San Francisco Giants fans didn’t know what to expect from third base this season after losing the team’s primary third baseman, Pablo Sandoval, in free agency. Neither did the Giants, as they made a trade for Casey McGehee after losing out on Sandoval. But just five weeks into the season, McGehee was out as the everyday guy, and Matt Duffy was in. Duffy, who wasn’t a lock to even make the 25-man roster, forced his way onto the roster with a strong Spring.
During the 2014 post-season, Duffy became best known for scoring from second base on a wild pitch. Duffy was the team’s primary pinch-hitter during their 2014 championship run, but nobody saw the 2015 version of Duffy coming. Duffy has gone from a pinch-hitter/runner in October, to a legitimate Rookie of the Year Candidate as the everyday third baseman for a contending team. His 3.5 WAR so far this season is second to only Gold Glove winner Nolan Arenado (4.0) among third baseman in the National League and right with All-Star starter Todd Frazier at 3.4. Two players he is well in front of are top rookies Kris Bryant (2.7) and Joc Pederson (2.3) who are likely to receive many votes for Rookie of the Year. Duffy has outperformed them despite not starting the first five weeks of the season.
He might not even be the most popular Duffy among Giants fans, because every fan who follows Matt on Instagram has met his cat Skeeter, who might weigh more than he does.
So where did Matt Duffy come from? I wanted to learn more about the “Duffman”, as he is commonly referred to in San Francisco. I interviewed Mac Williamson, a former teammate of Matt’s while he was in the minor leagues, as well as former play-by-play announcer Jon Laaser, who called Duffy’s games during his time with the Richmond Flying Squirrels in the Eastern League.
1. What kind of teammate was Matt Duffy?
Mac Williamson – One of the best teammates I’ve ever had. Regardless of the game he’s having, he knows how to remain positive. He makes everyone better
1. First impressions of Duffy when he arrived in Richmond?
Jon Laaser – I think my first impression was like everybody else’s in that you see this extremely skinny guy, and you’re thinking that there is no way he is going to hold up over the course of a season. On a side note, his teammates with the Squirrels called him “bones” as a nickname. I don’t think that one has made it to the big leagues along with him. He was somewhat of an unknown commodity when he arrived as well in that he hadn’t received any preseason love from the prospect publications. We were actually kind of looking at it as the first time we hadn’t had a prospect shortstop since the Squirrels began (Brandon Crawford, Ehire Adrianza, Nick Noonan).
2. Any games or moments stand out early on that had him pegged as a future major leaguer?
Mac Williamson – Every game. Even when stats didn’t show it, he was solid day in and day out. Just like he is now. He can go 0-4 but hit 3 lasers. He really knows how to put together good at bats.
Jon Laaser – The entire first month of April really. He had the most impressive first month of any guy that had come up to Double-A to hit at The Diamond, which is a notorious pitcher’s park, and in the colder environment of the Eastern League. None of it seemed to phase him. I was particularly impressed with the way he made rapid adjustments to the way the league pitched him. Away for the first couple of weeks, then started to pound him in. It didn’t really seem to matter to him, and I remember he expressed to me that he had confidence in either side of the plate. However, the one moment that sticks out was a session he was having with Squirrels’ hitting coach Ken Joyce in The Diamond batting tunnel. They were working on weight transfer, and just seeing the subtle difference in where he was loading his lower half. It wasn’t necessarily the lesson, but then seeing how quickly he took that to the game with him was remarkable.
3. How does he carry himself off the field that you’ve seen?
Jon Laaser – Duff, and I call him that because I consider him a friend, is what we refer to as a “great dude.” That is the highest form of praise we have in baseball. Really low-key and unassuming at all times, but a guy that his teammates emulated because of his play. He was very popular in the clubhouse, but was also disarming due to his physical stature or lack thereof. Not to say he was a saint mind you. He could get a subtle cheap shot in when he needed to for sure.
4. Did you see his power bat coming at all?
Mac Williamson – He had gap to gap power and occasional home run power, but he’s learned how to use his legs and get the most out of his swing.
Jon Laaser – What always struck me about Matt was his forearms. You’ll notice this about Kelby Tomlinson as well. Neither are big guys, but they have forearm strength that allows them to drive the ball quite a bit more than you would expect. With that said, I can’t say that I saw this amount of power coming. The ability to drive the ball to the alleys and corners though definitely. You could see that from the crispness of the line drives that he hit, both in BP and in the game.
5. Could you have envisioned him being a #3 hitter for a playoff contending team?
Mac Williamson – I didn’t think he would be the 3 hitter this soon, but would never have ruled it out. He’s a quick learner and a very intellectual player.
Jon Laaser – I’m just going to simply say no to that. I wish I could say that I had a foresight that scouts and the Giants didn’t see, but that wouldn’t be true. I did see Major League potential, but it would be a lie to say that I thought he would become the anchor of an offense, particularly this quickly! I can’t say that I saw this amount of power coming.
I can’t say that I saw this amount of power coming.
6. What is your favorite Matt Duffy story?
Jon Laaser – My favorite story was the day before he was called up to the big leagues. Our field staff and I had been informed that he was going up the following day, and were sitting on that information. Obviously, Matt had no idea. He came into the training room and was having an internal debate as to whether he should buy this new backpack or not. He was going back and forth trying to talk himself into spending the 75 bucks, or whatever it was, to buy it for himself. He was talking to trainer, David Getsoff, and me, but was really just trying to convince himself. Meanwhile, not being a bonus-baby, he was pretty strapped for cash as most minor league players are. Finally, after about 20 minutes of debate, I just basically said “Matt, you deserve the backpack, buy the backpack, I’ll spot you if you need it.” He liked that, and set off to order the backpack, but about 10 minutes later returned and said “I’m going to hold off…I just can’t do it.” That’s him, blue-collar player. I’m pretty sure he got that backpack, or a nicer one, not long after.
7. I look at Duffy as the prototypical “baseball player,” in that he doesn’t look the part physically but he does everything on the field you’d ask for in a ballplayer? How would you “define” Duffy?
Jon Laaser – Grinder is the best description of him from an outward sense. However, I don’t think that really does him justice. Everybody thinks because he doesn’t look the part it’s harder for him. I think that’s true in that it is harder for him to get respect. But, I’d put his natural ability and baseball IQ up against anybody. Obviously, like everybody else he had to put in a ton of work, but his natural talent for the game is undeniable.
Ultimately, Williamson summed it up when describing Duffy to me. He said “He’s one of the best guys you’ll ever come in contact with. Can’t say enough good things about him.” So did Bruce Bochy when asked about Duffy earlier this week. “He found a way to get it done, and that’s what you love about him,” Bochy said. “He grinds out every at-bat.”
So whether you call him Matt Duffy or Duffman, whether you think he’s a grinder or just a baseball player, or whether you think he’s the Rookie of the Year, the praise for him will continue to flood because nobody can say enough good things about him, especially Giants fans.