SAN FRANCISCO — Matt Duffy walked slowly to his locker and turned back toward the field after playing his 118th consecutive game. The next day was — finally — a day off. Duffy wouldn’t show up early for the defensive drills that turned a reserve middle infielder into a Gold Glove finalist at third. He would not have to tape up a sprained ankle that he played through because he had no backup. He wouldn’t be counted on to spark a depleted lineup.
The next day would be the start of the offseason, Duffy’s first as a big league starter. He smiled as he talked about a phenomenally successful rookie season, and then he turned the focus forward.
What does Matt Duffy do for an encore?
“I’m excited not to see what I can do, but to see what the whole lineup can do,” he said. “We saw glimpses and it was scary. It was encouraging and exciting. I’m really pumped to see what we can do.”
[RELATED: Giants' Duffy falls short in NL Rookie of the Year voting]
Regardless of what they do in left field, the 2016 Giants should have one of the best lineups in baseball, and Duffy, who turns 25 in January, will be right in the middle of it. A month after he earned a full-time job, Duffy was put in the No. 3 spot to give the lineup a spark. It should be no surprise that he ran with the job, because that’s what he’s been doing since the moment he was called up. Duffy was just supposed to be a fill-in after the deadline in 2014, but he became a staff favorite right away and earned a bench role on an eventual champion. He wasn’t supposed to be on the Opening Day roster this year, but the Giants couldn’t send him back to the minors after a big spring. He wasn’t supposed to be a starter, but when Casey McGehee got off to a slow start, Duffy's bat helped make the decision an easy one.
Duffy didn’t give manager Bruce Bochy a chance to reshape the lineup a second time. After the June 21 promotion to the three-spot, the Giants played just two games without Duffy batting in the top third of the lineup. He hit third a team-high 67 times and finished the year with a .295 average, 12 homers, 28 doubles, six triples, 77 runs, 77 RBI and a dozen steals in as many chances. That production earned Duffy a runner-up finish in the National League Rookie of the Year results announced Monday. Duffy, who had the second-highest WAR (5.0) for an NL rookie in the last eight seasons, finished second to the Cubs’ Kris Bryant (6.5 WAR), getting second-place votes on 22 of 30 ballots and finishing third on four others.
Just as Duffy is excited to see what the 2016 lineup accomplishes, teammates and coaches are ready to see what their third baseman can do as a sophomore.
“He’s going to hit 15-20 homers (down the line), that’s the type of hitter he is,” Bochy said. “I just think it’s going to get better and better with him.”
“You don’t find everyday big leaguers in the middle of the lineup,” right fielder Hunter Pence said, noting Duffy’s durability. “That’s one of the bright spots of this year: Matt Duffy. And he’s going to get better.”
Pence said he’s excited to see what Duffy does with additional strength, and for Duffy, that’s one of the keys to this offseason. He set alarms on his phone last winter so that he would eat something -- often a banana or energy bar -- every 90 minutes, hoping to gain the 15 pounds asked for by the team’s training staff. Duffy gained 10 and came to camp at 180, but it was tough keeping that weight up during the most grueling summer of his life. He hit between .301 and .316 from May through August, but dropped to .269 over the final month, with a .676 OPS that was nearly 100 points below his total for the season.
“This last month was a grind physically,” Duffy said after his final game. “I’m going to try and put on weight, get stronger overall.”
The second goal is the key one. While teammates teased Duffy for being outweighed by his cat (part of that is Skeeter’s fault), the Giants don’t actually want him to fill out much. Bochy compared him to former Giants catcher Benito Santiago, who caught 151 games one year early in his career.
“Those guys who are built like that, they’re durable,” Bochy said. “They go out there every day for you.”
Front offices spend much of their time projecting how athletes will look as they get older, but Giants strength and conditioning coordinator Carl Kochan said the staff doesn’t want Duffy to change much.
“That’s what makes him special and unique, is his ability to harness that athleticism,” Kochan said. “It's about finding that gentle balance between adding muscle and keeping him wiry and explosive and keeping and having that bat speed.”
Duffy said he’ll focus on strengthening his legs and core, and he also wants to increase his grip strength. The offseason work won’t be limited to conditioning, though.
“I think there are a couple of things I can get better at with my swing,” he said. “I’ll try to be more consistent with those things.”
That’s a scary thought for National League pitchers, and if Duffy can keep progressing at the plate, he could join Bryant on another ballot next year. A third baseman who plays Gold Glove-caliber defense and hits .300 with 15 to 20 homers would end up on a lot of MVP ballots. Duffy certainly should get an opportunity to pile up numbers next year; he’ll start 2016 with the National League’s longest games played streak and the Giants don’t intend to slow him down. Duffy never looks like he needs a break, and Bochy took to calling him "a savior" and "a delight" because he never had to worry about his third baseman in a season wrecked by injuries.
“He was ready to play,” catcher Buster Posey said. “You didn't hear him complain or make excuses. He’s just a ballplayer.”
Duffy intends to become a more complete one. He set the bar high as a rookie, and did so after spending spring training and the first two months of the season fighting for time. Now he's finally locked into a big league lineup, and it’s a good feeling.
“I’m more confident going into next year, and that’s a big thing,” Duffy said. “But I’m also not comfortable. I want to keep getting better.”