Finally! Duffy gives the Royals the start they need

Meanwhile, Matheny masters the bullpen and Whit Merrifield does Whit Merrifield things.

On Sunday, Mike Matheny lamented the performance from his starting pitchers the first three games of the season. On Monday, Danny Duffy shoved.

Maybe “shoved” is a bit too strong. However, when a Royals’ starter goes six innings and allows just two hits and three walks…at least so far in 2021, yeah, that qualifies.

It was a very Duffyesque outing. Some deep counts keep you on the edge of your seat. Plenty of balls hit in the air. Nearly a quarter of his offerings were fouled off. It felt like the wheels could fall off at any time, but damn if he didn’t fulfill the role of “grizzled veteran” and get out of any kind of potential jams before they could snowball into something disastrous.

Duffy’s fastball topped out at 95 mph and he kept it up in the zone. The offspeed pitches were down. Basically, a recipe for success for a starting pitcher in 2021. It helps that he could keep Cleveland hitters off balance with a 24 percent whiff rate on the day.

Only three of his 57 Offspeed offerings were called for strikes, so it’s not like Cleveland batters were fooled or off balance when they saw the Duffy curve, slider or change. They made some good contact—seven of the 15 balls in play against Duffy were classified as “hard hit” by Baseball Savant—but he scattered, and therefore limited, the damage.

All in all, a successful start from the Duffman. And just what Matheny ordered.

Play of the Game

Whit Merrifield home run against Logan Allen

WPA: .177

In Whit Merrifield’s career, he’s seen a 3-0 count 100 times. Of those 100 plate appearances with a 3-0 count, he’s swung at the next pitch exactly nine times. Drilling down even further, of those nine swings, three have been put in play. And of those three balls put in play, only one has fallen for a hit—a double in 2018.

That changed on Monday.

Three pitches scattered around the zone and the fourth right down the pipe.

Home run. Ballgame.

Outside of Yordín Mercedes, is difficult to come up with a hitter more locked in over these first four games of 2021 than Merrifield. It was his third multi-hit game of the year and third time he’s left the yard. He walked for the first time in ’21 on Monday and his OBP now is a tidy .500.

I wonder if there’s something to returning to his old defensive stomping ground. Defense begats offense…huh? But players talk about it all the time, how comfort on defense dovetails into comfort at the plate. It’s simplistic and goes against all kinds of saber orthodoxy, but there’s probably something to coming to the yard every day and knowing 1) you’ll be batting leadoff and 2) you’ll be playing at your best defensive position, second base.

Whatever the reason, Merrifield is off to a helluva start. The lineup is much improved from the previous years from top to bottom. But it’s the guy at the top providing the spark for the entire offense.

The Keller Conundrum

A bit of starting rotation intrigue bubbling up as the Royals announced on Monday that Brad Keller, initially slated to make the start on Wednesday, will be pushed back to Thursday. This merits discussion because:

  • The Royals actively planned for a four-man rotation to start the season. It was mentioned numerous times by Matheny that the Royals, because of the number of off days through the season’s first two weeks, that the team would break camp without a fifth starter in place. While they have arms (like Jakob Junis or Carlos Hernández) to make a spot start, this is clearly a development the team did not plan on.

  • Keller threw just 51 pitches in his 1.1 innings of work on Opening Day. As noted in that wild recap, Keller’s velocity was much higher than we’ve seen in the past. He also only offered his slider 22 percent of the time in that start, far less than his normal rate of 38 percent. Naturally, the small sample caveats apply in a single start. He simply didn’t pitch deep into the game. Maybe the average fastball velocity would’ve dropped. Maybe he would’ve thrown more sliders the second and third time through the lineup.

  • Pushing Keller back also moves the entire rotation back. Mike Minor will likely go on Saturday in Chicago, like Keller now, a full week between starts. Same for Singer. Duffy will likely be your starter for when the Royals come back to Kansas City a week from Monday.

Just for fun, I decided to create an overlay of Keller’s fastball delivery from Opening Day with one from a start last year against the Tigers. Want to see consistent mechanics from year to year?

I mean, there’s just not much there to nitpick. Both pitches featured above were with the bases empty and both were delivered in what is labeled by Baseball Savant as “Gameday Zone 2” (top of the zone and in the middle). And both pitches were clocked at above 94 mph. It’s not like Keller can’t throw in the mid-90s. It’s just that he generally is a couple of ticks lower on average.

I looked at several other fastball deliveries from Keller on last Thursday. So many came from the stretch that it’s difficult to compare, but the release point and follow-throughs are like you see above: incredibly consistent.

So now who gets that start on Wednesday?

Ervin Santana would appear to be the favorite. He’s on the taxi squad with the team on this road trip and it was a minor surprise he didn’t make the Opening Day roster. At the time, I figured the Royals were just going with a full complement of relievers and would call up Santana when it was time for that fifth starter to enter the rotation. That it’s happening a week early, there’s no reason to alter that line of thinking.

Matheny’s Masterful Bullpen Management

It’s only four games, but I’ve been impressed with how Matheny has handled his bullpen. Specifically, his sticking with relievers for multiple innings. He did it on Opening Day with Hernández and Scott Barlow, on Sunday with Kyle Zimmer, and again on Monday with Barlow. I’ve written at length about what I call “bullpen roulette” which is the danger of moving off a reliever who is shoving for another simply because of roles or because a reliever isn’t allowed to pitch more than one inning. By hanging with a reliever who is having success, you’re just avoiding the potential pitfalls of going to an unknown commodity. And with the army of relievers teams carry these days, a manager should be able to use a guy for multiple innings without worrying he will be shorting his pen for the following game.

The one reliever I would’ve like to have seen more of was Junis on Saturday who looked sharp in his one inning of work, striking out two. But you can’t argue the results as Jake Brentz got his major league debut (and first strikeout) in front of family and friends and Jesse Hahn finished the frame with a strikeout. That’s just finding something to nitpick.

The other thing I like about Matheny’s management has been how he is utilizing the closer role. Sure, we’re talking about two save opportunities, but it’s nice to see that he’s not locked into the traditional roles. At least for now. On Opening Day, Greg Holland probably would’ve had the opportunity to roll a four out save if he hadn’t run into trouble (and an elevated pitch count) in the ninth. Wade Davis was there for a triumphant return to lock down the win.

On Monday, it was Hahn’s turn. He got into a spot of trouble, allowing the first two batters to reach, but was bailed out by some tremendous defense from Carlos Santana who started a double play. Had they not turned that twin-killing, Holland was warming in the bullpen.

It feels that without being locked into roles, Matheny has given himself the freedom to deploy a ninth inning safety net. It’s just smart managing.

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Central Issues

  • The Twins bludgeoned the Tigers 15-6.

  • The White Sox blanked the Mariners 6-0.

Up Next

The Royals are off on Tuesday and are back in action to close out a quick two game set in Cleveland on Wednesday. Game time is 12:10 with the Royals’ starter to be determined.