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2017 Player Profiles: Danny Duffy

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After years of mediocrity and bouncing between the rotation and bullpen, Duffy had a breakout season in 2016. Can he repeat in 2017?

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Author’s Note: I originally wrote this in October of last year, but with Duffy a preseason sleeper for many people and with him being drafted high (23rd starting pitcher over at NFBC), I thought I would dig it back up again. At NFBC, he’s going ahead of Aaron Sanchez, Gerrit Cole, Rich Hill, and others I like more than Duffy. I’m sticking my neck out here because if he turns out to be an ace I will look foolish, but I think the hype train needs some brakes.

If you want to catch up on all the 2017 player profiles, check out my archive here.

Today, we turn our attention to a young breakout starter for the Kansas City Royales with Cheese, Royals for short. Danny Duffy emerged from fantasy purgatory in 2016, putting up these stellar stats:

Year IP ERA FIP xFIP K% BB% SwStr% GB%
2016 179.2 3.51 3.83 3.79 25.70% 5.80% 12.90% 36.40%

Well, they’re not all stellar. The ERA (#12 in AL), K%, SwStr% (5th best in MLB), and BB% (#8 in K%-BB%) are all elite. The FIP, xFIP, and GB% are not so great. So, we have a combo of crazy good and mediocre to bad. Hmm. To the Batmobile Fangraphs!

First, his velocity surged in 2016, with an average fastball speed of 94.8 mph, a full mph higher than before. He had the #6 average fastball velocity among qualified starters as a lefty! The only other lefties even close were Robbie Ray (94.1) and Carlos Rodon (93.6). Now, James Paxton would have topped him by a lot if he qualified. Still, Duffy’s velocity was crazy good. That led to an amazing 10.9% swinging strike rate on his four seam. You don’t need me to tell you that is good. Very, very good.

So, a big velocity surge made his fastball a great weapon, which improved his secondary pitches as well and at the same time, he improved his command. He went from one of his four main pitches having double-digit swinging strike rates in 2015 (a mediocre change-up at 12.5%), to having three in 2016 (only his two-seamer, which was still very good for its type at 7.9%, was under 10%). All four pitches saw big increases in whiff rates in 2016. I guess we can go home now. His velocity increased and now he’s a dominant pitcher going forward. Case closed.

Nope. There are three things holding us back.

First, he had a home run problem, with 1.35 HR/9 innings. This is always going to be somewhat of a problem for a guy that has an extremely low ground ball rate, ninth lowest in baseball. He simply gives up too many fly balls. The other guys above him on the low ground ball list (Drew Smyly, Dan Straily, Jered Weaver, Max Scherzer, Ian Kennedy, Justin Verlander, Marco Estrada, and Hector Santiago) all have (or had in previous years, in the case of Estrada) bad HR/9 rates.

Something Duffy lacks that many of the most successful of those low ground ball guys have is infield flies. Duffy’s IFFB% of 8.2% is pedestrian. Straily and Duffy are the only ones in that group with an IFFB% less than 10%, with most in the 13-15% range. Infield pop-ups are basically automatic outs, so they are critical to the success of guys that don’t get grounders. This hurts Duffy. So does the second problem.

Second, he allows too much hard contact. His Hard% of 36.6% was the second highest among all qualified starters. Even ahead of Robbie Ray and Ian Kennedy, who were constantly giving up hard hits every time I watched them (I owned both on my teams this year). Duffy’s the anti-Kyle Hendricks (at least when it comes to contact management). He strikes out many guys, doesn’t walk many, but gives up so many hard balls in play when hitters do connect. His average exit velocity of 90.2 mph was above league average, but not among the absolute worst (the low for starters was 85 mph and the high was 92). Still, I think contact management is something he really needs to improve.

Third, he may not have the stamina to be a starter all season (at least he didn’t this year). His fourseam velocity by month, starting in April: 95.6, 96.8. 96.9, 96.2, 95.1, 94.9, 94.5. Those last three are right in line with his velocities in April, May, August, and September of 2015. Here is all of what I just said in graphical form:

That last point in October of 2015 was as a reliever. Like most pitchers, he can throw harder in relief. He seemed to carry over those relief velocity gains into this season as a starter, but then, over time, slowly returned to his previous starter velocity. Zach McAllister comes to mind, as a pitcher that was a mediocre starter-turned-reliever-turned back into a starter. He kept his velocity boost into spring training in 2015, earning a rotation spot, but after one start, it was clear his velocity boost was disappearing and he was demoted back to the ‘pen.

Many in the fantasy industry are pegging Duffy as a top-30 starter going into 2017. I’m not so sure. Those three big problems haven’t shown any signs of going away. In fact, two of those problems got worse: his Hard% was 41% during the last seven weeks of the season and his velocity drop obviously kept going. I’m probably going to be the low man on him going into 2017 in my leagues. He has the strikeouts I love (I’m a sucker for high swinging strike rates: see Ray, Robbie and Smyly, Drew), but the velocity drop, hard hits, and lack of ground balls make him a huge risk. He could easily turn back into the 2015 version: 4.08 ERA, 17.4% K%.

I’m usually saying incredibly optimistic things about upside and loving the whiffs on these electronic pages, but I’m afraid I can’t today. Duffy may have just had his best season as a starter and it might just be all downside from here. He’s still just 27 (28 by opening day), but he’s not at an age where velocity increases. It starts going the other way, in fact. Draft Duffy at your own risk.

Projection: 3.9 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 8 K/9, top 60 SP

Thanks for reading and check back for more 2017 profiles soon! Tschus!