Yesterday, a young left-hander hoping to break camp with the Royals for the first time made his first spring training appearance. The southpaw, who was drafted out of high school in the third round five years ago, faced six batters, and struck out five of them. He was so dominating on the mound that KC Star beat writer Bob Dutton – who never does this – positively gushed about him afterwards.
I am, of course, referring to Danny Duffy. But replace “yesterday” with “ten years ago”, and every word of that paragraph would be equally true for Jeremy Affeldt, in March of 2002.
When I pointed this out on Twitter yesterday, some of you thought I was poking fun at Duffy’s performance, or poking fun at Dutton, by pointing out what he said about Duffy he once said about Affeldt. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Some of you remember this, but for those who don’t: Jeremy Affeldt entered spring training that year as a virtual unknown. He had finally reached Double-A in 2001, his fifth pro season, and while he was reasonably successful (3.90 ERA, 128 Ks and 46 walks in 145 innings), he wasn’t considered a top prospect or anywhere close to it. In Baseball America’s 2002 Prospect Handbook, Affeldt was ranked as the #13 prospect in the Royals’ system – and it wasn’t a good farm system. Here are the 12 guys who ranked ahead of him:
Angel Berroa, Jimmy Gobble, Colt Griffin, Mike MacDougal, Roscoe Crosby, Miguel Asencio, Ken Harvey, Kyle Snyder, Mike Tonis, Brad Voyles, Runelvys Hernandez, and Ryan Bukvich.
As I was saying: the farm system wasn’t good. It actually kind of sucked.
According to the Handbook, Affeldt was “a poor man’s version of Jimmy Gobble,” and “despite his solid arsenal, Affeldt doesn’t consistently throw quality strikes and gets hit more than he should.”
He was not, in other words, expected to make much of a buzz in camp.
And then he took the mound for the first time, against the Pirates in Bradenton – this was the Royals’ last spring training in Florida – and showed stuff that no one had seen from him before. A fastball in the mid-90s. A curveball that dropped like a hot potato. By the time he finished his two-inning stint, scouts and sportswriters alike were at a loss to explain it. “Koufaxian,” was one description I heard, from someone who had actually seen Koufax pitch.
Joe Posnanski was in attendance along with Dutton that afternoon, and wrote a column – which, thanks to McClatchy Newspapers’ Neanderthal approach to the internet, has long been scrubbed from the web – that put Affeldt on the map as not just a prospect, but as a potential star.
And here’s the thing – he came close to fulfilling that potential. Affeldt made the Royals’ roster on Opening Day, despite never having pitched above Double-A before. He began the season in long relief; in seven appearances in April, he threw 17 innings, with a 2.60 ERA and 18 strikeouts. He then moved to the rotation, where he was erratic for seven starts, before developing a blister problem which sidelined him for nearly two full months. He returned in August and pitched out of the pen the rest of the year. He finished his rookie season with a 4.64 ERA – which in 2002, with the fences still in at Kauffman Stadium, was better than league-average.
In 2003, he nearly won the job of Opening Day starter – manager Tony Pena literally flipped a coin, and Runelvys Hernandez won the toss. Once again, blisters wreaked havoc on his pitching – he went on the DL in late April for two weeks, skipped over a start in June, and was pulled out of several games early. But through July 23rd, he had thrown 95 innings with a 4.34 ERA, and the Royals were in first place. At that point, the blister problem became such a drag that the Royals decided to move him to the bullpen, figuring shorter stints would keep the blisters from acting up. In 31 innings the rest of the way, Affeldt had a 2.64 ERA, struck out 33 and walked only nine.
The results on the mound were solid, but the stuff he showed was incredible. His fastball regularly sat at 94-95 as a starter, and in the bullpen he regularly touched 98. (At least that’s what the TV radar guns showed – the official data we have today suggests he was throwing more 92-93.) His curveball broke as hard as any curveball I’ve seen from a Royals’ pitcher in at least 20 years. The only Royals’ pitcher who exceeded Affeldt’s pure stuff this century was probably Zack Greinke. He was a joy to watch; his starts were the closest thing to must-see Royals TV in years.
That winter, he finally had corrective surgery to remove a portion of the fingernail which was responsible for his blister problems. The surgery was successful; Affeldt hasn’t had a blister problem since. But the surgery must have excised a portion of his ability along with the nail, because he wasn’t the same pitcher afterwards.
The Royals didn’t help; they kept moving him from the rotation to the bullpen and back, unable or unwilling to commit to him in one role. In 2004, he made eight starts and relieved 30 times; he threw 76 innings with a 4.95 ERA overall. In 2005, he was used strictly in relief and was pretty awful, with a 5.26 ERA and 29 walks in 50 innings. In 2006 he hit rock bottom – in 70 innings, he walked 42 batters and struck out 28. Dayton Moore was hired in July, and by the end of the month he had traded Affeldt (and Denny Bautista) to Colorado for Ryan Shealy.
After a half-season of struggles with the Rockies, Affeldt figured things out. Left to work strictly in relief, over the last five seasons he has a 3.04 ERA, including a 2.74 mark since joining the Giants three years ago. Ten years after he opened eyes one fine March afternoon, Affeldt is still pitching in the majors, has made over $20 million, and has amassed 7.6 bWAR in his career. That might not sound like much, but that’s more than those 12 guys ranked ahead of him in the Royals system – combined.
So I’d venture to say that in the case of Jeremy Affeldt, one brief spring training performance was deeply meaningful. Before that day, he was a marginal prospect in a marginal system. After that day, he went on to have a career that has stretched over a decade, has been a valued reliever on two pennant winners and one world championship team, and still left some with the nagging sensation that he could have been even better.
Danny Duffy is no Jeremy Affeldt; in terms of pedigree, he’s a lot better. He’s a former Top 100 Prospect, he’s already earned his way to the major leagues, and despite struggling last year, no one’s thinking about turning him into a reliever yet. And while Affeldt was overmatching a bunch of Pirate hitters, Duffy embarrassed the Reds, including strikeouts of Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Scott Rolen.
I asked Bob Dutton – who was one of the few people (if not the only one) to see both performances in person, to compare the two. He kindly obliged. “Affeldt's two innings in Bradenton were always my measuring stick until today. I guess Affeldt still gets the nod as someone coming out of nowhere…but Duffy was better. Not a lot better, but he was better. He made big-time hitters look awful. His new cutter simply tied up Votto for a third strike.”
So there you go. Duffy was the better prospect before Breakout Day, and Duffy was the better pitcher on Breakout Day. I know it’s just two innings. And Duffy might take the mound next week, struggle to touch 90 on the gun, and all of this will get forgotten.
But one special day in spring training propelled a lesser pitcher to a long career in the major leagues. Who knows what one special day will do for Duffy? It might mean nothing. But it might mean everything.
“He simply overmatched these guys,” Dutton concluded. “Season-changer stuff if this isn't a complete anomaly.”
I think Dutton meant that it could change the arc of Duffy’s season. But it just might change the arc of the Royals’ season too.