The Duffman Leaveth the Bay for the Rays
When the Giants won the World Series in 2010, and in doing so exorcised the Always-A-Bridesmaid demons still haunting the city since 2002 and the reign of Bonds, their future Hall-of-Fame manager Bruce Bochy called them a band of misfits. You can still buy the t-shirt emblazoned with this moniker — carefully capitalized into miSFits, of course — and there’s even a book about them written by favorite Giants writer Andrew Baggarly. The point is that the Giants of 2010 were a Cinderella story, at least to their home city.
They won the division title on the last game of the season, but in reality the Giants had what you need to win in the postseason: lock-down starting pitching. Tim Lincecum was in his Freaking heyday. Matt Cain was in true workhorse form. Jonathan Sanchez posted his first and only sub-4 regular season ERA. And rookie Madison Bumgarner turned a solid first campaign into two postseason wins, the Giants winning each of his three starts. His spotless 8-inning, 3-hit start in the World Series that year was the first stepping stone in a historically great postseason career that now sees him with 3 rings and a record-low 0.25 World Series ERA.
But take a look at those names. Those guys are original Giants. Every one of them drafted by San Francisco and brought up through their system. A World Series winning homegrown rotation.
Simply put, the Giants don’t win in 2010 or, I’d argue, again in 2012 and 2014, if not for arguably the best farm system in the league. Aside from starting pitching, the Orange and Black have seen Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, Buster Posey, Brandons Belt and Crawford, and Joe Panik all contribute right away to championship teams.
Enter Matt Duffy. His year at AA Richmond in 2014 had been stellar: batting .332 in a very pitcher-friendly Eastern League. He and Jarrett Parker were called up in August to replenish a Giants lineup marred by injuries to starting 1B Brandon Belt and utility man Ehire Adrianza. Parker would flit between AAA and the Majors for the rest of the season and into this year, but Duffy wouldn’t see a pitch of AAA ball until an Achilles injury this year required him to rehab with the River Cats.
Now, Giants fans are a sentimental bunch. I think we get it from our ownership and manager. And to be honest, I’m not sure if that sentimentality is a product of the last almost-decade of winning teams, or if it’s the cause of that success. But whatever the reason, the Giants have found a way to win that has involved in recent years very little trading away of Major League talent. Prior to Matt Duffy being traded to the Rays at the deadline a few days ago, the last time the Giants traded away a Major League player was in 2013, when Conor Gillespie went to the White Sox. Gillespie hasn’t had Duffy’s impact, but he’s also since returned to the Giants, playing in 64 games this year for a squad literally decimated with injuries, especially in the infield.
But Duffy is the underdog everyone loves. A former Long Beach State Dirtbag, as his Twitter profile proudly proclaims, he hit just .253 in college. Importantly, he was kept on the team for his defense at shortstop. The Giants drafted him in 2012, making him the 568th overall pick that year. He hit better in the minors than he had in college, amassing a .302 batting average as he worked his way from Salem-Kaizer all the way to AA Richmond. The Flying Squirrels would be his last stop before his call-up to the Show.
But what garnered him real notice from Giants fans, despite his having just 60 at-bats and batting .267 after being called up, was a single weird play in the 2014 NLCS. In a Game 2 the Giants would eventually lose to the Cardinals, backup catcher Andrew Susac singled with one out in the top of the 9th against closer Trevor Rosenthal. Duffy pinch ran for the slow-footed backstop, and fellow rookie Juan Pérez singled to put him into scoring position. Rosenthal, who had thrown just a single wild pitch all season, managed to get ball four to Joe Panik by Yadier Molina. Molina lost the ball, and Duffy scored all the way from second base to tie the game. At 23, he was the youngest player on the Giant’s 25-man postseason roster.
The rest of Duffy’s postseason was pedestrian. He had 1 hit in 7 at-bats, though he made the most of it — scoring from second on a Buster Posey single in Game 4 of the World Series. But he would receive a ring at the ceremony the next spring in San Francisco, after earning a spot on the Opening Day roster with a stellar performance in Spring Training.
Duffy would eventually earn a starting spot, learning third base at the Major League level while hitting well enough to supplant 2015 Giants signing Casey McGehee. Duffy ended up starting 129 games at the hot corner. In a season that saw a continuance of the club’s odd-year woes — they failed to make the playoffs for the third time after as many World Series titles — Duffy was a bright spot. He finished the season having played in 149 games, hitting .295 with 28 doubles. His 12 home runs won him the Turtle Race with teammate Joe Panik, who hit 8 dingers in a 100-game campaign that was ended early due to a spinal fracture.
He almost won the Rookie of the Year award in the National League. Unfortunately, another third baseman by the name of Kris Bryant exceeded the rookie limit in 2015 as well, and though he trailed Duffy in both average and hit totals, he hit for more power. This is where Giants fans will argue with you a little. Bryant was an established third baseman coming into 2015, while Duffy had been drafted and developed as a shortstop. Duffy had played 339 games in the minors before being called up, and just 3 of them had been at third base. He’d seen 8 chances at the position in his entire professional career. His workload was greater than Bryant’s, and yet Duffy outhit him in terms of average, hits, and strikeouts (Bryant K’d almost 200 times in 2015). But most awards that go to hitters are decided by power numbers. Duffy is unlikely to ever be a power threat, let alone the slugger Bryant is likely to become. Bryant hit over twice as many home runs as Duffy did in 2015, and he won the Rookie of the Year award in the NL with 100% of the vote.
Duffy was the final piece of a completely homegrown Giants infield. Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, Matt Duffy, and Buster Posey are all Giants draft picks. And despite the Giants’ struggles in 2015, they were elite. Their .987 fielding percentage was second only to the division champion LA Dodgers. In the middle of the season, baseball pundits around the country wondered if the Giants infield, who averaged just 26 years of age, would be the best infield in baseball for the next decade. With Belt and Crawford signing long-term contracts, and Duffy and Panik under team control for several years, it seemed more of a probability than a possibility.
But baseball is a business. And the Giants, who have struggled mightily since the All-Star break, have more depth in the infield than anywhere else on the diamond. They acquired Eduardo Núñez from the Twins, Ehire Adrianza is due to return from the disabled list, and Christian Arroyo may see himself called up in the coming months. Hell, even Conor Gillespie has been producing in his limited time at third. What the Giants needed at the trade deadline was pitching. Matt Moore is the left-handed 3rd or 4th starter the Giants needed to spell an aged Jake Peavy and a (hopefully) recovering Matt Cain. And relative to the starting pitching market, given what Moore is capable of, he was a steal at the cost of two prospects and a 2nd-year 3B. The move made sense for a team trying to win another even-year title while hamstrung by a not-quite-good-enough pitching staff.
As someone who wants to see the Orange and Black bring a fourth Commissioner’s Trophy to SF City Hall, I understand why it had to happen. As a sentimental Giants fan who was stupidly proud of our homegrown infield, I’m also very melancholy.
We’ll miss the Duffman here in the Bay. Another title, though, might soften that blow.