Kansas City Royals Danny Duffy and the Weight of Expectations

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Danny Duffy is about as likable as they come. He’s laid back, passionate, real, and just a downright nice guy. Unlike most professional athletes you’ll see interviewed nowadays, Duffy never comes off as scripted or rehearsed. He looks people in the eye, listens, and gives genuine, heartfelt responses.

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He’s also immensely talented. A fierce competitor. After being drafted in 2007, Duffy represented the Kansas City Royals in the 2009 Futures All-Star Game and flourished in the minor leagues. By the Spring of 2010, he was already in Major League camp. Then, totally out of nowhere, he quit.  At the ripe old age of 21, Duffy decided to “retire,” and “reassess his life priorities.” Likable, talented, and highly emotional–that’s Danny Duffy.

Words like “emotional” and “passionate” aren’t often used when discussing baseball. With the advancement of sabermetrics and other advanced stats, many argue that unless something can be calculated down to a cold, hard, indisputable, statistical fact, it’s not worth taking into consideration. I wholeheartedly disagree. While analytics are hugely important and valuable, they hardly tell the whole story about an athlete. Danny Duffy is a perfect example.

In 2014, Duffy was an exceptional pitcher. One of the best lefties in the league, really, and a major factor in what got the Royals to game 7 of the World Series. Going into 2015, everyone expected him to pick up right where he left off. To build off of last year’s success and help lead this team back to the postseason! So far, that has hardly been taking place. After getting off to an OK start, Duffy’s taken a complete nosedive. In two of his last three starts, he’s looked absolutely horrible. The other was mediocre, at best. In the three outings overall, he threw a combined 9 2/3 innings, giving up 14 earned runs (13.03 ERA) on 15 hits and 10 walks (2.586 WHIP). What the heck is going on?? Who is this guy, and what has he done with the Danny Duffy from last year??

Last March, when Josh Vernier, of 610 Sports Radio, asked Duffy what he felt was the key to his success in 2014, his answer may have surprised some people.

"“I can’t discount how much having Shields in my corner helped. He knew how to speak my language, [he was like] my big brother, man…He definitely taught me to be myself, much to the betterment of the team.”"

It wasn’t his command, his fastball or some new-found confidence–according to Danny Duffy, a key factor of what made him so good in 2014 was having veteran James Shields around to offer advice, comfort and support throughout the 162 game season.

This wasn’t the only time Duffy spoke about what having James Shields as a mentor meant to him. When asked by Sean Casey of MLB.com what his role would be now that Shields was gone, Duffy didn’t hesitate.

"“I don’t think anybody can replace what James Shields did for us.”"

I tend to agree with him. You see, Shields didn’t just help Duffy, he completely changed the Royals organization. Before he arrived in 2013, the Royals had just come off of four 90+ loss seasons. Between 2004-2006, they lost 100 or more games for three seasons in a row. To say they were bad would be an understatement of epic proportions. They were atrocious. A perennial laughing stock throughout Major League Baseball, and they had been for the better part of two decades. Dayton Moore gathered a lot of the pieces early on in his time as Kansas City Royals GM, but it wasn’t until he acquired James Shields that we saw it all come together.

Not since George Brett had a player exerted so much influence in the Royals clubhouse and altered the chemistry and culture of the room. No one was in the ears, and sometimes even the faces of the other players more than James Shields.

When Duffy said that no one could replace James Shields, he likely meant that he didn’t think he couldn’t replace James Shields. Nor was he interested in trying to.

"“It’s daunting to think that me and Ventura [sic] are going into a bit of a leadership role.” -Duffy to Sean Casey of MLB.com"

Shields presence at the top of the rotation last year helped lend form, structure and proportion to what became one of the best Kansas City Royals pitching staffs since the 1980s. Now, without him, that same staff is floundering. Many expected Duffy and Ventura (the two youngest members) to step up and become the new staff leaders, but that undue pressure likely did more harm than good. Ventura finally seems to be getting it together, but will Duffy? Will he remember what Shields taught him, harness his emotions and forge ahead?

I certainly hope so. Everyone is pulling for him.

Next: Danny Duffy and the Case of the Disappearing Fastball

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