From 2019-20, Duffey had been one of baseball’s best relievers. Across 80 games, he posted a 2.31 ERA with a 0.94 WHIP and 12.5 K/9. In fact, MLB.com ranked Duffey as one of baseball’s best relievers entering the 2021 season. Minnesota used Duffey as a fireman out of the bullpen, and he was successful in this role. Things changed in 2022 as he struggled for the first time since becoming a full-time reliever. So, what are some concerns with his 2021 performance?
Concern 1: Surrendering Hard Hits
Giving up hard contact is never a good trait for a pitcher, and this problem can be even more apparent with relievers and a smaller sample size. During the 2021 season, Duffey’s average exit velocity (4th percentile) and hard hit% (7th percentile) were among the lowest in baseball. Back in 2019, his hard-hit % ranked in the 48th percentile, so this was quite the drop from the last full season.
Last season, his four-seam fastball was one of the pitches that resulted in the aforementioned changes. His slugging percentage on his fastball was .289 in 2020, and he allowed a .374 slugging percentage in 2021. Duffey was pitching from behind more regularly in 2021, which meant he saw an increase in his fastball usage by 5%. His fastball velocity isn’t elite, so good hitters will be able to square it up and make hard contact.
Concern 2: Decrease in Strikeouts
Another concern with Duffey’s 2021 season was the significant dip in strikeout percentage. During 2019-20, his 12.5 SO/9 is exactly what teams want from a late-inning reliever. His K% ranked in the 92 percentile or higher in each of those seasons. Last season, his K% dropped to the 54th percentile as he posted an 8.8 SO/9 which was a career-worst since moving to the bullpen.
Last season, Duffey posted a 40 K% with his four-seamer, but that dropped to 22% in 2021. In the previous three seasons, his curveball has averaged nearly 35 K%, but he only got a 25.4 K% in 2021. His Whiff% with his curveball also dropped almost 14%. Since he was behind in the count more regularly, there’s a good chance he couldn’t use his pitch mix to the best of his advantage.
Concern 3: Change in Pitch Usage
Duffey also saw increased use in his sinker last season, which doesn’t cause issues on the surface. Using a new pitch can keep batters off-balance, but Duffey’s sinker didn’t do that at all. Opponents posted a .444 batting average with a .556 slugging percentage when facing his sinker. It also had the lowest Whiff% of any of his pitches. Luckily, he only threw his sinker 44 times, but the results were lacking.
His other pitches also saw some change in usage. In his first two seasons as a reliever, he saw increased curveball use. Last year, he decreased usage of his curveball by nearly 5%. Some of this change in pitch usage was related to being behind in the count more regularly. This forced him to cut back on his curveball and turn to his fastball, which had disastrous results.
Duffey is entering a critical year of his professional career. Next winter, he will hit the free-agent market, and he is coming off a career-worst season. In a contract year, the 2022 campaign will go a long way in determining the kind of market he will face in his first taste of free agency. Relief pitchers can be fickle, and Minnesota hopes that Duffey can alleviate these worries in 2022.
What are you most worried about with Duffey’s 2021 performance? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.
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