On Sunday afternoon, Danny Duffy threw a curveball to Adam Dunn with one on and one out in Chicago. It was his 13th pitch of the game. He flicked his arm. Trainer Nick Kenney and manager Ned Yost came out to talk to him on the mound and he left the game after only three batters.
The early diagnosis is simply inner left elbow tightness, the same condition that caused Duffy to miss a start in late April. He returned for his normal day in the rotation and threw 5.1 effective innings in Detroit on May 3.
With another bout of elbow pain within a month of the first instance the worry is that it’s a more serious injury, perhaps a strain or a full tear. Neither are good, of course, though the hope is that it’d be an injury that wouldn’t require Tommy John surgery. If it’s merely an issue that requires rest, the Royals would be wise to rest him as long as it takes to get back on the mound – and maybe even a bit longer to be on the cautious side.
Duffy is an important part of the next few years of possible contention. Entering 2012, he was the best bet for a breakout year and arguable the team’s most talented pitcher. Two strong starts to open the season showed what he could be capable of. To lose him for any amount of time is tough. The more starts he can get and more innings he can work through the better off he is and the better he’ll get at pitching to – and retiring – major league batters. Despite that, he can’t be rushed back. Yes, he needs the innings, but if they’re innings where he’s asked to hold back or told to change his approach just for the sake of chewing through innings, then they’re counter-productive.
It’s been mentioned a few times that Duffy’s fastball was among the fastest in the league among starters. He also drew a lot of whiffs with the pitch and his curveball was strong early as well. That’s a lot of encouraging weapons. Combine those assets with Duffy’s competitiveness (on more than one occasion I’ve found myself saying he’d run through walls to get on the mound), his handedness (good lefties are a hot commodity) and his youth (with plenty of upside), and he’s a centerpiece of a contending Royals team’s rotation.
That’s why, if his elbow shows no damage and just needs rest, Duffy should get a DL stint and maybe get an extra week off. He’s better off missing a month now and coming back with the same approach and full strength than by missing a week and a half and coming back but with the suggestion that he dial it back to prevent injury. He’s not going to be the same pitcher for one, and he’s likely to just get hurt again. That helps nobody.
It seems like that’s the angle the Royals may have taken after his last missed start. Duffy returned, but has thrown his curveball less often. In his first three starts, he threw the curve 21.1% of the time. In his last three (counting Sunday), he threw it 12.2% of the time. Sure, that could be a sample size issue, but in 2011, he threw the curve 20.7% of the time. Even in his last three starts, his curve has stayed up and he’s having it put into play a lot more often (4.5% of curves were in play in his first three starts; 20% in his last three).
Duffy is scheduled for an MRI on Monday. The best news will be that there’s no tear and that he just needs rest. The Royals don’t have the best track record of giving their players proper rest in the face of injury (Coco Crisp and Mike Aviles both had lost 2009 seasons after playing through injuries; Salvador Perez had knee discomfort this spring in warmups but still started the game in the middle of camp). Duffy’s a ballplayer and he’ll want to play through it, but the best course of action (with good news) is to rest him as long as it takes in 2012. It’s to Duffy and the Royals benefit in 2013 and beyond that this happens.