FORT MYERS, Fla. – Tyler Duffey doesn’t just ignore baseball superstition, he defies it.
“I feel great. My arm feels alive, and the ball has been coming out of my hand really good,” the second-year righthander said. “I’ve had no soreness, nothing weird, nothing unusual. It’s been really good.”
The interview paused to allow Duffey to observe baseball pitcher ritual: knocking on the wood frame of his locker any time he mentions good health. But Duffey just laughed.
“Nah, that’s OK,” he said. “I’m good.”
Pretty cocky for a guy whose health became a September preoccupation for the Twins last year, when his unofficial 160-innings “limit” was exceeded in the interest of keeping Minnesota in the playoff race. Duffey was given an extra day off between starts four different times, and he didn’t reach 100 pitches in a start until Sept. 20. All to make sure the Texan’s valuable right arm remained intact and undamaged.
Maybe the caution helped, because Duffey actually seemed to grow stronger as the season reached its conclusion. He lasted at least six innings in each of his final five starts, didn’t allow more than two runs in any of them, and developed so convincingly from overly awed rookie to confident veteran that his manager has all but guaranteed that Duffey will be in the Twins rotation when his second season begins next month.
“I would imagine that it would probably take something fairly significant to get him bumped out of there,” manager Paul Molitor said. “We haven’t locked in all five spots, [but] our expectation is he’s going to take hold of one of them.”
That’s quite a vote of confidence, considering Duffey has only 10 games of major league experience. He’s so new to the big-league life, in fact, when he takes the mound at Hammond Stadium on Thursday night for the Twins home opener, it will be the righthander’s first career Grapefruit League outing.
“It’s a pretty cool deal. It’s not the real opening night, but it’s still going to be exciting,” said Duffey, who pitched only two innings of an unofficial “B” game for the Twins last spring. “Events like that, they’re a lot of fun.”
That’s one of the most entertaining traits about the 25-year-old Houston native — he still has a gee-whiz sense of awe about his surroundings. It probably cost him during his major league debut last August in Toronto, when Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista smashed tape-measure shots into a distant province, but he quickly learned to control his enthusiasm.
“I wondered how he would respond to some of those games he’d have to pitch, especially the last two or three weeks. I’m sure there was a lot of adrenaline and excitement, but I didn’t see any hands shaking,” Molitor said. “You can argue about what happened in Toronto, but it didn’t take long for him to get acclimated and trust that what he was doing would give him a chance.”
Another thing that might give him a chance? Increased velocity. Duffey said he feels especially strong this spring, and he has gained confidence in his fastball command, too. He hasn’t been clocked yet this spring but has a history, he said, of reaching 94 or 95 miles per hour on the radar gun, especially early in the season.
That would represent a significant step forward, since he threw only one pitch last season (of the 908 he threw in a Twins uniform) that reached 94 mph, and that came in his debut. Only 11 were clocked at 93 or above, and just 58 eclipsed 92, according to MLB’s pitchf/x system.
“When I got to the majors, I was trying to throw strikes, first and foremost,” Duffey said, so he took something off his fastball. “I was only around 88-92 [mph] by that point in the season, and they were being careful [with his workload]. I’m not going to blow people away, but [better velocity] is in there — occasionally.”
Duffey’s best pitch is his curveball, so any added velocity would help him put away hitters waiting on a breaking pitch, and Duffey is optimistic he will take advantage. He has specific goals, after all, now that concern over his innings limit is behind him.
“It would be kind of cool to throw 200 innings, because that’s something that every starter shoots for,” said Duffey, who reached 196 combined innings among Class AA Chattanooga, Class AAA Rochester and the Twins last year. “It means you pitched deep into almost every game you pitch.”