SAN FRANCISCO — Matt Duffy will surely be announced as a Rookie of the Year finalist next month. Award season started early for the young third baseman on Friday night.
Duffy is the 2015 winner of the Willie Mac Award, given annually to the most inspirational player on the team. The award, named for Hall of Famer Willie McCovey, is voted on by players, coaches, training staff and fans. Duffy is the first rookie to win in the 35-year history of the award.
"I couldn't be more honored to have my name alongside several of the past winners tonight," Duffy said during the ceremony. "I'd like to thank the Giants organization, the coaching staff, my teammates, my family and all the coaches who taught me how to play the game the right way. They taught me that if you put in the time and the preparation, good things will come."
After giving a short speech and taking a picture with past winners, Duffy got a big hug from his dad, Tom, who recorded the ceremony with a camcorder and lovingly spent most of his night recording his son's every move. Duffy's mom and sister are traveling in Europe right now, but his sister texted him a "wish we could be there" message early Friday. That confused Matt, who didn't know he had won the Willie Mac Award and wondered why they would want to be at a late-season game against the Rockies.
Winning came as a shock to Duffy, who listed Javier Lopez, Brandon Crawford, Tim Hudson and Jeremy Affeldt among the many players who were deserving of the honor. Why did Duffy win?
"I'm going to turn it around and give the credit to the veterans," he said. "They've made my transition so much easier when they're as welcoming as they are. It really allows you to relax and play hard and play the game the way you were taught. I don't have a family but a lot of these guys do and they spend more time with us than their families sometimes. For them to recognize me is special."
Duffy, a surprise contributor down the stretch last season, wasn’t even expected to make the club out of spring training. But the Giants had little choice after Duffy dominated the Cactus League and worked hard every day to learn how to handle third (he came up as a shortstop), first and even the outfield. He made the opening day roster and hit so well in April and May that management again had no choice but to demote the struggling Casey McGehee and give Duffy a full-time job.
He hasn’t looked back since and has barely even taken a day off. Duffy leads the National League with 116 consecutive starts, a streak that is expected to carry into next season. The longtime National League iron man, Hunter Pence, believes Duffy’s durability has been one of his best traits.
“He’s definitely got that grit,” Pence said. “It’s tough to do. It’s very valuable to have the ability to do that. You don’t find everyday big leaguers in the middle of the lineup very often. That’s been one of the bright spots of this year, the emergence of Matt Duffy.”
Duffy has been much more than just an everyday player, however. He’s been an everyday force. He leads the National League with 89 hits since the All-Star break and his 46 extra base hits are the most by a Giants rookie since Chili Davis had 52 in 1982. Entering play Friday, the 24-year-old had a .298 average, 12 homers, 76 RBI, 12 stolen bases and a .770 OPS. He is second among NL rookies and 11th in the National League with 4.9 wins above replacement.
Throughout, Duffy has shown the toughness that made him such a clubhouse favorite from the moment he was called up last August. He played through an ankle injury for several days when the Giants didn’t have a backup infielder and couldn’t afford another injury, and when Kenley Jansen buzzed him with a high fastball on Wednesday night, Duffy responded by smacking a single up the middle and then immediately stealing second base.
"It's how he plays, every pitch, every at-bat, the way he runs the bases the way he plays defense," Bruce Bochy said, listing off Duffy's attributes. "He hasn't had a break in a while. He has all (his teammates') respect."
Duffy is the sixth current Giant to win the Willie Mac Award, joining Matt Cain (2009), Ryan Vogelsong (2011), Buster Posey (2012), Pence (2013) and Madison Bumgarner (2014). He watched former winners come in from an outfield gate and realize the magnitude of the award.
"As they were introducing everybody, I didn't realize the company I was in," he said. "I got to pause and think about that. It was pretty cool. I'm extremely honored."