Another successful rookie this spring is playing for the San Francisco Giants: infielder Matt Duffy, deployed primarily at third base but with a few innings at shortstop, second base, and even first base. He's hitting well too: .294/.344/.441 with wRC+124, OPS+122, 10/34 BB/K in 194 plate appearances. Solid hitting and defense combine to give him a 1.7 fWAR so far, ranking him third among position player rookies with only Joc Pederson of the Dodgers (3.2) and Kris Bryant of the Cubs (2.7) ahead of him.
Giants fans were well-aware of Duffy of course from his play late in the 2014 season. On a national basis he earned some notice for scoring the tying run (from second base) on a wild pitch in Game Two of the NLCS.
Still, he didn't have a guaranteed job entering 2015 and didn't rate highly on most prospect lists. This is explained by his background, first with this comment from the 2014 Baseball Prospect Book:
Matt Duffy was an 18th round pick in 2012 out of Long Beach State. He was a punchless gloveman in college and again in the Northwest League after signing, but in ’13 he suddenly developed more offense and had a very good year in Low-A and Double-A, combining steady defense with contact hitting, occasional pop, good on-base skills, and valuable use of speed on the bases. Duffy had a good summer in the Cape Cod League in ’11, so his ’13 success isn’t completely out of nowhere. I think he’d make a good utility infielder. Grade C but there’s some chance he can go David Eckstein on us and have a long career.
Duffy was terrific in the Double-A Eastern League in '14, hitting .332/.398/.442 and earning his way onto the Giants roster for the stretch run. His status entering 2015:
Matt Duffy remained hot in 2014 and had another excellent year, winning the Eastern League batting title by 12 points over his nearest competitor. He continued to show solid line drive hitting skills, good strike zone judgment, good use of speed on the bases, and a reliable glove at shortstop. He doesn’t have outstanding arm strength or range, but he catches what he gets to and doesn’t screw up very often, exactly what managers like in a utility infielder. A long career seems more likely now, at least as a bench guy, and there is still some chance Duffy could be a taller, more physical David Eckstein and play regularly under certain conditions. Grade C+.
Those Eckstein comps are not meant on a physical basis: David was just 5-8 and Duffy is much taller at 6-2; as athletes they are quite different. But in terms of expected performance, that might hold up. Duffy has a bit more power while Eckstein drew more walks and stole more bases, but the batting averages and OBPs could be close: Eckstein hit .280/.345 in his major league career and Duffy is at .287/.333 thus far. In the minors, Eckstein hit .293/.414/.390 with an 804 OPS. Duffy has hit .304/.387/.413, 800 OPS to this point.
Another parallel: both were late-round picks from major college programs, Duffy an 18th round choice from Long Beach State while Eckstein was a 19th round selection from the University of Florida back in 1997. Both were respected for their defense and heady play, but doubts about their bats kept them from earlier draft slots.
In any event, can Duffy do what Eckstein did and have a 10-year career? I don't see why not. His glove is quite good, excellent so far at third base and workable at the other spots. Versatility by itself should give him a long utility career and as he's gotten stronger physically the bat has come around; he's not out of place as a regular with his current offensive production. Duffy has hit well for more than two years now and it looks less and less like a fluke.