Can Giants Breakout Star Matt Duffy Avoid the Dreaded Sophomore Slump?

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Can Giants Breakout Star Matt Duffy Avoid the Dreaded Sophomore Slump?
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

In real life, Matt Duffy came out of Long Beach, California. But in 2015, he might as well have come out of Nowhere, USA.

Generally considered a non-prospect going into the season, the slender then-24-year-old earned a spot on the San Francisco Giants' bench with a hot spring and eventually found himself pressed into everyday action at third base. The next thing anyone knew, he was establishing himself as one of MLB's best third basemen and a contender for the National League Rookie of the Year.

But with the 2016 season drawing near, it's time to ask the question that's looming like so much San Francisco fog: After a breakout like that, can Duffy possibly avoid the dreaded sophomore slump?

The Giants certainly hope so. Duffy, now 25, carrying on as a star player would go a long way toward them keeping their even-year dominance alive. And for what it's worth, his skipper has faith.

"He’s just a good ballplayer," Bruce Bochy told Bleacher Report at a Giants media gathering Friday. "He’s a good offensive player [and] good defensive player. And he could be our best baserunner. He’s durable. He can go out there and play every day. I think he’s primed to have another good year for us."

The projections for 2016 have Bochy's back. Though neither the Steamer nor ZiPS projections featured at FanGraphs think Duffy will be quite as good as he was in 2015, both see him continuing to be an above-average hitter and ultimately producing more WAR than any Giants position player not named Buster Posey.

Of course, given Duffy's modest background, determining whether he can avoid a sophomore slump in 2016 can't be as simple as looking at a quote and a few calculations. Even upon a more exhaustive review, though, it's hard to mistake his out-of-nowhere 2015 season for a fluke.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

First of all, there's no downplaying just how good Duffy was in 2015. He was a safely above-average hitter, as batting .295 with a .762 OPS despite regular action at AT&T Park is no small feat. Duffy was also one of the league's most productive third basemen on the basepaths, and the defensive metrics agree he darn well deserved to be a Gold Glove finalist.

But was Duffy too good in 2015?

If you look at where Duffy's coming from, the answer sure looks like a yes. He was only an 18th-round pick in 2012, and even that seems like a minor miracle considering he was exclusively a speed-and-defense guy in three seasons at Long Beach State. And throughout his career in the minors, the best Baseball America ever thought of him was as the Giants' No. 9 prospect following the 2014 season.

Looking at all this, however, is only focusing on what Duffy was supposed to be. The picture is decidedly different when the focus is shifted to what he's actually been.

Duffy hit over .300 across two low minor league levels in 2013 and .332 at Double-A in 2014, notably showing off a strong contact habit both seasons. And after a rough 34-game introduction to the pitching in The Show, he hit his way onto the Giants' 25-man roster with a .361 average last spring.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

"Even in spring training, I was thinking, 'He should make this team,'" Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford said. "He could play all over the place, and he was putting good at-bats together. And I figured it was probably just a matter of time before he came into his own."

Crawford's instincts were right. Duffy got his shot when it turned out Casey McGehee wasn't the answer at third base, stepping into a full-time job in May. From then until late September, his average hovered right around .300. All told, he's been a hitting machine for the better part of three years.

Duffy's trick? Nothing too radical. He subscribes to the ol' hitter's creed of simply trying to see the ball well and put a good swing on it. He figures his success will continue if he keeps it up.

"There’s a big aspect of the uncontrollable when you’re hitting," said Duffy. "I just try to keep my mind on what I can control, and it’s those two things: see the ball and put my best swing on it. If I can do that every pitch—and that’s a difficult thing to do, controlling your mind like that—then I think I’ll have a good chance at consistent results."

Although, it would also help if Duffy maintains the swing he found last year. And there should be an emphasis on "found," as it's one he really had to look for.

Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today noted Duffy began tinkering with his hitting mechanics while playing in the Cape Cod League during his collegiate years, and said tinkering seemed to culminate in 2015. On Fox Sports last summer, Owen Watson compared Duffy's 2015 swing to his 2014 swing and found it had become quieter, more efficient and, therefore, more dangerous. 

The underlying numbers reflect that. Duffy bore the marks of a pure hitter in 2015, building on his 2014 major league debut by making more contact, making better contact and making better use of the whole field:

Matt Duffy's Hitting Progression: 2014-2015
Year K% Soft% Hard% Pull% Center% Oppo%
2014 21.9 17.0 23.4 31.9 46.8 21.3
2015 15.7 14.6 28.3 31.8 34.9 33.3
2015 MLB Average 20.4 18.6 28.6 39.1 35.2 25.7

FanGraphs

The bat control that allowed Duffy to use the whole field is arguably the most impressive aspect of his 2015 breakthrough. As hit maps at Baseball Savant show, Duffy could hit the ball to any field regardless of whether a pitch was inside, down the middle or away.

And as 2015 went on, that skill ended up being pretty important.

After being fairly predictable in the first half, pitchers began switching up their locations more against Duffy in the second half, again documented by Baseball Savant. This seemingly helped subdue his power, as his slugging percentage fell from .462 to .397. But where a lesser hitter might have been hurt by that, Duffy dropped his strikeout percentage from 18.2 to 13.5, started going the other way more and upped his average a couple of points from .293 to .296.

The notion Duffy can continue to be an above-average hitter in 2016 therefore rings pretty true. From his straightforward approach to his strong mechanics to his feel for hitting to his ability to adjust when the going gets tough, he fairly aces the smell test.

Arguably the bigger question relates to whether Duffy can be such a good defensive third baseman again—after all, his defense was an even bigger surprise than his offense. A natural shortstop, Duffy went into 2015 with all of 34 innings of experience at third base as a professional.

But not really. Duffy's defensive skills are what got him drafted in the first place, and he got a hang of the quicker reactions a player is going to need when he moves from shortstop to third. Like so:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Though things move fast at the hot corner, Duffy worked with Giants bench coach Ron Wotus and special assistant Shawon Dunston and learned how to slow things down, gaining an understanding of how to play each ball. Basically, he learned control.

Earlier this winter, Duffy told Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle his goal was to become even more comfortable at third base. If all goes well, he'll soon look as natural at the hot corner as the guy immediately to his left looks at shortstop.

"My offseason defense-wise has been about just keeping everything under control," Duffy said. He continued:

It’s more of a mental thing than anything, but doing it over and over and just keeping yourself calm [helps]. I look at Crawford, and he seems like he’s sleepwalking. He’s just so under control and so smooth. I try to emulate that when I’m at third base.

So things look good here too. Duffy may have surprised many with his defense at third base in 2015, but it was just a case of a player who was already a defensive whiz becoming a defensive whiz at a different position. And, clearly, he's not taking his success for granted.

Is all of this to say Duffy is a foolproof star going into 2016? Relative to guys such as Posey, Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw, goodness no. Duffy will need to ingrain his star status a bit more before anyone can slap that kind of label on him.

It's good enough, however, that he doesn't look like an obvious candidate for a sophomore slump. What Duffy built in 2015 looks not like a house of cards but a rock-solid foundation.

 

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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