“I know I come across as boring with my stories, but that’s just the way it is,” Duffy said Wednesday with a laugh.
Duffy might be humble in describing himself, but his pitching tells another story. The 27-year-old lefty has emerged as one of the American League's top starting pitchers during the past three months. He’s 11-2 with a 3.01 ERA, including winning 10 straight decisions, and set the Royals' single-game record for strikeouts last month. In his first five starts in August, he went 5-0 with a 1.18 ERA before a blip -- seven runs in five innings against the Red Sox -- in his most recent start.
“He’s a special talent and will be dangerous as he continues to polish,” said ESPN analyst Dallas Braden. “He should be considered heavily for the Cy Young if he can continue on this nice little run.”
"This nice little run" was a long time coming for the sixth-year Royal and, no matter what Duffy might say, it's been exciting to watch. It's also been the product of some tinkering. A couple of seasons ago, Duffy junked his curveball in favor of a slider that had similar movement but more velocity.
He pairs that with two variations of his fastball -- a sinker that comes in to right-handed hitters, which Duffy uses to get them to “swing out of their shoes" and a four-seamer that appears to rise, which Duffy uses as a weapon against left-handed hitters. The two combine to average 95 mph, which ranks sixth-fastest among starting pitchers this season.
Duffy also has a changeup, one he used less frequently in 2014 and 2015, but now throws 15 to 20 times a game. Though Duffy said he’s still trying to get a feel for the pitch, it’s working better than the "fine" grade he gives it.
Two seasons ago, opponents missed on 21 percent of their swings against it. This season, two extra mph of velocity on it had made a big difference (85, up from 83); since he’s become a starter, they’re missing twice as often -- 42 percent of the time and hitting only .150 against it. The past two seasons, opponents hit .278 and .302 against changeups in Duffy’s starts.
The other move Duffy made was to stop pitching out of a full windup and work from a modified stretch position with no one on base. Instead of standing with both feet on the rubber and taking a step back to maneuver his body into pitching position, Duffy leaves only his left foot on the slab and his step with his right foot comes to the first-base side. Braden noted this makes for a more easily repeatable delivery, a trait that is essential for a top-line starter.
“I feel like I’m in more control of my body now,” Duffy said. “Less moving body parts. Less room for error.
His is a story not just of physical changes, but of mental ones, too. Duffy said his success in a couple of tough spots out of the bullpen earlier this season gave him increased confidence. He’s also taken the old pitching adage -- trust your stuff -- to heart.
“From time to time, I used to try to come out of my own shoes and throw 105 mph when I only had 98 in the tank,” Duffy said. "I didn’t realize that 98 was enough, 96 was enough, 94 was enough and, shoot, 92 was enough.
“I’m not trying to make the game harder than it is. That has probably been my biggest fault [in the past], overdoing certain aspects of the game, trying to trick people to get them out.”
Duffy's highlight this season was a 16-strikeout performance in a no-hit bid he carried into the eighth inning against the Rays on Aug. 1. Rays hitters couldn’t touch his fastball or his changeup. They swung at the latter 19 times and missed 14. He netted 35 missed swings in all, the most by a pitcher in the past 15 seasons.
“Everything was working to a T,” Duffy said.
Duffy pointed to Royals starters who never had a 16-strikeout game, pitchers like Bret Saberhagen and Zack Greinke. “I’m humbled to be within shouting distance of being in the same sentence with them,” he said.
Just as notable was that Duffy was consistently good his next four times out. One example of his growth this season was a win against the Twins on Aug. 21 when the numbers -- 6⅔ innings, one run -- looked good, but didn’t tell the full story of the struggle Duffy went through in allowing eight hits and walking two.
“When good pitchers don’t have their best stuff, they still find ways to compete at a high level,” Royals manager Ned Yost told reporters after that win, Duffy’s 10th straight. “He’s got supreme confidence in his abilities. Knowing that he was struggling to command his fastball, he didn’t freak out. He continued to try to make pitches. In the past, he’d try to invent things to make up for an inability to command the baseball.
“Starters like Danny are going to have their good stuff eight to 10 times a year. They’re going to get hammered five times a year. The rest of your starts, you’re not going to have your best stuff," he said. "You’re going to have to learn how to compete. Danny’s doing that well.”
As for being "boring," well, Duffy has a fun side, too. The Royals credited some of the success that got them back into the wild-card hunt last month to a "rally mantis" they kept in the dugout. Duffy made a tribute video, honoring the little creature when it died. Teammate Dillon Gee put the video on Twitter and it went viral.
Take a Sec and watch this video! Video credit: Danny Duffy. pic.twitter.com/JT4745RgeC— Dillon Gee (@DillonGee35) August 13, 2016
“We had a lot of fun with that,” Duffy said.
We pointed out to Duffy that when we talked to him in spring training, he spoke of not wanting to be on with Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon when the Royals celebrated their World Series win last year, preferring to simply be honored as a “hometown hero” in Lompoc, California. But if the Royals can overcome a three-game wild-card deficit, get to the postseason and make a run, Kimmel and Fallon might come calling.
“I’d just as soon send someone who played more of a part and is better in those situations,” Duffy said, laughing.
This is just the way it is. Duffy will let his pitching do the entertaining.