There is a hypothetical scenario in which the upcoming non-waiver trade deadline finds the Giants feeling much less secure about their third-base situation than they actually are. In it, their offseason free-agent signing has not panned out – and no former 18th-round draft pick has emerged to, in his first full major-league season, seize the everyday role and quickly thrive at a position he seldom played.
For the Giants, the unlikelihood is the reality. In an exceptional season so far for the Giants’ infield – with Buster Posey hitting near his 2012 MVP pace, and Joe Panik and Brandon Crawford making their first All-Star teams – the surprising breakout has been that of Matt Duffy, who in a year has gone from Double A to a central role for the defending World Series champions.
At this time last season, Duffy was the starting shortstop for the Richmond Flying Squirrels. He debuted for the Giants last Aug. 1 and was a bench player during their World Series run. He still needed to force his way onto the Opening Day roster this spring by posting a 1.039 OPS in the Cactus League.
To sit here and say right now that we pictured him hitting third in our lineup and being our everyday third baseman – no one had that on their reports.
John Barr, Giants scouting director, on Matt Duffy
Originally the Giants’ backup infielder, Duffy, 24, earned more playing time at third base while free-agent pickup Casey McGehee struggled, and he eventually assumed the starting job in late May. Since then, he has impressed the Giants with his defensive transition to third and his poise as a hitter, which led manager Bruce Bochy to start using Duffy as his regular No. 3 hitter last month.
With a single and an RBI in Saturday’s 2-1 victory over the A’s at AT&T Park, Duffy is batting .299 – second among National League third basemen – with eight homers and 43 RBIs. According to the analytics website FanGraphs, his 2.8 wins above replacement made him the fourth-most valuable third baseman in the league and ranked third among N.L. rookies.
“It’s just a huge progression for him, a very quick progression,” Giants general manager Bobby Evans said Friday. “Those are tremendous accomplishments that are not easy for any major-league player to accomplish in a short period of time – especially somebody who didn’t come up through the system as a third baseman, and didn’t come up necessarily as a guy who profiled in the middle of the order. He’s done a great job.”
The Giants have drawn national praise this season for their entirely homegrown infield, and for Duffy, they dug particularly deep. Not an especially touted prospect out of Long Beach State, Duffy went to the Giants as the 568th overall pick in the 2012 draft. Duffy said Saturday he was told some teams hadn’t even put him on their draft board.
Duffy did not have a strong junior year at Long Beach, partly because of an illness that kept him from preparing normally for the season and sapped 10 pounds from his already lithe frame. In his college career, he had just a .289 slugging percentage without a home run. But the Giants’ area scout, Brad Cameron, looked past those numbers and saw something more.
“(Cameron) liked the way he went about his business, and just liked him as a player,” said the Giants’ scouting director, John Barr. “He talked about (Duffy’s) athleticism, that he could run some, swung the bat pretty good and was versatile. And Brad thought that his junior year at Long Beach was not indicative of what he could further become – he felt like (Duffy) could still have upside to him.”
Duffy said he signed with the Giants days after they drafted him, “and most of that was waiting for them to contact us. I wanted to get a jump-start on guys who wanted to hold out until the deadline, just get a head start on getting to the big leagues as soon as possible.”
Just as quick was the impression Duffy, despite his mid-round draft status, made on coaches in the Giants’ organization.
“He impressed our minor-league staff right away,” Barr said. “They immediately started saying, ‘This kid Duffy can swing the bat some, good player,’ and all. Right after he went out, it started to indicate that we may have been fortunate here.”
The Giants saw Duffy as a shortstop, and he played there almost exclusively during two-plus minor-league seasons. Even this spring, preparing for a possible utility role with the Giants, Duffy focused mainly on shortstop and second base and needed a crash course at third before the season started.
Duffy has acknowledged the move to third was not comfortable at first, as he felt he was “right on top of” the hitter sometimes. Angles were different, and he had less time to react to ground balls. Shortly before the All-Star break, though, Bochy lauded Duffy for making “tons of progress” defensively, citing Duffy’s positioning and quick first step.
.299 Matt Duffy’s batting average, second among National League third basemen
Bench coach Ron Wotus, who works with the infielders, said repetitions at third have been the key to Duffy’s improvement. Specifically, they have worked on the tough in-between chopper that requires a split-second decision on whether to charge the ball or wait back, hoping for a friendlier bounce. Duffy made an error – his seventh this season at third base – on that kind of ball last week in San Diego and said he still feels “inconsistent” with the play.
Wotus, though, said Duffy has made marked improvement over the last few months.
“I had some concern that he could handle it as well as he did so quickly,” Wotus said. “You can practice all you want, but when you’re learning a new position at the major-league level and doing it at game speed, it’s not an easy task. But he’s handled it very well, considering his lack of experience.”
‘Doing too much’
Meanwhile, Duffy has continued to hit, even through a mini-slump after he first moved to the No. 3 hole. Duffy said he thinks he was “trying to do too much” and credits Posey for a pep talk that helped him settle in. Posey, Duffy said, told him the Giants moved him there for a reason, and he didn’t need to do anything differently than he already was.
Posey has had a non-verbal influence on the rookie as well. Despite his lack of power in college, Duffy – who hit nine home runs in the minors in 2013 – said he believed he had the potential for more and credited Posey with helping him unlock it by providing a textbook example of how to generate power with the lower body.
“Before, I would search for power with my shoulders, and if you do that, you get kind of long with your swing and actually lose power,” Duffy said. “The guy I kind of look at is Buster, because he’s so good at just staying in his legs. It’s unbelievable how he can generate not just power but quickness with his legs.”
Of course, Posey is also a template for becoming a middle-of-the-order hitter as a rookie. But Posey was a first-round pick, a sure-fire prospect who didn’t miss. Asked if he pictured his own rookie season unfolding like this, Duffy said Saturday he believed he “was capable of it. (But) to say I expected it, or this is what I was shooting for, I would say no.”
“To sit here and say right now that we pictured him hitting third in our lineup and being our everyday third baseman – no one had that on their reports,” said Barr, the scouting director.
“They did have that he was a plus makeup guy, that he would get the most out of his ability, and that he was someone that would help you win because of his approach to the game. And that’s turned out.”