FORT MYERS, Fla. – It’s not the salaries or the perks that makes Tyler Duffey jealous of his more-established veteran teammates during spring training. It’s their ability to believe and act upon the oft-repeated notion that spring results don’t count.
Tinker with your mechanics? Develop a new pitch? Shrug off a bad outing?
Must be nice.
“I’ve never been in a spring game that didn’t matter,” said Duffey, the 27-year-old righthander who has lingered on the edges of the Twins’ rotation for four consecutive spring trainings. “I’ve always been trying to make the team, and you’re aware that they’re going to make decisions based on what they see. So it’s hard for me to just be working on stuff out there. That’s a luxury I’ve never really had.”
After giving up six runs in his MLB debut in 2015, Duffey bounced back to post a 2.25 ERA in nine late-season starts that summer, making him a solid contender for the 2016 rotation. But he wasn’t sharp that spring and was sent down to Class AAA Rochester to open the season. Last spring he made the team, but lost his rotation spot and spent all summer in the bullpen.
So while Duffey is encouraged that the Twins are giving him another chance to make the rotation, it’s also true he didn’t get a start until Wednesday’s so-so outing against the Red Sox, a mere two weeks before Opening Day. And while he has tried to make the most of two-inning stints up to now, he’s noticed the Twins clubhouse suddenly includes Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn — meaning, his odds to be a starter today are a lot longer than when camp opened. It appears he is battling Phil Hughes for the final rotation spot, a job which comes with only a handful of April starts and might disappear altogether once Ervin Santana returns in May from a finger injury.
“I was told I was being lengthened out [to start]. Obviously with the start today, they are looking at [the possibility],” said Duffey, who put two runners on base in each of his three innings Wednesday, but allowed only two runs, one earned. But “it’s out of my hands. Like today, I have to go and get outs, get out of some jams and prove to them that I can do it.”
Even if it’s just temporary, Duffey said he enjoyed being a starting pitcher again. He’ll go to the bullpen, certainly, especially if it keeps him in Minnesota and not Class AAA. But his preference is clear.
“I actually had a little bit of the jitters” on Wednesday, his first start since September 20, 2016, Duffey said. “I was excited to get back out there as a starter. The time leading up to it, getting ready for the game, going over stuff with the catcher before the game — it’s different.”
So is his willingness to use the spring for tinkering. New pitching coach Garvin Alston, who understood Duffey’s must-get-outs mind-set, had a mechanical suggestion for the former fifth-round pick, and finally convinced him to give it a try during a session of batting practice, with nobody keeping score. Duffey sounds glad he gave in.
“He told me to slow my mechanics down, just physically slow my arm.” Duffey said. “I was in a rush. So I tried it in live BP, and it felt like I was just lobbing fastballs. But it didn’t affect anything that matters. My velocity is the same. It may not look like I’m much slower, but I almost feel like I’m in slow motion. I just turn it down a little bit.”
By doing so, though, Duffey discovered what Alston was trying to tell him: Less can be more.
“It made it easier to throw where I want to. It makes it easier to get on top of my breaking ball, and you get a better break,” Duffey said. “I was trying to overthrow every pitch, and this gives me better command.”
Paul Molitor noticed, saying last week that “Tyler’s getting good spin when he mixes in his breaking ball, and he’s throwing it in there. It sets up his fastball when he trusts he can throw his curve for strikes.”
Will he be allowed to do it in the first inning or the sixth? As you’d expect, Duffey is willing to do what he’s told.
“I’m feeling pretty good about my pitches, but guys can always count” roster spots, Duffey said. “If [the bullpen] is where they think I can help the most, that’s what I’ll do.”