Monday June 6th, 2016

Danny Duffy rejoined the Royals' rotation a little less than a month ago, largely out of necessity. On May 12, Kansas City placed starters Chris Young and Kris Medlen on the DL, opening up two spaces in the rotation. Duffy, who had been pitching quite well out of the bullpen over the first six weeks of the season, slid into one of those spots, and through four starts, it appears that he might be there to stay.

In 18 2/3 innings as a starter, Duffy has a 3.86 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 1.02 WHIP and 19 strikeouts against just two walks. Since he wasn’t stretched out for a starter’s workload after making 16 appearances as a reliever, Duffy has had strict pitch limits in all four of his outings, and five of the eight runs he has surrendered came in one inning, the first time Ned Yost sent him back out for the sixth. He was able to complete six innings in his next start, allowing a total of three runs in a win over the Rays.

It’s pretty clear that Duffy has gotten better with each successive trip to the mound. He was only able to go three innings in his first start but didn’t allow a run in striking out five Braves. He went a bit longer his next time out, tossing 4 1/3 shutout innings with three whiffs against the White Sox. Duffy’s next start was the one in which he allowed five runs in the sixth inning, but he was perfect through the first five frames. Then came his last turn against the Rays: In addition to notching his first quality start of the season, he fanned six without issuing a walk.

If you know anything about Duffy’s career, that last sentence should catch your eye, as should his strikeout-to-walk ratio as a starter. Duffy has always had a serious problem staying in the strike zone, entering the 2016 season with a career 10% walk rate. Among pitchers active from 2011 through '15, only seven had a higher walk rate. This season, Duffy’s walk rate is 4.7%, which has him tied with Zack Greinke and Bartolo Colon and sandwiched between Masahiro Tanaka and Taijuan Walker.

Duffy made one obvious change as a starter this season: He’s pitching out of the stretch with no one on base. He got comfortable as a reliever to start the year, potentially more comfortable than he ever was in his career, and instead of forcing himself back to the windup once he made his way into the rotation, he stuck with the stretch in all situations.

Here’s Duffy pitching with no one on base in 2015.

This is a pretty traditional windup, with Duffy’s hands beginning at his belt and then going over his head before he comes back to the belt and delivers the pitch. There’s nothing wrong with this windup at all; we’ve seen it for the better part of baseball’s history, and we’ll likely see it 100 years from now, too. That said, there are a lot of moving parts with this style of windup, and pitching is all about finding a repeatable delivery. The more moving parts, the harder that is.

Now here’s Duffy as a starter with no one on base this season.

Duffy still comes to his belt after taking his sign from the catcher, but he comes set up high, with his hands at shoulder height. From there, he begins his delivery, patting the ball in his mitt before separating his hands and throwing the pitch. This is not an inherently better delivery than what Duffy did previously, but it is unquestionably simpler, and that seems to be agreeing with him.

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Duffy’s pitch usage in 2016 has been much different than any of his previous seasons. First, it’s worth noting that the average velocity on both his four- and two-seam fastballs is up about two mph. Some of that owes to his time in the bullpen, but even in his four starts, his four-seam fastball has ranged from 96.3 to 97.9 mph on average, and the two-seamer has sat between 95.6–96.9 mph. He’s throwing his slider less and his changeup more, though that could owe more to the fact that he has faced 115 righties and 34 lefties.

If you’re concerned at all about Duffy’s stamina, here he is hitting 97 mph with a four-seamer to end the fifth against the Rays.

Let’s get back to Duffy’s two-seamer (or sinker), because something interesting is happening here. Duffy has always thrown the pitch, but it was never a major part of his repertoire: He threw it 12.3% of the time last year and 12.9% of the time in 2013. This season, nearly one-fifth of Duffy’s pitches have been two-seam fastballs, with the exact usage rate checking in at 19.5%.

Duffy has taken it to a new level in the rotation. He used the two-seamer sparingly in his first start, then threw it more than one-third of the time in his second outing. He used it 23 times in his third start, good for a 30.7% usage rate, which he then matched in his fourth and most recent trip to the mound. Duffy was always a pitcher who threw somewhere between two and three four-seamers for every two-seamer. In his last three starts, he has thrown the two pitches evenly.

Here’s a look at the pitch to open Duffy’s second start against the White Sox, the one in which he was perfect through the first five innings.

There’s nothing much to the pitch, just a sinker that's spotted perfectly. This entire at-bat—a three-pitch strikeout of Austin Jackson—is worth watching because it’s illustrative of what Duffy can do when he’s commanding both of his fastballs.

This is Duffy at his best. All three pitches are exactly where he wants them, and Jackson is set up to flail helplessly at the changeup for strike three. Notice, too, that there were no chase pitches. That circles back to what we discussed earlier: Duffy is in the zone more than ever, and hitters know it. Not only does that mean he isn’t getting in as many bad spots as he used to, but it also lets him work off the corners more, especially with his slider. It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn, then, that Duffy is enjoying a career-high slider whiff rate this year, sitting at 17.4%.

Just for the record, here’s what that slider looks like.

Duffy is basically free in all fantasy leagues, as evidenced by an ownership rate in the low-teens. He’s in the rotation to stay, and if the changes he has made—especially pitching exclusively out of the stretch—have helped him improve his command and control and simultaneously added to his whiff rate, he’s going to be a relevant pitcher in all formats.

Pitchers to Watch This Week

Matt Shoemaker, Angels

Through the first month of the season, Shoemaker was one of the worst pitchers in the majors. Things got so bad for him, in fact, that the Angels sent him to Triple A Salt Lake and only brought him back after Garrett Richards suffered a season-ending ACL tear. It would have been a dramatic turnaround for Shoemaker merely to pitch well enough to remain in the Angels' rotation. He has been a bit more successful than that: In his last three starts, Shoemaker has allowed four runs and struck out 31 batters in 22 2/3 innings.

The big change? Shoemaker has largely abandoned his fastball, instead using his splitter as his foundation pitch. Before being sent to the minors, he hadn’t thrown the splitter more than 26% of the time in any start. Since returning to the Angels, however, he has thrown it at least 42% of the time. That substantive a change is reason enough to believe that Shoemaker can be the pitcher he was two seasons ago. He’ll start twice this week, with his first turn coming Tuesday at Yankee Stadium.

Kyle Hendricks, Cubs

Hendricks followed up his second career complete game by coming up just shy of his third: He went eight innings in a win over the Dodgers, allowing two runs on three hits with six strikeouts and one walk. In his last two outings, Hendricks has surrendered three runs in 17 innings, lowering his ERA to 2.84 and WHIP to 0.92. That makes him one of seven pitchers with a WHIP south of 1.00, with the other six being Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Jake Arrieta, Aaron Nola, Noah Syndergaard and John Lackey. That’s excellent company for the 26-year-old. Hendricks draws the Phillies, his opponent in the aforementioned complete game, on Tuesday.

Carlos Carrasco, Indians

Carrasco made his return last week after spending a little more than a month on the DL with a hamstring injury and was held to a strict limit of 80 pitches, allowing three runs on nine hits (including a homer) in five innings with two strikeouts and one walk. The results may not have been great, but Carrasco’s fastball sat at 95 mph, a sign that the injury shouldn’t be an issue going forward. It may not have been an arm injury, but a pitcher’s power comes from his legs, and Carrasco’s seem to be in good shape. He’ll take the ball twice this week, with his first shot coming on Tuesday against the Mariners.

Dallas Keuchel, Astros

Baby steps—that what we’ve seen from Keuchel in his last two trips to the mound. Two starts ago, the defending AL Cy Young allowed two runs on three hits in seven innings, striking out five and walking none. He then held the Diamondbacks to three runs in six innings, fanning six and walking one batter. He has now had four quality starts in his last six outings, though he allowed a total of 15 runs in the two that failed to meet that threshold.

Keuchel’s velocity is still down from last season and he still isn’t getting a ton of whiffs, but the results have been much better recently than they were over the first five weeks of the season. That makes him a guy to watch for his next few starts, beginning when he takes the mound against the Rangers in Arlington on Tuesday.

Yu Darvish, Rangers

Darvish made his second start of the season Friday, allowing three runs on six hits in 5 2/3 innings in a win over the Mariners. He fanned five and walked one, giving him 12 strikeouts against two free passes in his first two outings. Darvish’s velocity has been excellent, with his four-seam fastball sitting at 95.9 mph and his two-seamer at 93.8 mph. He’ll make his next start on Wednesday against the Astros.

Prospect Watch

Blake Snell, Rays

This season has yet to be the rookie pitcher bonanza a lot of people thought was possible. Jose Berrios wasn’t quite ready when the Twins promoted him, and things haven’t gotten much better since he returned to Triple A. Sean Manaea is still with the A’s, but he isn’t relevant in typical redraft leagues. Julio Urias has been shelled in both of his starts, albeit in tough matchups with the Mets and Cubs. The Pirates still haven’t called up Tyler Glasnow or Jameson Taillon, but we should see both soon. Snell has been the only big-name pitching prospect to find success this season, and he made all of one start before being sent back to the minors.

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The good news for Snell is that he should be back with the Rays at some point this summer. He has made 10 starts with Triple A Durham, posting a 3.51 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 68 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings. The bad news is that he hasn’t been terribly efficient. Snell has completed six innings just once this year, yet he has needed at least 86 pitches to get through his work in all but one of his starts. Combine that lack of length with his age (23 years old) and the fact that he has never thrown more than 134 innings in a season in his professional career, and Snell might not have enough time in the majors this year to make a meaningful fantasy impact. He’ll still be immediately relevant once he gets back to the majors, but chances are the hopes of seeing a prospect pitcher shine for the fantasy community this season now rest entirely on Pittsburgh’s electric duo.

GIF of the Week

Archie Bradley has always had the stuff to be a frontline starter in the majors. If he can command it regularly the way he did against the Cubs on Friday, he just might reach that potential.

Two-Start Pitchers

1. Jon Lester
2. Jacob deGrom
3. Steven Matz
4. Cole Hamels
5. Masahiro Tanaka
6. Carlos Carrasco
7. Chris Archer
8. Aaron Sanchez
9. Joe Ross
10. J.A. Happ
11. Danny Duffy
12. Dallas Keuchel
13. Matt Shoemaker
14. Adam Conley
15. Michael Pineda
16. Michael Fulmer
17. Mike Leake
18. Rick Porcello
19. Mike Fiers
20. Juan Nicasio
21. Tyler Chatwood
22. Sean Manaea
23. Trevor Bauer
24. Jon Niese
25. Colby Lewis
26. Eddie Butler
27. Robbie Ray
28. Hector Santiago
29. John Lamb
30. Wade Miley
31. James Paxton
32. Christian Friedrich
33. Ubaldo Jimenez
34. Mat Latos
35. Adam Morgan
36. Williams Perez
37. Zach Davies

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