Tyler Duffey is a remnant of a flawed Minnesota Twins draft philosophy. Before Derek Falvey and Thad Levine took over, the previous regime drafted star college relievers hoping they’d become reliable starters in the majors.
In 2015 they took University of Illinois closer Tyler Jay sixth overall, one spot in front of Andrew Benintendi and two ahead of Ian Happ. Jay got injured in 2017 and never got any further than Double-A. The Twins traded him to the Cincinnati Reds for cash considerations in 2019, and he’s currently in Indy ball. He is one of two top-10 picks from the 2015 draft who have not reached the majors.
Duffey fared a little better. But it didn’t come together right away.
He owned a 1.93 ERA in his final season at Rice, but Duffey only made one start in his last two years of college. Yet, there he was in the SkyDome on Aug. 5, 2015, facing a 93-win Toronto Blue Jays team that would reach the ALCS.
He got shelled.
Duffey allowed six runs on five hits in two innings in a 9-7 loss. He walked the first batter he faced, Troy Tulowitzki, then gave up a homer to old friend Josh Donaldson. Jose Bautista hit a grand slam off him in the second. He has to have repressed that memory, right?
“It’s 100 percent good memory. I gave up six runs in the big leagues, and I’ll never forget it,” Duffey told the Star Tribune in September 2015. “There are all sorts of little things about that night that I know I’ll never forget. Just standing on that mound in that stadium — I know it’s the 1 percent of the 1 percent who get the chance, so it doesn’t matter how I did.”
That’s Tyler Duffey. Relentlessly positive. Helplessly optimistic. Someone who always seems to put things in perspective.
It had to be hard to look at the Target Field scoreboard before making his second start and see a 27.00 ERA next to his name. But he pitched six innings and only allowed one hit in a 4-1 win over Cleveland. By the end of the season, he owned a 3.10 ERA.
Duffey wouldn’t stick as a starter, of course. Duffey owned a 6.43 ERA after 26 starts in 2016, and the Twins moved him to the bullpen. It took two seasons, but by 2019 he was one of their best relievers.
However, he’s struggling again this season. In an effort to earn a high-leverage spot in the bullpen again, Duffey has overhauled his pitch mix. He has more movement to his slider and added a change-up. Ironically, Duffey says that his time as a starter has helped him as he’s adjusted his repertoire.
“Throwing the change-up, especially like I used to throw them,” he said after recording a hold against the Colorado Rockies on June 26, his first since June 8. “And then it just kind of was phased out unintentionally. I didn’t need it. I changed speeds with my breaking ball and things like that. But when they’re looking for just a breaking ball, you’ve got to throw something else. “Just opening that up, throwing some more sinkers, and making sure my four-seamer is where it needs to be.”
He listed four pitches there: a four-seam fastball, sinker, slider, and change-up. A starter’s repertoire. It was part of the reason the Twins drafted him. He was a reliever with a starter’s pitch mix. Now he’s getting back to that.
Rocco Baldelli says that Duffey has been open to change.
“His stuff definitely was good,” Baldelli said after Duffey’s outing against Colorado on June 24. Duffey threw two scoreless innings and increased his velocity from 92 mph to 94.5 mph. “He’s obviously pitching and adjusting to pitching in some different spots that he hasn’t pitched in before, even going multiple innings and things.
“How has he taken to that? He’s taken to it fine. It’s not the easiest of moves for any reliever, but he’s a guy that is adjusting, and I think the stuff does look really good. That’s what we’re looking for. We want him to hold onto that.
“He’s throwing change-ups. He’s mixing in some different things that I think are getting him good results. He looks, stuff-wise, the way the ball is coming out of the hand, it looks like the guy that we know.”
It changes the Twins bullpen’s dynamic if Duffey can return to the reliever he was from 2019 to 2021. Emilio Pagán, another veteran reliever the Twins were hoping to depend on, has a -1.18 win-probability added against the Cleveland Guardians. He owned a 7.08 ERA in 37 appearances dating back to Sept. 1 of last season, allowing 29 runs in 34 innings before his outing in Minnesota’s 7-6 extra-innings loss in Cleveland on June 29.
Therefore, the Twins need Duffey, 31, to become a reliable veteran reliever again. Jhoan Durán is holding Minnesota’s bullpen together, but Baldelli can’t deploy him every day. If the current group in the bullpen can’t turn it around, the Twins will have to turn to prospects like Jordan Balazovic and Matt Canterino to try to revamp the relief corps mid-season. It’s a risky proposition, given they’ll be young players adjusting to the majors with a first-place team. They will likely also trade for relievers near the deadline, but for every Sergio Romo, there’s a Sam Dyson.
Fortunately, Duffey seems willing to add movement to his slider and throw a change-up again.
“Over the course of a season, a lot of things change,” Duffey added. “It just was unfortunate for me, it just kind of started out rough, and I had to figure it out on the fly, but luckily…when you play 162 games, you can have a horrible first half and show up for the second half and be a different person. I’m hoping that’s the trend we’re looking at. Getting to get a hold today for the first time in a long time, I think, it’s definitely progress for me. It’s exciting.”
Baldelli believes Duffey’s track record tells us he’s willing and able to make dramatic adjustments to his pitch mix and role.
“In this game, if you’re not able to do those things, you will not be in this league very long,” says Baldelli. “You’ll have a run of success…of some kind because you have the ability. And if you refuse to adjust, it’ll be over.
“But I’m not surprised to see him making adjustments. He’s done that before. He did that in 2019. I first got here, and I was watching him. He could do things. He did them naturally, he was very good at them, but [Duffey] didn’t implement them in games…and then he figured it out. And he’s figuring it out again, right now.”
The Twins have to hope so. They need him to. If Wes Johnson’s last act as Minnesota’s pitching coach was to get Duffey on the right track, he did them a solid before leaving for LSU.
Maybe you’ve given up on Duffey. You’ve seen enough of his pitches end up 400 feet behind him or become frustrated after seeing him retire two batters, only to allow the third one to keep the inning going. And that’s fair in some respects.
But Duffey has adjusted his entire career. He was a starter as a freshman at Rice, then turned into a lockd0wn reliever during his final two seasons. Duffey reached the majors as a starting pitcher, got shelled in his first outing, then dropped his ERA from 27.00 to 3.10 by the end of the season. When he struggled as a starter in 2016, he reinvented himself as a reliever. After two mediocre years, he became a dependable setup man from 2019 to 2021.
Still, his attitude never changed throughout the process.
“He’s been the same guy,” says Baldelli, gushing. “[Duffey has] always been the same guy. He’s one of a kind.”
Duffey knows he can learn from his past mistakes. He can adjust. He’s done it before, and he’s willing to do it again. Minnesota’s strategy of drafting lockdown college relievers and trying to turn them into starters was flawed. But it produced Duffey, who ironically is using his history as a major-league starter to try and lower his 18.00 ERA from the start of the season to something closer to 3.00.