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Progress

The Royals lost last night, which is not anything particularly new for them. It wasn’t a very eventful game. The Tigers hit a two-run homer in the top of the second and the Royals scored in the bottom of the fifth using some pretty nice situational hitting to get the run home against a very good Max Scherzer. I say a very good Max Scherzer because at times this year he has not been so good, but last night he was throwing strikes and throwing well. The Tigers scored a run in the top of the ninth off Aaron Crow (who has struggled mightily in his last two appearances since being named an All-Star) to make it 3-1 and that’s how the game ended. It seems like a pretty ho-hum regular loss that happens a lot over the course of a long baseball season, but it counts as progress toward Danny Duffy’s development as a big leaguer.

A few starts ago, I made the comment that Danny Duffy works way too slow. I don’t think a pitcher has to pitch at the pace of Mark Buehrle in order to be successful, but it helps if he takes less than 30 seconds between pitches. His defense benefits, his command benefits, the fans benefit. In that start in which I commented on the glacial like speed with which he works, Duffy went four innings, gave up five runs on eight hits, walked four and struck out just one batter. At that point, he had worked 30.1 innings, allowed 33 hits, walked 21 batters and struck out just 20 while posting a 5.55 ERA through six starts. I’m not insinuating that the Royals or Duffy read this blog, but after that post that I made, things have changed for Duffy. The results haven’t been demonstrably better on the runs allowed front, but the peripherals have gotten much better, which indicates better times ahead for Duffy and the Royals.

Since that game, Duffy has made five starts and gone 27.2 innings. It’s a modest uptick from the number of innings he had thrown per start over his first six, but still an uptick. Some will point to the fact that he left with an injury after just 3.2 innings in St. Louis, but he had thrown so many pitches that at most he would have gone five that day. In order to be successful in the big leagues, you have to average at least six innings, and that’s the very bottom of the barrel. Still, he’s been much better since that game against the Blue Jays in which children were able to take naps between pitches. He has posted his first big league win, but more importantly, in those 27.2 innings, he has struck out 25 and walked eight. You can with that kind of ratio. Most pitchers with that kind of ratio do win, and it’s huge that Duffy has taken a big step in harnessing his command because it shows that his stuff is good enough that when it is in the strike zone it is deadly. In those five starts, he has a 4.23 ERA which is not great, especially not in run depressed 2011, but it’s a huge improvement.

When Duffy first came up, I could tell that he was ready. His stuff was better than anybody’s on the Royals pitching staff and better than many of the pitchers who rolled into Kauffman Stadium. It was pretty obvious, also, that his problems were not going to be solved by going back to AAA and watching those hitters flail away at his pitches a foot off the plate. He needed to be in the big leagues to learn that he can’t just put a breaking ball off the plate and have a strikeout. He had to work to get big league hitters out. Some pitchers figure that out quicker than others, and it looks like Duffy is on his way to figuring that out. I don’t think he has ace type stuff, but I do think he can be an outstanding number two in a future Royals rotation. If things work out like everyone hopes and he ends up being the  Royals number three starter, then you might as well just start printing playoff tickets. Of course, it’s not so simple as that, but it’s good to see Duffy getting going.

There’s also serious progress being made in the minor leagues with Danny Duffy’s former rotation mate, Mike Montgomery. This might be the best development of the season. As you all know, Montgomery has struggled big time this season, getting hit hard, walking batters and giving up runs in droves. After being ranked the Royals top pitching prospect and the number 18 prospect in all of baseball, many believed that Montgomery would be the first starter to the big leagues and would already be at least holding his own in Kauffman Stadium. He pitched very well in spring training, and you got the impression that the Royals seriously considered starting the year with him on the roster. When the Royals held the future’s game earlier this year, he was just so good and dominant that people thought it wouldn’t be long before he was a fixture in the rotation. Then he was bad in AAA. It was a bit of a concern. I think I mentioned in this space a fairly cryptic tweet from Greg Schaum that Montgomery was working on some things and that he would be back in top prospect form in a couple of starts.

A couple of starts later was July 1. Montgomery went 6.2 innings, gave up no runs on two hits, struck out seven and walked three. The walks were still slightly up, but manageable and he gave up next to nothing hit-wise. Then his last start was a couple of days ago when he went five innings, gave up one run on five hits, struck out five and walked nobody. He was pulled after 59 pitches because of a rain delay, so you know he could have gone longer and probably continued pitching extremely well. I’ve got news for you. If Montgomery is back as a top prospect and pitches well over his next three or four starts, I wouldn’t be shocked to get him four or five starts in the big leagues before they shut him down for the year. He’s thrown 90.1 innings this year, and I assume the Royals don’t want him going over 160 or so based on what he threw last year in the minors and the AFL. If he starts four more times in AAA and throws 25 innings then he’d have about 45 or 50 innings to show what he can do in the big leagues.

Mike Montgomery figuring things out is a giant development in the world of the Royals. He, along with Danny Duffy, form the hope that the Royals can compete in 2012. Well, that’s not entirely true. The scrap heap pickup of Felipe Paulino may prove to be one of the best moves of the Dayton Moore era if he continues to pitch as well as his peripherals indicate he would. A month ago, on June 9, the Royals pitching future seemed pretty bleak. Duffy was struggling at the big league level, Montgomery was struggling at the minor league level and no pitcher under 30 was excelling for the Royals. Now, it seems like there’s some pitching hope and I’d call that progress.

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