Royals Lose Danny Duffy for the Season

Danny Duffy is headed for surgery. After an MRI revealed a torn ulnar collateral ligament in Duffy’s left elbow, it looks like Tommy John surgery will sideline the left-hander until next season. A former top prospect in the Kansas City Royals’ farm system, Duffy reached the majors last season. And even though he struggled initially, the 23-year-old seemed to be making progress this year. And now that he’s out for the season, the Royals’ rise to prominence may be put on hold even longer.

The Royals entered the 2011 season having one of the best farm systems of all time. There wasn’t an analyst, a publication or a website that disagreed. And while Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer have already experienced some success in the majors — and Wil Myers isn’t far behind — the Royals have shown just how risky it is to depend on pitching prospects.

Duffy’s injury highlights some of the issues facing the Royals once-prominent farm system. John Lamb also had Tommy John surgery last June and Mike Montgomery has regressed at Triple-A. While Lamb should make his return some time this year — and Montgomery is still just 23-years-old — Kansas City has to be discouraged by the injuries and lack of development.

Of the three, Duffy looked to be the most likely to live up to the prospect billing. He had already reached the majors, and he managed to win a spot in the Royals’ rotation this spring. Duffy’s performance, while uneven, was promising. Though he struggled with his control (14.9%), Duffy punched out batters at a nice clip (23.1%). Duffy’s performance against the Detroit Tigers on April 16, offered promise to what he might become. In that start, Duffy threw 6.2 innings and gave up just three hits, with one walk and seven strikeouts.

But things quickly went downhill for Duffy. He missed a start after complaining about elbow tightness, but he returned to pitch two more games before succumbing to elbow pain during a start against the Chicago White Sox. There have already been some questions about whether the Royals handled Duffy properly. Duffy threw 90 pitches in his first game back after he first complained of elbow soreness — and then he threw 102 pitches in just 4.1 innings against the Boston Red Sox. The Royals didn’t think much of Duffy’s soreness at the time, and they didn’t send him for an MRI. While that may not have changed anything, the decision to forego an MRI at the first sign of soreness is odd considering the Royals’ head trainer admitted that Duffy had a tear in his UCL since 2010.

What’s strange about that revelation is that Duffy was throwing much harder than normal this season. After averaging 93.3 mph on his fastball in 2011, Duffy was throwing 95.3 mph this year. And while it seems logical to assume pitchers with tears in their elbows wouldn’t be able to throw as hard, there is some thought that big gains in velocity could lead to Tommy John surgery. Keith Law has mentioned this theory in the past, sometimes citing Stephen Strasburg as an example. There are differing opinions, of course. Jeff Zimmerman recently posted an article that said pitchers who experience increased velocity don’t necessarily end up on the disabled list more often. Duffy’s injury — and his velocity jump — only complicates matters.

And even if we could prove big velocity increased lead to TJ surgery, we still wouldn’t know whether Duffy’s injury could have been prevented. Since the Royals were aware Duffy already had a tear in his elbow, they probably knew this day would come. So instead of sending him for an MRI at the first sign of soreness, they let Duffy see if he could overcome it. While he was able to put off surgery for two starts, both sides probably knew this was inevitable.

The Royals still have a lot of young talent. Hosmer, Moustakas and Myers look like future regulars — and Salvador Perez is locked up with a cheap extension. But to field a competitive team, the Royals need their pitchers to emerge, as well. With Duffy and Lamb on the shelf, the team needs Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi to start living up to their potential. There’s still a chance for this team to put it together one of these years, but things look slightly more discouraging after Duffy’s injury.

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Chris is a blogger for He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

16 Responses to “Royals Lose Danny Duffy for the Season”

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  1. hartmtown says:

    There’s still a chance for this team to put it together one of these years, but things look slightly more discouraging after Duffy’s injury.

    I don’t know. It’s a setback for sure, but will TJ surgery for Duffy really be that big of a concern for when the Royals really were hoping to be contenders — generally thought to be 2014? The Nats don’t seem to be too concerned by Strasburg’s setback from a few years back. If anything, I would say Hosmer’s sophomore slump and some of the minor leaguers’ regression is more concerning than a temporary (albeit, disappointing) injury.

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    • walt526 says:

      You’re assuming that Duffy can fully recover. While it is becoming quite common for pitchers to come back at full strength following Tommy John surgery, it is by no means guaranteed. There is a significant chance that Duffy will never realize his pre-TJS potential and it’s even possible that he has thrown his last pitch in the majors.

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      • hartmtown says:

        I’d agree with you if it were his second TJS. But this injury has becomes *so* common, and the recovery from it so regular, that this still sounds a little too doom-and-gloom for me (as far as the future is concerned).

        A UCL tear is a serious injury but it’s become far more routine and much easier to come back from than injuries to other joints (knees and shoulders especially). It does have a long recovery time — in fact, I think this makes the injury sometimes sound or appear more grievous than it really is. I’m not trying to minimize the fact that the guy is hurt, nor that this seriously debilitates the Royals’ prospects for 2012 and into 2013. But let’s not make it more than it is, i.e. pretend the guy’s career is in serious jeopardy.

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      • Bill says:

        Any player who has had a second TJ procedure has also had a first. So, Duffy could be one of those guys who need a second procedure and he could fall into the group that never recovers. He will likely be fine, but he might not be.

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    • Rick says:

      I think the Nat’s are very concerned about Strasburg’s setback a few years ago. The definition of very concerned is: even though they appear poised to be a team in contention, they won’t let Strasburg (the team’s best pitcher) throw more than ~80% of the innings he could this year.

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    • I am a Red Sux Fan says:

      @walt- These young guys that get the surgery are coming back at the same level if not better about 95 percent of the time. The rigorous rehab programs these young guys undergo actually often bring them back with stronger elbows and shoulders than they ever had. Often times Tommy John surgery is a blessing in disguise for a young pitcher these days. Their is a good chance that getting this out of the way is a good thing as he may come back guns a blazin when the Royals are reay to compete.

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      • I am a Red Sux Fan says:

        Jordan Zimmerman, Stasburg, Jarrod Parker are all young power pitchers who are flourishing post Tommy John right now. I think having the surgery pre 25 has some advantages because after that age your body does not heal the same.

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  2. maguro says:

    Did Duffy really have a velo gain? KC’s gun seems really fast.

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  3. Madoff Withurmoni says:

    How often is there an elbow issue that doesn’t turn into TJS these days? How could the Royals have been anything else but thorough when the problem initially arose?

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  4. I am a Red Sux Fan says:

    “What’s strange about that revelation is that Duffy was throwing much harder than normal this season. After averaging 93.3 mph on his fastball in 2011, Duffy was throwing 95.3 mph this year. And while it seems logical to assume pitchers with tears in their elbows wouldn’t be able to throw as hard, there is some thought that big gains in velocity could lead to Tommy John surgery.”

    I wonder if pitchers with slight UCL tears might experience higher velocity initially as their arms may feel loser and be able to generate more whip with their arms for a time. If the UCL is teared the ligament might be less tense and might allow for short term velocity gain. Pure speculation.

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  5. Antonio Bananas says:

    This sucks. I’m not really worried about their offense but pitching is a hard thing to come by. I wish I had that link saved that looked at the top 100 BA america prospects and had a breakdown of bust and success rates. Pitchers had, as expected, the highest bust rate.

    I was hoping just one of Duffy/Lamb/Montgomery would turn into an ace, one would be solid, and figured one would wash out. All three having problems is bad new bears for the Royals. Especially given how poorly Moore evaluates ML talent. They almost need to make Moore in charge of development and give someone else the GM job.

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  6. Paul says:

    Then again, by late 2013, Duffy, Lamb, Montgomery, Odorizzi, and Crow could all be in the rotation mix. Unfortunately, the Royals hype machine has convinced a lot of people that they were going to compete THIS year. I don’t blame them, to not bank a legitimate team on the rise and AS Game would have been capitalist malpractice.

    The keys here are not the players, but management. I think the only reason Monty has not had TJ yet is that he insists on a long-toss program, which put him at odds with management. The even bigger factor in my opinion is Ned Yost, who may be an even bigger clown than Trey Hillman. He’ll get himself fired eventually, at which point Crow may get a legit rotation audition. Really the Royals need luck, because they have just OK to mediocre management of the ML team. If they get a new manager who can see that Aaron Crow can be a two pitch starter with a show-me change, and who doesn’t set his relievers up for failure, they could jump 10 games on obvious, “get the hell out of your own way” decisions like that alone. Combine that with legitimate improving talent, and they’ll contend by 2015.

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  7. Just give Bruce Chen all of Duffy’s starts, give him a shot at winning 30.

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  8. Grake says:

    Montgomery’s prospectness (prospectitude?) has been really overrated based on a really nice 24 innings he pitched in High A in 2010. Outside of that four game stretch, he’s never demonstrated the potential for being an elite MLB pitcher (at least from a statistical standpoint).

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    • Paul says:

      He still has pretty favorable scouting reports, but that’s fair that he was over-hyped. Once somebody threw out a Randy Johnson comp, it was all over for him. I would not be surprised in the least to see him make no better impact than Will Smith.

      But the point remains that from the standpoint of having plenty of legit arms who have a chance to be capable starting pitchers at the MLB level. That is a giant, massive, huge, incredible leap from just three years ago for them.

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