Matheny defends Royals' 'unconventional' approach with Danny Duffy

Lynn Worthy
Kansas City Star (TNS)
Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny, middle, talks with players during summer workouts at Kaufmann Stadium.

Starting pitching has been a bit of a conundrum for the Kansas City Royals this season, and the solutions seem to keep getting more outside-the-box.

Coming off the pandemic-shortened season with a large portion of the potential starting pitching options inexperienced and unproven, the Royals placed a large burden on starters Danny Duffy, Brad Keller and free-agent signing Mike Minor to account for innings.

Duffy's left forearm flexor strain has forced the Royals to search for creative ways to get the most out of one of their few established major-league starters while they protect some of their young arms and wait for others to prove they're ready to handle the major-league level.

Duffy made his first start coming off the injured list on Wednesday night, but went just two innings and threw 42 pitches against the New York Yankees. He then pitched in relief against the Texas Rangers on Friday night.

Royals manager Mike Matheny said the plan will be to continue with abbreviated starts, similar to an "opener," and then have Duffy available out of the bullpen for short outings. Were Duffy in a traditional starter's role, he'd pitch once every five days or so.

"It might not look right, might not be conventional," Matheny said of the new approach. "But if we believe that there's some science, some other influences that make it the right move, we're going to give it a shot."

Saturday, Matheny emphasized this latest experiment originated from a commitment to keep Duffy healthy. The discomfort Duffy had in his arm before his IL stint coincided with his increased workload as he stretched out with longer outings as a starting pitcher.

"I truly believe that there are times where we have to take extraordinary steps to try and put it all together properly," Matheny said. "We're not afraid to open ourselves up to scrutiny if we believe it's what's best for the player and if it's what's best for our team."

The Royals starters entered Saturday ranked 27th of 30 teams in MLB in ERA (5.27) and walk rate (8.9 percent), 29th in opponent's batting average (.273) and last in WHIP (1.50).

Through 74 games, they'd already used 10 different starting pitchers. That included relief pitcher Kyle Zimmer, who served, for the second time this season, as the opener on Saturday against the Texas Rangers, as well as top pitching prospects left-hander Daniel Lynch and right-hander Jackson Kowar.

Lynch and Kowar failed to get deep in games in their initial taste of the majors, and their time in the big leagues pointed out areas they needed to address.

Both Lynch and Kowar are currently in the minors, as is right-hander Jakob Junis.

Junis entered this season as the most durable of the returning starters in recent years for the Royals. However, Junis consistently struggled in the past when facing lineups multiple times in the same outing, and the Royals decided to use him in a "hybrid" role this season with relief outings and spot starts.

The Royals rotation currently consists of Brady Singer, Minor, Keller and Duffy. They've gotten away without a fifth starter recently between off days in the schedule and bullpen/opener days.

However, Singer, who made 12 starts last season in his first season in the majors experienced shoulder tightness a few weeks ago that caused one of his starts to be truncated. He threw 96 pitches in his latest outing on Tuesday, but he did not complete four innings.

Now, it appears that Duffy will basically serve as an opener in his starts.

It seems as though a lot of stress will be placed on an already heavily-worked relief corps.

"Potentially," Matheny responded. "It depends on what your bullpen is consisted of. If it's all one-inning guys, the answer is yes absolutely. If it's comprised of some young players who have been stretched out, can be stretched out, then they could and should fill that void.

"Listen, I'm not going to sit here and try to convince any of you it's a flawless system. We're trying to do something to keep a player healthy, and we're trying to figure out what we can do differently from what has not worked in the past. It's not going to go without its hiccups. I get it."

The Royals bullpen currently includes left-hander Kris Bubic, who profiles as a starting pitcher and who started 16 games since the start of last year, as well as Carlos Hernández and veteran former starting pitcher Ervin Santana. Hernández has been stretched out as a starting pitcher in the minors.

While acknowledging the relative uncertainty involved in this approach with the pitching staff, Matheny also asserted that using Duffy in relief outings could potentially mean a similar workload for the veteran.

"If he's efficient and he's able, in that opening spot, to be efficient and go deeper into a game without pushing him to 100 pitches and then he's able to respond well on those other days, you're essentially talking almost the same amount of innings covered over a five-day period," Matheny said. "The unconventional aspect of it, I think, grabs everybody more than anything else."