What if I told you there was a pitcher who ranks in the top five in the AL in ERA, strikeouts per nine innings, strikeout to walk ratio, FIP, WARP and DRA and was top 20 in wins? Is that something you might be interested in?
Now what if I told you, he pitches for the Royals? Is your mind blown? Okay, probably not. You knew by the title of this article that it was going to be about Danny Duffy, but that doesn’t change how impressive a season he’s having, especially now that he has enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. And that led me to start wondering if, with a finish as fantastic as the start, Duffy could actually contend for the Cy Young.
Initially, the idea was a little nutty to me. I mean, the guy isn’t even in the top 30 in innings pitched because he spent the first month-plus of the season in the bullpen. Typically, even with how good he’s been, I think the question would be kind of silly, but this is a weird season. There’s not a ton of dominance in the American League among starters. This is one of those years that someone like Zach Britton could sneak in to win pitching’s most prestigious award.
Let me lay out my claim. At this point, Duffy isn’t even a contender. As I mentioned, the innings are just too low. He needs to finish his season strong. I look at the schedule, and if the Royals skip the fifth starter spot every time they can (and that’s no guarantee), Duffy will make 11 more starts this season, including Thursday. I’m going to base my numbers off that assumption, even though there’s a good chance he does only make 10 more starts.
I ran some numbers, and this is what he’d do the rest of the year if his last 11 starts have the same rates as the first 16 he’s made. These numbers include the starts where he was on fairly strict pitch counts:
Yeah, that looks good to me.
Now, let’s take a look at how his numbers will look if he finishes the season averaging exactly what he’s done as a starter since his pitch restrictions were mostly lifted:
That’s one heck of a season. It would pretty easily be the best by a Royals pitcher since Greinke’s Cy Young campaign in 2009. If he could go something like 7-3 in those 11 starts, he’d be 15-4 with those numbers. Sign me up please.
But now, keep with me for a second while I get a little crazy. Duffy had a rough go of it in New York in his second to last start of June. Since then, he’s looked like a completely different pitcher, recording outs in the seventh or later in seven of his eight starts. What if he could keep that up over his final 11 starts? Let’s see those numbers.
Okay, now we’re really talking. He puts numbers up like that, I could see him going 8-2 or better in those final 11 starts. I’m accounting for a no decision because that seems likely at some point, right? So now he finishes the year at 16-3 with a 2.79 ERA with 216 strikeouts and that insane strikeout to walk ratio. That’s going to be tough to beat.
The way I see it, the competition here is Aaron Sanchez (who is now in a six-man rotation and may be headed to the bullpen at some point), Cole Hamels, Marco Estrada, Jose Quintana, Steven Wright, J.A. Happ, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber and Michael Fulmer.
Hamels has the wins, the ERA and the innings and is playing on a contender. Sale has the wins and the media backup. Wright has the story (and the wins/innings/contender trifecta). Happ has the same stuff Hamels has, plus a decent story. Estrada probably doesn’t have the innings. Sanchez probably won’t. Plus, they might split votes. Kluber has the past winner persona, the contender and the shiny FIP, but doesn’t have the wins. Fulmer, to me, might be the favorite.
He’s 9-3 with a 2.43 ERA. He hasn’t yet qualified for the ERA title, but he will as long as he stays healthy, so he has a lot of the same caveats as Duffy. He has to finish as strong as he started, but if he falters even a little bit and finishes something like 14-6 with a 2.75 ERA in 175 innings, those lines from Duffy above might be enough to beat him if the strikeout numbers and the ratios are something that would impress the voters.
And let’s not forget that Duffy has a pretty cool story behind him too. He left baseball for a time, found his way back to the game and was a promising young pitcher before having to undergo Tommy John surgery. He worked his way back and has been a bit of a late bloomer as a dominant starter.
I’m not sitting here predicting that Duffy will win the Cy Young award, but what I am saying is that it’s possible. It’s going to require him maintaining the level of excellence he’s shown so far this season as a starter, but he isn’t showing many signs of letting up just yet. In a season when so much has gone wrong, the evolution and maturation of Duffy from potential to ace has been one that Royals fans have needed this year. And hey, it’s not the craziest thing in the world to think it could end with him winning an award that only three other Royals pitchers have ever won. That would be pretty gnar.