Fantasy focus: Danny Duffy

Harry Pavlidis (of the Dispatch section) and I have been going back and forth on various young starting pitchers we expect to break out in real life and fantasy this year. Using advanced metrics, minor league data and PITCHf/x, we plan to give an encompassing look at what you can expect from these players in 2012.

Harry kicked things off with a PITCHf/x look at Danny Duffy. Now it is my turn to put the fantasy spin on Duffy. In the next article in this series, I will look at Harry’s first breakout player—fantasy zombie Brian Matusz.

I am an unashamed Danny Duffy fan. Last year, I pegged Duffy as a post-All Star starting pitcher break breakout candidate for the American League (the National League break out pitcher that I identified was Javier Vazquez).

The reason I liked Duffy so much last year was his monster pedigree and strong minor league track record. As a “big boy” lefty, Duffy’s put up a cumulative 2.65 ERA with 407 strikeouts to only 110 walks (a superior 3.7:1 rate). Duffy showed electric strikeout stuff with above average control that stayed the same or improved with every level jump of his career (well, at least until he reached the majors).

By the time Duffy reached Triple-A last year, he was striking out 28 percent of batters faced while walking fewer than six percent in the hitter-friendly PCL league. Duffy throws a four-seam fastball that consistently, and comfortably, sits in the mid-90s, and he comes armed with a deeper-than-most five pitch arsenal (albeit, only a couple are “plus pitches” at this point). That gives him a lot of weapons to work from not only mechanically, but psychologically.

Put that all together, and you have monster major league potential. From a fantasy perspective at least, velocity plus strikeouts plus control plus weapons plus recent PCL success equals huge sleeper potential. Remember that Mat Latos guy? Or Jordan Zimmermann. Or Brandon Beachy (who had a much shorter record of success heading into 2011)? Okay, so those guys are not lefties, which works to Duffy’s advantage, but you get the point.

A look at Duffy’s first half major league numbers showed that he had caught some bad breaks, and that he was stringing together a series of refined starts that brimmed with the type of potential he showed in the minors. Of course, history is history, and Duffy did not end up breaking out as I projected. And his second half numbers (6.41 ERA, 1.68 WHIP, 4.4 BB/9) ended up worse than his first half numbers (52 IP, 4.85 ERA, 1.65 WHIP, 4.3 BB/9). Does this mean I was just way off base?

Well first off, 105 innings of your first taste of major league play is nothing to get too down about. When a prospect first reaches the major league level, I look more at the basics, the underlying stuff, before I look at the results. Provided there is some translation of the tools and talent flashed in the minors, you could put up a 10.00 ERA over 100-plus innings in your rookie season and I would still love you. I remind you again of Jordan Zimmermann and Mat Latos.

There was not a whole lot of minor league to major league translation, with a sub-average 7.7 percent induced whiff rate (8.6 percent major league average) and 51.9 percent first pitch strike rate (59.4 percent major league average), but Duffy showed brilliance at times. His five starts heading into the All-Star break last year were a good example of this. Overall, Duffy looked a little raw and overmatched at the major league average, but he still looked pretty strong for a rookie—which is encouraging.

Part of the reason I am discounting Duffy’s overall season performance and relatively lackluster peripherals is fatigue. Duffy’s career high in total innings pitched was 126.2 innings, back in 2009. Duffy “retired” for a few months in 2010, and ended up pitching only 62.1 innings that season. Last season saw Duffy ultimately reach 157.1 innings. That’s almost 100 innings over his previous season load.

Evidence of fatigue appeared after the All-Star break. As Harry noted in his article on Duffy, “Duffy’s fastball speed declined in late July, recovering briefly before declining steadily through his last start.” Further, as Harry notes, “Duffy’s highest pitch count came in that final start on Sept. 6, throwing 119 after not crossing 105 in his other starts.”

Now that’s not to highlight any substantial injury risk concerns. A 100-inning jump is hefty, but 157 innings is not to the level of abuse for a guy, even one who retired for part of a season, who has been a starter his entire minor league career. Furthermore, given Duffy’s healthy mix of pitches and power fastball, his breaking ball usage, despite his strikeout rate, isn’t skewed like Madison Bumgardner’s or Bud Norris‘. To the contrary, this fatigue highlights the fact that Duffy didn’t reach his potential because he was not able to build up the necessary durability to break out in the second half of last year. Six months of offseason rest should get him ready to go for the beginning of the season with plenty of that potential still brimming.

So what to make of Harry’s conclusions about Duffy’s stuff still needing refining and Duffy needing to build up durability in 2012 (making Duffy more likely a 2013 breakout candidate)? Harry observes the following:

Duffy’s fastball is above average in whiff rate, pop-up rate and flyball rate compared to other fastballs. His change-up is mostly average but his curveball doesn’t miss too many bats but yields plenty of ground balls. At least in 2011, that is. He’s yet to develop a swing-and-miss secondary pitch, and that’s going to hold him back. You can’t pitch on fastballs alone in a big league rotation. Or not for long.

If he’s going to rely on his impressive power, he would benefit in the long run by further developing his two-seamer, which was ineffective in yielding worm killers in its limited use. With his high arm slot, a true sinker isn’t likely to emerge. He may get more ground balls out of a cut fastball if he were to develop one.

The long and short—Harry is concerned about Duffy developing and refining a quality breaking pitch to make his laser beam four-seamer more effective. The curveball is not cutting it—at least not yet—though it is a groundball machine. Does this mean Duffy is a mere wait and see project?

Retroactive Review: Ace
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Well, as Lucas Apostoleris points out in the comments, Duffy is also working in a cutter to his arsenal. Depending on how that pitch, plus the further development of his curveball, pans out in 2012, Duffy could start showing strong results this season. He is a guy to keep an eye on in April.

I would not recommend drafting him in shallow leagues, or for more than $1 at this point (though it will be interesting to see what Duffy goes for in AL Tout Wars this weekend), but people in keeper leagues need to particularly be paying attention to what Duffy does early on. If he starts showing more of what I discussed during the 2011 All-Star break, I would recommend taking an early flier on him to prevent him from landing in the hands of an opponent. But I would not recommend consistently starting him until he shows the world that he’s put it all together and developed in the ways that Harry identified in his article.

In hindsight, I think labeling Duffy as my breakout player for 2012 might have been a little premature. After all, Oliver’s major league equivalency forecast is surprisingly bearish, projecting a mere 4.84 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 7.6 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 for Duffy in 2015 based on historical performance to date. He’s certainly got the potential I love, but durability questions and a developing breaking pitch are short term wild cards. The addition of a cutter, if effective, will certainly make things interesting for the Royals’ current fifth starter in 2012, however. A “this year” breakout is not out of the cards, though again, as Harry notes, 2013 might be the better bet.

Duffy has “number two” starting pitcher projectability with some upside to spare depending on how his groundball-inducing curve develops. A few years ago, guys like Bud Norris, Jorge De La Rosa and Scott Baker were king. If you could cobble together a roster of underrated guys with high mid-three ERA potential, high 1.2s WHIP production and good strikeout rates, you were set. But with everyone in the league seemingly posting a 4.00 ERA and 1.30 WHIP these days, Felipe Paulino-like guys have become spot starters at best.

What separates Duffy is a good blend of strikeout potential and historical control over his mix of pitches. Unlike a cobbled-together roster of flawed pitchers with elite discreet category production, Duffy projects to do some of it all. Average groundballs, lots of whiffs, and minimal batters on base. Control is going to be the make-or-break of Duffy’s fantasy relevance outside the development of his secondary pitches. If Duffy commands the zone, he’s going to succeed. If he is too wild, his upside is going to be Bud Norris, and as much as I love Bud, that’s not going to make Duffy too relevant an everyday starting pitcher in most mixed formats.

Thus, for the forgoing reasons, I humbly request you add Danny Duffy to your watch list immediately.

As always, leave the love/hate in the comments below.

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Jeffrey Gross is an attorney who periodically moonlights as a (fantasy) baseball analyst. He also responsibly enjoys tasty adult beverages. You can read about those adventures at his blog and/or follow him on Twitter @saBEERmetrics.
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Duffy reminds me a lot of another young lefty I love who is a couple of years older:  Derek Holland.  Their numbers from their age-23 seasons are very very similar; Duffy had the better ERA and Holland a slightly better walk rate, but other than that it’s very close.  Both have well above average velocities for lefties, although their repertoires aren’t necessarily the same.  Both had sudden and sustained velocity increases as minor leaguers, although Holland’s was more pronounced since he didn’t throw as hard as Duffy in the first place.  I can see Duffy’s career following a trajectory much… Read more »
Mark Himmelstein
Mark Himmelstein
I, too, love the Danny Duffy, and you go over the reasons here quite well. If I were to do a tier of “$0” watch list favorites, Duffy would be #1 among SP. And if you’re looking for upside from the back end of your staff and a guy like Mike Minor isn’t an option, I can’t fault paying a buck or two for Duffy one bit. I own him on two teams so far this year (though one is a keeper and the other is slightly deeper than the most). Of the seven other leagues I’m in, he was… Read more »
Jeffrey gross
Jeffrey gross

Brad did that to spite me

Mark Himmelstein
Mark Himmelstein

FWIW, the projection system that likes Duffy the most seems to be Steamer, which is gaining a rep among the free projection systems as being really good for pitchers. They see a 4.24 FIP as soon as 2012 with a 7.46 K, 3.92 BB/9 and 1.45 WHIP. While those projections still aren’t really mixed league material, they do indicate plenty of upside considering his major league performance last year.