Tyler Duffey was a closer at Rice University before the Twins drafted him, splitting the job with another Twins draftee, J.T. Chargois. He saved seven games in 2012, four others in 2010.
So is he a future Twins closer, too?
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here,” Duffey said. “I’ve been a reliever for six weeks.”
Good point. But at least the 26-year-old Texan identifies himself as a bullpen dweller again, an admission that gave him pause at first. It wasn’t the role he wanted, and probably still isn’t. He’s embraced the job, though, and with more sincerity than “better to be a reliever in the majors than a starter at Triple-A.”
“I think he actually likes it now,” bullpen coach Eddie Guardado said. “And I think he can be really successful at it, too.”
It’s starting to look that way. Duffey has made 13 appearances in the Twins’ first 35 games, and given up an earned run in only four of them. He didn’t allow a home run in his first 11 appearances, remarkable for a fly-ball pitcher, and until Charlie Blackmon’s two-run homer for the Rockies on Tuesday, his ERA remained below 2.00.
“I didn’t really envision him settling in the way he has, into not necessarily a defined role, but a role that’s been valuable,” manager Paul Molitor said. “He hasn’t fought it. I think he enjoys coming in and shutting down an inning.”
That’s true, Duffey said. The hard part, in fact, is getting used to pitching in spurts as short as five minutes, getting quick outs and being removed.
“I don’t always know what to do with myself. I sit down — I’m done?” Duffey marveled. “I’ve learned to tell myself, ‘I’ve got another game tomorrow.’ ”
Duffey might have seemed an odd candidate for a reliever’s role, given that his curveball is his best pitch, not his fastball, and he liked to use four different pitches. That’s narrowed to two pitches in his new role, though he’s trying to remember to mix in an occasional changeup, too.
“I use the change to get inside on lefties. It’s definitely something I throw warming up, just to see how it feels,” Duffey said. “My breaking ball, sometimes it feels really good out of my hand, and in the back of my mind, I go, ‘OK, if something happens that feels really good.’ It varies more out of the pen.”
There are benefits, too, though.
“I’m watching the game more intently now, which I enjoy,” he said. “From the outfield, you can see how guys are swinging. You can pick up more things than you can from the dugout — where the [strike] zone is today, how guys are swinging. What pitches are working.”
He’s made a believer out of Guardado.
“I think his stuff is better now. His velocity is up,” Guardado said. “His breaking ball is his best pitch. If he can get that over consistently, like he commands his fastball, he can be pretty damn good.”
So is the move permanent? The Twins, after all, are scrambling to find enough starting pitchers these days, and Duffey had a 3.10 ERA in 10 starts only two seasons ago. But what might seem like an obvious match really isn’t, Molitor and Duffey agree.
“You could maybe do it in April, but more than a month into the season, obviously I haven’t thrown anywhere near a starter’s pitch count,” Duffey said. “I don’t think it would be a quick-trigger situation.”
His future beyond 2017 is still up in the air, though. How well he performs in the bullpen obviously will have a big impact.
“He definitely has the ability to start, but can be an asset out in the bullpen,” Molitor said. “You want to consider the player’s future, too, but for now, it would take some fairly major [effort] to try to get him back to the starter’s job. It’s something we haven’t crossed off as a potential idea somewhere along the way.”