The Royals haven’t had an especially strong start to the 2017 season, getting drubbed by the Twins in both of their first two games. Luckily, they count the same and they’re just two losses and this is baseball where you can be one of the best teams in your league and still lose more times than the New England Patriots have since 2001. These two game were particularly ugly because of the way the Royals went about losing, but losses happen. But one positive did stand out to me in the first two games, and that was the continued evolution of Danny Duffy’s changeup.
You might recall that after Duffy’s dominating performance against the Rays last August, Hunter Samuels took a look at that very pitch. He talked about how that pitch was there for Duffy before but that it wasn’t consistent enough to matter. Then the lefty started using the changeup grip that now former Royal Edinson Volquez uses and the results followed. In his start against the Twins on Monday, I think what we saw was further proof that the pitch is getting better.
I’ll let a small chart courtesy of Brooks Baseball tell the story of how good the changeup was:
A lot of this is pretty intuitive, but there are some pieces that aren’t in the everyday vernacular. H-Break is the amount of horizontal break on a pitch while V-Break is the vertical break. BIP stands for balls in play. SNIPs is the number of strikes thrown and not put in play. LWTS is the especially interesting one to me. It’s the linear weight compared to average, which is 0, so what this means is that in just 26 pitches, the changeup was a run and a quarter better than average.
Let’s start there. This was not his best game with the changeup, but it was close. Going back to that magical 16-strikeout game against the Rays, he had a LWTS of -2.41 on 26 changeups with 14 whiffs. Of course, that’s the gold standard for Duffy at this point in his career (and there would be absolutely no shame if that remained his gold standard).
Since he moved back into the rotation, Monday’s start had his third best LWTS on his changeup. The only two games better were the aforementioned game of his life and interestingly enough, a game against the Rangers when he was good but not great and got a win. Below is a list of the changeup results on all his outings since he was stretched out as a starter.
|Date||Count||H-Break||V-Break||Strikes||Swings||Whiffs||Whiff %||BIP||No Out||SNIPs||LWTS|
There’s one game not listed here and that’s his first start in the WBC against the Canadian team. I bring that up because I thought his changeup looked as good in that game as it did in his start against the Rays on August 1st last year. It might have even been a touch better than it was on Monday against the Twins. But that’s an encouraging trend regardless. One thing that may or may not stand out to you is that the vertical break on the changeup was the greatest it had been for Duffy’s return to starting. That means there was a significant drop. When you combine it with the horizontal movement, it’s easy to see why only two of the 26 were put in play on Monday and both were turned into outs.
We’ve certainly seen flashes of this changeup before from Duffy, so I’m not ready to throw a parade just yet. For example, in the outing following his 16-strikeout performance, his changeup was about as bad as it’s been since his return to the rotation. Part of that is small sample because he only threw 12 of them, but he still only got one and swing miss on the pitch after getting 14 the start before. I suppose it’s worth noting that he was still decent in that start and got the win against a tough Blue Jays lineup.
The point here is that the changeup can be the great equalizer for Duffy. In the series preview I mentioned how he was otherworldly against left-handed bats but righties hit him enough that it probably kept Duffy out of the conversation to be a true number one pitcher (and could cause problems against a Twins lineup with some right-handed thunder). The numbers have shown that in his career and continued last year, even in his breakout.
|vs. RHB career||.257||.333||.432|
|vs. LHB career||.208||.271||.288|
|vs. RHB 2016||.252||.305||.455|
|vs. LHB 2016||.183||.219||.229|
His improved control helped to bring the righty OBP down last season, but also might contribute to the slugging percentage boost. Anyway, yesterday’s changeup was thrown mostly against righties, as most of his changeups are. He allowed just one hit (albeit on a home run) to 14 right-handed batters he faced, and it was on a two-seamer. He’s no stranger to getting hit on that two-seamer by righties, but the improved changeup could really help that. Heading into the season, righties hit the two-seam fastball to the tune of a .298 average and .528 slugging percentage. This changeup that seems to be getting better all the time could help to drop those numbers significantly, especially considering the drop that comes near the drop he gets on the fastball.
Now, I don’t expect Duffy to maintain the .083/.214/.333 line against right-handed bats he allowed on Monday all season. The .547 OPS would be more than 200 points less than what he’s allowed to them in his career. But if he can somehow manage to bring the OPS he allows against righties down to the .660-.675 range instead of around .760, he will without a doubt produce the best season for a Royals starter since Zack Greinke’s insane 2009 season. That’s a relatively low bar, but an accomplishment nonetheless. And it’s what the Royals need from him. With a weakened bullpen from what we’ve grown accustomed to, they need a true ace to help solidify the pitching staff, and that’s exactly what Duffy can be if the changeup he’s flashed more than a few times now comes out to play on a regular basis.