Tyler Duffey was waived seven years to the day after his major league debut. His Twins career was bookended by losses to the Blue Jays.
The 2015 Twins were surprise contenders, heading to Toronto in early August in possession of a wild-card spot. But the familiar refrain of "needs more pitching" was prevalent, especially as lefty starter Tommy Milone was placed on the disabled list.
Most Twins fans expected the highly regarded José Berríos to get the call. After all, Berríos had been a first round draft pick, was a consensus top 50 prospect (and rising), and was now pitching effectively at the minors' top level. But the Twins surprised many observers when they selected the contract of fellow 2012 draftee and AAA starter Tyler Duffey instead.
Duffey had been selected with less fanfare in the 5th round, as a college reliever. Converted to starting in professional baseball, he had steadily if unspectacularly moved up the minor league ladder himself, and was putting together his best pro season in 2015 when he got the call. With a devastating curveball, he was striking out 8 batters per 9 innings, back when that was still an impressive figure -- MLB average for starting pitchers was only 7.4 that year. Paired with only 1 home run allowed across 132 innings pitched, Duffey was an intriguing option for a major league start -- if he could get there. The Twins were heading to Toronto, and Duffey didn't have his passport with him in AAA Rochester. From the August 4, 2015 Star Tribune:
"At 6 a.m. [Sunday], my dad had to catch a flight to Rochester with my passport. Then we drove up yesterday, got to take the scenic route to Toronto. It's been a pretty wild 48 hours so far." It's a 170-mile drive around Lake Ontario from Rochester, N.Y., to Toronto. They drove past Niagara Falls, but barely noticed, Duffey said. "We were pretty sleep-deprived by that point," he said.
The Twins were already fading, having dropped the first two games of the series. Duffey's debut on August 5th failed to reverse the trend: a pair of home runs by future Twin Josh Donaldson and José Bautista, more dingers than Duffey had allowed all season, led to 6 runs and a very early exit after just two innings, as the Twins lost again. From the next day's Star Tribune:
"I threw it where I wanted to. He was just sitting on it," Duffey said of Bautista's cannonading 400-plus-foot blast. "They've played a lot more games than I could even imagine. They know what's coming, even if you think you're tricking them."
Toronto would complete the four-game sweep the following day, Duffey was optioned back to AAA, and Twins fans resumed their Berríos watch.
But ten days later, it was Duffey returning to the majors, not Berríos, and what a return it was -- from August 15 through the end of the 2015 season, Duffey made 9 starts, and the Twins won 8 of them to hang in the wild card race until the season's final week. With that curveball making Twins fans reminisce about Bert Blyleven, Duffey had a 2.25 ERA in that stretch, backed by an 8.4 K/9 and only 2 home runs allowed in 56 innings.
Image courtesy of Tommy Gilligan, USA Today
Alas, Blyleven rode his curveball for 22 seasons; Duffey lasted just one more as a starter. He earned a place in the 2016 opening day rotation, but the results didn't transfer with a 6.43 ERA and 25 home runs allowed in 133 innings. Berríos was even worse in 2016, so it appears the Twins made the right call in August 2015. A conversion to relief followed for Duffey, including outstanding seasons in 2019-2020, but that track record wasn't enough to save his job today.
Last night, the same Blue Jays franchise ended Duffey's Twins career with another defeat, and another home run -- this time to Vlad Guerrero Jr., a fresh 16-year-old amateur signee when Duffey debuted back in 2015.
What's next for Tyler Duffey? He will likely join another bullpen, maybe a contender's, and may even rediscover some magic. But Twins fans will always have the memories of his magic 2015 pennant race curveball.