Tyler Duffey: The Bullpen Ace that Almost Got Away
Image courtesy of Brad Penner-USA TODAY SportsThe flurry of moves Duffey endured over a three-day span last year must have had his head spinning. I don't recall the exact circumstances around his being recalled, optioned, and recalled again on consecutive days, and I don't recall if he actually traveled back and forth to Rochester. I hope not.
While this roster maneuvering may have been extreme, it was hardly unfamiliar ground for Duffey, who'd grown accustomed to shuttling back and forth between the majors and Triple-A. Following his 10th such turnaround, the 28-year-old seemed to be firmly placing himself in the "Quad-A player" category: Good enough to excel at the highest level of the minors, where he'd posted a 2.90 ERA in 2018 (59 IP), but not good enough for the bigs, where his ERA was 7.20 in 25 innings.
I can think of two former Twins pitchers who were once deemed Quad-A players. And incidentally, they now surround Duffey on the list of top-performing MLB relief pitchers since the 2019 trade deadline, according fWAR:
1. Liam Hendriks, OAK - 1.7
2. Tyler Duffey, MIN - 1.5
3. Nick Anderson, TB - 1.4
Granted, it's a bit of a selective endpoint, and fWAR is hardly the be-all end-all measure of relief effectiveness, but I think it's fair to categorize these as the three top bullpen arms in the game based on recent results.
Hendriks, of course, reached the majors for the Twins as a fringey starting pitching prospect in 2011. He made 30 appearances for the Twins (28 starts) over three seasons with a 6.06 ERA before moving on. It took another five years for him to emerge as an elite closer in Oakland, at in 2019, at age 30.
Anderson followed a different path to stardom, and while he too was borne out of the Twins' organization, his sadly never even passed through Minnesota. (Not professionally, anyway.)
The Brainerd, MN native was signed out of an independent league by the Twins in 2015. He performed extremely well in their system, with a 2.25 ERA and 11.4 K/9 rate over four seasons, but for whatever reason, never got a look in the majors – not even in the late stages of a lost 2018 that saw them cycling through various spare arms. (Anderson had put up an 88-to-19 K/BB ratio in 60 innings that year as Duffey's teammate at Rochester.)
After that season, the Twins traded Anderson to the Marlins for a bag of peanuts. In 2019, Miami gave the hard-throwing righty a shot and he was an immediate sensation, striking out 69 hitters over 43 2/3 innings with a 3.92 ERA before being deal to Tampa at the deadline. Since that point, as we referenced earlier, he's been the third-best (or so) relief pitcher in baseball.
The point here is not to relitigate the past or blame the Twins for misjudging their own talent. There's no way they could've stuck with Hendriks through a half-decade of struggle and mediocrity. And while they certainly should've given Anderson a look in 2018, who's to say it would've made any difference? Even a strong performance in a smattering of appearances wasn't going to entrench him. Keep in mind that Oliver Drake posted a 2.21 ERA in 19 appearances for the Twins around that time, and was let go afterward. (Drake, as it happens, has also since caught on as a pretty good reliever for the Rays. Another "Quad-A" guy.)
The bottom line is that evaluating bullpen arms is a fickle endeavor. And the Twins could have so easily gotten it wrong with Duffey. What if that 10th time being optioned to the minors was for good? What if they gave up on him and decided to move on?
They didn't. Duffey was recalled the next day, and hasn't looked back. Since then, he has a 2.31 ERA and 82-to-12 K/BB with 41 hits allowed in 58 1/3 innings. And since the start of last August, he's been utterly ridiculous: 0.65 ERA, with 31 scoreless appearances out of 32. In 2020, he's been very nearly perfect.
The Twins might've let a couple of MLB's relievers get away. But right now the one they kept looks like the very best, and he's surrounded by plenty of other high-end contributors in a bullpen that's been supercharged over the past 16 months.
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