Whether the KC Royals begin their next season this year or in 2021, Danny Duffy ought to be the Opening Day starting pitcher.
From the instant the pandemic brought baseball to a halt, Opening Day has been a moving target, the object of speculation, guesswork, and conjecture. For the KC Royals and 29 other big league clubs, one thing is certain–Opening Day will occur this year or next.
Which pitcher new manager Mike Matheny will choose to start 2019 Opening Day remains a mystery. Last year, Ned Yost announced his starter during spring training, ironically on March 12, a year to the day before the current baseball stoppage began. Although Matheny hasn’t revealed his selection some, including mlb.com, project Brad Keller will make his second straight Opening Day start.
But is Keller the best choice? Perhaps not.
Fundamental to any discussion of Opening Day assignments is understanding the task. Pitchers want and cherish the role, but it’s an honor more of prestige than significance to a full or trimmed-back season. Selection often hinges on longevity, historic contributions to a team, the preceding season’s performance or spring training success, or all of the above.
Also fundamental to this particular discussion is Matheny’s primary pool of possibilities. Because the fifth spot in the KC Royals’ rotation remained up for grabs March 12, it’s a four-starter group: Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Jakob Junis, and Mike Montgomery.
Montgomery is the least likely selection. He rejoined the club last July, having left the organization after being dealt to Tampa as part of the late 2012 deal that brought James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals. He’s alternated between starting and relieving throughout his five-year career, worked exclusively out of the back end of the rotation for KC last year, went a disappointing 2-7 in 13 starts, and hasn’t had a winning season yet. Montgomery gave up five runs in seven innings this spring (6.43 ERA).
An argument can be made for Junis–he has more wins (27) than any other KC pitcher since making his debut in 2017. (A truncated 2020 gives Junis an outside chance to win more than nine games for the first time; he’s won nine in each of his three seasons). But he also leads the club in losses (29) over the same period. Junis pitched once this spring and didn’t give up any runs in one inning. If baseball comes back this year, Spring Training 2.0. may give him time to make a case to start Opening Day.
Some believe Keller is the staff ace, but opinions don’t make it so. He seemed on his way to deserving that title after his 9-6 2018 earned the rookie the Royals Pitcher of the Year award. Yost gave Keller the Opening Day job last season and he held the White Sox to two hits in seven innings to earn the win. (It took five relievers to secure the 5-3 victory, an early indication of how shaky a bullpen KC would have, but that’s a story for another day).
That was the highlight of Keller’s sophomore season. He went 6-14 the rest of the way, although his second half (3-5, 3.62) was better than his first (4-9, 4.47). Arm fatigue eventually led the KC Royals to shut him down and he didn’t pitch after August 26 when Oakland battered him for five runs in 1.1 innings. He then gave up 11 runs in 6.2 spring training innings (a 14.85 ERA).
Calling Keller the ace, and handing him another Opening Day on that basis, seems premature. He’s pitched just two seasons; he won fewer games in 2019 and lost over twice as many than he did as a rookie in ’18. Keller should wait for another first game assignment.
That leaves Duffy to pitch Opening Day, an assignment he’s had twice before. He pitched six strong innings to start 2017, striking out eight and giving up one run before the bullpen collapsed and gave the Twins six runs in their 7-1 win. The White Sox reached him for five runs in four innings in 2018’s first game; the bullpen gave up nine more and Chicago won 14-7.
Duffy was 7-6 last season and tied now-departed Homer Bailey for second in wins behind Junis’ nine (Junis lost 14). He was fairly steady throughout the campaign, then in September regained the form that caused the KC Royals to give him a five-year, $65 million contract in 2017–he went 2-0 in five starts, struck out 25 in 30.1 innings and held hitters under .200.
This spring, he pitched six scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and just one walk.
Duffy is in the next-to-last season of his mega-contract, a critical campaign for a pitcher who wants to finish his career in Kansas City. The Royals should take every opportunity they can to assess whether they share that desire, so an Opening Day assignment makes sense, especially because a shortened 2020 reduces those opportunities by half. In any other year, one start wouldn’t be particularly significant, but these are different times.
Matheny should choose Duffy to start Opening Day whenever baseball returns. He’s a veteran with much to prove (and perhaps not a lot of time to prove it if he wants to retire with KC); his spring performance topped the other Kansas City starters and, together with his steady 2019 and terrific September, signals he may well be back in top form. And he’s the quintessential loyal Royal.
Let’s hope Opening Day comes soon. Whenever it does, Danny Duffy should be on the mound.