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August 15, 2014

Painting the Black

Danny Duffy's Bestie

by R.J. Anderson

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On July 21st, the Royals dropped to eight games below the Tigers, following a fourth consecutive loss. The negativity that so often envelopes Kansas City baseball returned. Fans checked prospect lists rather than the standings in preparation for the trade deadline, and some even rationalized that a fruitful haul would be preferable to a spot in the Wild Card game. That and other beliefs about this year's team have since been challenged, as the Royals have claimed first place after winning 17 of their past 21 games.

One of the catalysts for the turnaround is Danny Duffy, a 25-year-old southpaw who, in five starts after the All-Star break, has allowed eight runs. Neither his component measures nor his scouting reports suggest he's this good—if he qualified he would rank 12th among starters in ERA—but his efforts remains noteworthy for other reasons. Chief among them is the fact that he began the season in the minors. When Duffy was recalled, about two weeks into the campaign, he pitched from the bullpen. His first start came on May 3rd, and he's since tallied a 2.60 ERA, three more strikeouts than hits allowed, and roughly twice as many strikeouts as walks.

No story about Duffy's breakout is complete without mentioning James Shields. Shields, whose reputation as a leader-slash-teacher precedes him, has made an impression on Duffy. "He pulled me aside to look at some video the other day," Duffy said in March, "matter of fact, that actually really helped in the game. Just little things like that—anything that he sees, he wants everyone to be at their best. Good dude, he embraces the role as leader on this team."

The degree of Shields' influence on Duffy is unclear, however, and the uncertainty fuels the worst part about the mentor-apprentice narrative: too much praise for the trainer and not enough for the understudy. All the Shields wisdom in the world is worthless if Duffy fails to listen, retain, and incorporate the knowledge into his game. So, in an effort to avoid that trap, let's suss out where and how much Shields has affected Duffy.

Pitch repertoire
Duffy throws the same pitches—fastball, curveball, changeup—he did during his formative days. (Brooks Baseball categorizes some of his pitches as sliders, and he toyed with one during spring training, but the present version looks like a curveball variant rather than a true slider.) Duffy's arsenal remains unchanged, as do his grips. Duffy's changeup is thrown from a circle-change grip—Shields' is deployed from a two-seam grip—and his curveball from a spike-curve grip—Shields' is too, though Duffy's usage of the grip predates Shields' arrival in Kansas City. If Shields has caused Duffy to modify his pitches, it came in some other way—perhaps altered finger pressure, added pronation, or something along those lines.

Perceived Shields influence: None

Sequencing
The best sequencers understand their strengths and weaknesses alike. Shields, a master at pitching backward, knows Duffy doesn't face the same limitations he does. Whereas Shields needs to hide his fastball behind a curtain of secondary stuff, Duffy's fastball is good enough to feature. That means, even if Shields did advise Duffy on his sequencing, it wouldn't necessarily resemble Shields' usage. Here are some breakdowns of Duffy's approach to various situations over the years:

First-pitch usage

Season

Fastball%

Breaking ball%

Changeup%

2011

65%

23%

12%

2012

78%

16%

6%

2013

76%

21%

3%

2014

79%

17%

4%

Behind-in-the-count usage

Season

Fastball%

Breaking ball%

Changeup%

2011

72%

9%

19%

2012

79%

3%

19%

2013

79%

2%

19%

2014

83%

10%

8%

Two-strike usage

Season

Fastball%

Breaking ball%

Changeup%

2011

59%

32%

9%

2012

64%

30%

6%

2013

58%

16%

26%

2014

58%

32%

10%

Some slight year-to-year changes here and there. Most interesting is Duffy's increased reliance upon his fastball when down in the count. His confidence in the pitch is evident by how he's willing—maybe even eager—to go inside on righties in tough situations. Not many pitchers will do that. Otherwise, most of the changes seem to be reversions to old trends or too slight to get worked up over.

Perceived Shields influence: Little if any

Facial hair

Duffy wears a generic, inoffensive beard. Shields grows broccoli from his chin.

Perceived Shields influence: Thankfully none

Pickoff move
Duffy entered the season with nine career pickoffs in nearly 160 big-league innings. This season, he has nabbed four baserunners in 115 innings. An improved move to first base is partially to credit. Duffy employed the standard left-handed pickoff move in the past. He'd lift his front leg, as if he were going to the plate, then stride toward first base and throw over; from there, the first baseman usually had to make another throw, increasing the likelihood of an error or misplay. Here's how that looked in motion:

Duffy's move is more dynamic these days. Rather than baiting the baserunner by lifting his leg, he flexes his front leg and steps off the rubber with his back leg. He doesn't stride toward the base anymore, instead he just fires the ball to first. Duffy is so quick and precise with his move that he's nailed quality basestealers like Jose Altuve and Sam Fuld—who didn't react to the move until the ball was en route:

“You know, Danny has worked really hard on his pickoff move,” Yost said after the Fuld game. “And that step-off has gotten really, really effective for him. And Danny used to be really poor at controlling the running game, but that’s really helped."

Who Duffy worked with on his move is unknown. Perhaps it was all pitching coach Dave Eiland, or some combination of others within the organization. If Shields played a part, it wouldn't be a surprise—after all, few right-handed pitchers have better pickoff moves—but without proof it would be unfair to give him credit for the improvement. Ditto for the nuance Duffy displays when controlling the running game by other means; he'll snap-throw over multiple times, alter between his usual stretch delivery and a slide step, and generally annoy potential basestealers into inactivity.

Perceived Shields influence: Possibly a lot, possibly a little

Temperament
More than any other area, this is where pundits point to Shields' influence on Duffy. The onetime demonstrative veteran has supposedly taught the fiery youngster to channel his energy. Here's how Shields described what Duffy's new approach does for him on the mound:

“He’s one of those guys who wears his emotions on his sleeves, and now he’s able to use that energy in his pitching in a positive way rather than a negative way. He’s become a pitcher this year, not just a thrower. I think before he was just trying to hit corners and trying to nibble a little bit rather than attacking. Now he’s attacking and trusting his stuff and trusting his defense behind him.”

Only Duffy knows if this is a bunch of nonsense or legitimate—and he seems to back up Shields' assertions. Duffy has thrown more strikes, worked deeper into games, and recorded quality starts at a higher rate this season than previously in his career. Whether it's due to Shields' self-help sessions, or the product of a developing young pitcher being 26 months removed from Tommy John surgery is anyone's guess.

Perceived Shields influence: All of it

So what's the takeaway? Shields has had an impact on Duffy's mindset and perhaps on his pickoff move. Everything else? That's all Duffy, as far as any outsider can tell.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Kansas City Royals

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