well for the idea that he will exhibit more of it in 2012. With an improved defense behind him and the belief that he belongs, it is easy to see why many are predicting a breakout season, but I am not sure many are recognizing just how popular this kid will become if that happens.
Danny Duffy (@dduffkc23) has already become a star on Twitter, and his #BuryMeaRoyal tweet is legendary amongst fans. He says all the right things, and he interacts with fans in a way that few professional athletes do. Duffy’s second most famous hash tag, #Godovereverything may actually contribute more to his local fame, when and if it comes.
We have all seen the enormous popularity of Tim Tebow driven to ridiculous heights by his faith and his refusal to hide it. Duffy does not have the same following or back story, but he seems to be no less committed to using his role as a professional athlete as a platform to share his faith. We saw that with Mike Sweeney, and it is a double edged sword. When you are successful you are a great role model and parents gobble up your jerseys, when you aren’t you are too soft and you get mocked for not drinking tequila.
With all the excitement and projections it is easy to forget that Duffy has not officially made the 2012 Royals yet. He is locked in a 3 man battle with Luis Mendoza and Felipe Paulino for the 4th and 5th spots in the rotation. That last sentence should tell you all you need to know about what stage of his development he is at. Still, he’s the only man in this battle with the opportunity to make the kind of impact on Kansas City that another 23 made not long ago. Only Duffy looks far better equipped to embrace it.