To me, a player continuously struggling against one particular player or team is one of the more interesting phenomenons in baseball. Player-player matchups make some sense. Maybe a hitter sees the ball well out of a certain pitcher’s hand, or can’t seem to pick up what the pitcher is throwing. For example, former Tiger J.D. Martinez was benched against the Cleveland Indians at one point because of his dreadful numbers against Tribe starter Danny Salazar.
But player-team matchups? Those are fascinating. Take Danny Duffy, for instance. The Royals ace has blossomed into one of the better pitchers in baseball over the last several years. He has a 3.64 ERA and 3.66 FIP in 326 innings over the past two seasons, and has been worth 6.1 fWAR. He has struck out nearly a batter per inning during that stretch. Perhaps the only thing keeping him down now is his body; he has been on the disabled list numerous times throughout his career, and has never made 30 starts in a season.
If we were to pick a second, it would probably be the Detroit Tigers. For all he has accomplished over the past two years, Duffy can’t seem to solve Detroit’s offense. The Tigers scored 21 runs in 30 1⁄3 innings against him in 2016, which works out to a 6.23 ERA. The Tigers hit .258/.326/.542 off him that year, and were responsible for 10 of the 27 homers he coughed up. Last year was a little better, but Duffy still allowed a 5.17 ERA and .781 OPS. Even the Tigers’ current roster has a career .808 OPS against him.
However, one still has to like Duffy’s chances much more now that J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, and Ian Kinsler are no longer around. Can he deliver a series win for the Royals on Wednesday?
Kansas City Royals (1-3) at Detroit Tigers (1-4)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Danny Duffy (0-1, 11.25 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (5-8, 5.31 ERA in 2017)
Game 6 Pitching Matchup
Danny Duffy’s first start of the year looks like a complete disaster on paper, but he looked better than the numbers suggest. He dominated the Chicago White Sox for the first three innings, spotting his fastball and slider nicely on the inner half of the plate. He struck out five hitters in those first three frames, looking every bit the ace that has compiled 6.1 fWAR over the past two years.
As conditions worsened on a rainy, cold day in Kansas City, Duffy started to lose his command some. Jose Abreu and Matt Davidson took advantage of center-cut fastballs for a home run apiece, while several others made loud contact in his final inning of work. The weather was likely to blame for most of his troubles — Duffy had trouble keeping his footing on the wet mound — but his stamina also could have been to blame. Duffy left his final spring training start after just 32 pitches with an apparent injury, and didn’t throw more than 42* in any Cactus League start.
If there’s one stat we could look into, it’s Duffy’s velocity. His fastball averaged just 91.2 miles per hour last Thursday, over two mph lower than his average velocity reading from last year. This might not be a first start phenomenon, either. He averaged 93.3 mph with the heater in his first regular season start last year, and 93.8 mph in the 2016 opener. His velo also dipped during the season last year — usually velocity will trend upwards, peaking in August — falling to just 93.2 mph by September. This, too, was down nearly two mph from his 2016 season, in which he averaged 95.1 mph with the heater.
Is there something wrong with Duffy? It’s far too early to tell. But so long as the rain stays away, his dominant first few innings on Opening Day — one hit, one walk, and five strikeouts in three frames — are closer to what we should expect from him against the Tigers’ lineup.
*These numbers are according to MLB.com, which could be relying on MLB Gameday’s often wonky pitch counts during spring training. Either way, Duffy still only worked three innings on March 24 before being asked to throw twice as many pitches on Opening Day.
Key matchup: Tigers pitching vs. strikeouts
It’s far too early to sound any alarms, but the Tigers aren’t striking anyone out. Through five games, they own one of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball at 17.3 percent. They are fanning fewer than seven batters per nine innings, a bar three teams failed to clear in 2017. Their only pitchers to tally more than three strikeouts so far are Jordan Zimmermann and Buck Farmer, who have combined to allow nine runs in eight innings. The rest of the starting staff has looked great in the ERA department, but have not been able to generate many swings and misses. While strikeouts aren’t everything, there are only so many pitchers who can get by on missing barrels alone (luckily, Michael Fulmer appears to be one).
The rest, however, need to start missing more bats. This is especially true for Daniel Norris, who saw his strikeout rate drop by nearly five percentage points last year. Norris fanned just 18.7 percent of hitters in 101 2⁄3 fairly mediocre innings, and generated a relatively pedestrian 9.1 swinging strike rate. He may run into some resistance on that front in this game — for all their faults, the Royals still had one of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball last season — but would do well to start racking up a few more punchouts in 2018.
On the bright side, the Tigers’ staff also has one of the lowest walk rates in baseball so far.
Duffy dominates and the Royals win another low-scoring battle.
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