As a breaking-ball pitcher, Tyler Duffey has utilized the same target his entire career: Low. Keep the ball down. Bottom of the strike zone, or bounce it in the dirt if needed.
So Duffey was a bit thunderstruck when Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson visited Houston in January to lay out a new strategy for the righthander.
“He wanted me to throw my fastball at the top of the [strike] zone. Get some swings up high,” Duffey said Tuesday, before pitching two scoreless innings in his first day back with the Twins after being summoned from Class AAA Rochester. “My mantra had always been, ‘Keep it down in the zone.’ But the Twins showed me how much success I had when I pitched up, even if it wasn’t a regular occurrence.”
It happens much more now, and the results are obvious, Duffey said. In three games for the Red Wings, he struck out 11 in six innings, giving up two hits and one run. Johnson’s plan for him, Duffey said, is working. He hope that will mean his latest call-up to the majors — his eighth since his 2015 debut — is permanent.
“It’s fun for me, actually, to see when I let a pitch go, and it works like it’s supposed to,” Duffey said. “It’s just a different part of the zone. Hopefully I get some swings up there, and when that works, then you start to spin” the curveball in the dirt.
Duffey said he has largely abandoned his sinker, which is easier to do now that he’s a reliever and doesn’t need as many pitches, and now relies more on his four-seam fastball and curveball, with occasional changeups. His stuff is helped, too, by disguising his pitches better by throwing them in an identical manner, a practice known as “tunneling” in today’s game.
“That’s the name of the game now,” said Duffey, who figures to work in the middle innings with the Twins. “If you throw a good breaking ball, or a good changeup, whatever it may be, then follow it with another pitch that looks the same for most of the way and then does something different. It works well.”
That’s what Johnson had in mind when he visited Duffey and Kohl Stewart in Houston in January, bearing plenty of suggestions and the evidence for them.
“He had a plan, numbers, videos,” Duffey said. “He said, ‘This is what works. You’ve got the stuff, now use it appropriately.’ ”
It took him awhile to get used to the plan in spring training. The first time he tried to throw high strikes, “I wasn’t getting them high enough,” Duffey said. After one live-batting practice session, he said, Eddie Rosario told him, “Yeah, that’s a meatball.” But he has gradually gotten better at Johnson’s game plan.
“Once a guy has success, he’s convinced,” Johnson said. “If you can show them what’s happened when they’ve done it before — whether it was on purpose or not is irrelevant — then it makes the conversation easier to have. He wasn’t comfortable with it in the spring, but we saw good signs. So now I’m anxious to see him.”
• To make room for Duffey, the Twins sent lefthander Andrew Vasquez back to Rochester. Vasquez appeared in only one game for the Twins, and it didn’t go well; he threw 13 pitches but only two strikes last Wednesday against the Mets, walking two and hitting a batter without recording an out.
• C.J. Cron and Nelson Cruz were not in Tuesday’s starting lineup, but it was a planned substitution, not injury-related. Cron was hit by a pitch on his fingers Monday but was available if needed.
• Wednesday’s forecast calls for rain much of the day, but the Twins are hoping to play the 6:40 p.m. game. If the rain doesn’t let up, the options aren’t particularly appetizing: The teams would either play a doubleheader Thursday, which would mean the Twins’ flight to Baltimore would arrive in the early-morning hours Friday, or the Blue Jays would have to return on an off day later this season.