Danny Duffy: bullpen to Ace to…Cy Young?

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Despite posting a 3.80 ERA (24-30 record) in his first five years as a starting pitcher (2015 was his “worst” year as a starter, posting a 4.35 ERA with 90 strikeouts and 51 walks in 24 starts, coming off a 2014 season filled with lack of run support – 2.53 ERA, 1.112 WHIP, 9-12 record), Duffy’s inconsistency with the strike zone, resulting in high pitch counts, he landed in the bullpen to start the season for the second time in the last three seasons and marked the third season in a row that he spent a portion of the season in the bullpen.

This time, it looked permanent. And while there, Duffy finally figured out how to throw strikes. He pounded the zone at a better rate in any year of his career (70%, 6% higher than career mark), striking out 10.4 batters per nine innings (7.6 career) with a 4.20 strikeout to walk ratio. His ERA was at 3.00 with a 1.222 WHIP and opposing batters were slashing .250/.297/.371. The Royals then placed 40% of their rotation (Chris Young and Kris Medlen) on the DL in one day and the Royals had little choice but to insert him back into the rotation. He did it, of course, because he is team first guy. Originally just a temporary move, he has been elite, since. Easily supplanting himself as the team’s new ace and the Opening Day starter for 2017, Duffy has dominated in 18 starts, going 10-1 (his season record) with a 2.69 ERA, 0.95 WHIP with 122 strikeouts and just 22 walks in 114 IP.

In August, he has been unreal. In Tampa Bay, he produced the Royals BEST START IN FRANCHISE HISTORY (8 IP, 1 H, 16 K, 1 BB, 95 Game Score – the fourth-best start of 2016 using that metric) on August 1 and then throwing his first career complete game on August 11th, needing just 98 pitches thanks to high efficiency (72% strike rate), allowing just one run with six strikeouts compared to no walks in the 2-1 win. Now the AL leader in ERA (2.73), win percentage (.909) and WHIP (0.98), Duffy ranks eighth in strikeouts despite making 15 appearances out of the bullpen – thanks to leading the league in strikeouts since June 1 – and hasn’t suffered a loss at Kaufman Stadium in 348 days.

He had tossed eight innings in a start just once before this season and now he has done it four times in the last 6.5 weeks. Tonight, he tossed 7.2 innings of 1-run (HR), 3-hit baseball in the Royals (59-60) 6-1 win (8th win in the last 10 games).

“He’s pretty much doing everything an ace does, everything you need from your ace and there’s no question he is ours,” Eric Hosmer said last week.

This raises the question, is Danny Duffy a Cy Young candidate?

He’s certainly been pitching like one, especially since his last loss June 6. In 13 starts after, he is 9-0, the team 11-2, with a 2.43 ERA with 94 strikeouts and 0.95 WHIP in 89 innings. The Royals have won his last 10 starts.

Lets take a look at his competitors for the prize awarded to the league’s best pitchers:

  1. JA Happ (16-3, 2.96 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 2.88 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS): Benefitting from an AL-leading 6.09 runs support average per start, but, he also has great numbers. He’s also won each of his last four starts and during that time, Happ has posted a 0.72 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 25 frames. Like Duffy, he hasn’t lost a game since June 6.
  2. Corey Kluber (13-8, 3.15 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 4.3 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO): The league leader in deserved run average (DRA) (2.63) and fielding independent pitching (FIP) (2.78), Kluber has been one of the three best pitchers in the AL via those advanced metrics – which attempt to isolate pitching from the other influences on run prevention—for most of the season. Over the last month, his results have finally started to match up with his performance, resulting in a 1.46 ERA over his last five starts, all of them quality starts lasting 7 or more innings. Ranks in the Top 8 in six different categories.
  3. Aaron Sanchez (12-2, 2.84 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 2.88 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS): The Young Blue Jays ace has been awesome this season, but he is running into an innings dilemma. Threatened a move to the bullpen to limit his innings – he has never thrown more than 133.1 in his pro career but is already at 145.1 this season – the Jays moved to a six-man rotation with the addition of deadline deal Francisco Liriano. With Scott Feldman and Michael Bolsinger also added, Sanchez, who has a 1.67 ERA in his last eight starts, could still end the season in the bullpen. It will be fascinating to see how things play out from here for both him and the Jays, but given the realities of his innings count, he seems unlikely to be a serious contender for the Cy Young award down the stretch. Much like Duffy, the workload might not be there at the end, but, he is rolling along right now, with quality starts in eight of his last 10 trips to the mound, and has rattled off victories in 11 of his last 12 decisions.
  4. Zach Britton (2-1, 0.54 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 10.5 K/9, 3.73 K/BB): The Orioles closer is having as good of a season as any relief pitcher has in recent history. Sporting a 0.54 ERA, he is perfect in 37 save chances. Relief pitchers do not get a lot of votes, dominant or not, because they just don’t pitch enough innings, in voters opinion. Then Dodgers closer Eric Gagne was the last reliever to win the award in 2003. Wade Davis finished sixth last year with a sub-1 ERA and a cyborg-like effort. Francisco Rodriguez was the last one to finish in the Top 3 in 2009, when he set the MLB single-season saves record with 62. Britton just reached 50 innings, but they do come in tight games and he has been dominant. He has allowed multiple baserunnsers just twice in his last 13 appearances, and has a four-save lead for the top spot among American League closers. Much like Duffy, the workload might not be there.
  5. Chris Sale (14-6, 3.30 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.77 K/9, 4.41 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS): The White Sox ace’s strikeout rate is the lowest its been in his career (but impressive for most pitchers, otherwise), but he’s still on pace for a 20-win season, and ranks in the Top 10 in in six categories, including a league-leading four complete games. His ERA is on the rise, as he is 0-4 since the calendar turned to July.

Trailing the league leaders by 30-plus innings, Duffy may not have the workload to win the Cy Young, but the fact that we’re talking about it is amazing considering he wasn’t in the rotation when the season started. Duffy has always had the “stuff,” but now he has discovered how to pitch and we wondered earlier in the season if it was time to lock up Duffy.

Still with a final year of arbitration left, one thing he has done for sure – made himself a lot of money.

#teachmehowtoDuffy

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