SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The rules are different in March. Big leaguers get their two or three at-bats, run a few sprints on the warning track, and then head home as prospects finish the game.
It’s an established tradition in Giants camp, one that keeps big names fresh when games don’t matter so that they’re going strong when they matter the most. But what if you’ve played more big league games in October than you have in March?
Matt Duffy has found himself in that unique position this month.
Duffy and Brandon Crawford were removed midway through a road game in Peoria earlier in camp and as Crawford headed for the clubhouse, Duffy asked Crawford what he should do: Stay through nine like a prospect or head home early like a big leaguer. The answer isn’t in a guidebook. Not many players get fitted for a World Series ring before their first big league camp.
“Little things like that remind me that I am pretty new to all this,” Duffy said. “It does make you think a little bit about how far you’ve come and how far you still want to go.”
Duffy’s meteoric rise in 2014 is a bit hard to fathom. Having reached High-A near the end of the 2013 season, he was in minor league camp last spring and then was sent to Double-A Richmond, where he looked locked in for a full season. He played just 97 games there before a surprise promotion to the big leagues at the trade deadline, and although he was removed from the Giants for one day during a roster churn, he never went back to the minors. Duffy made eight appearances in the postseason, the most memorable being a mad dash from second to the plate on a wild pitch during the NLCS.
The 24-year-old has played just 26 games at High-A, 97 in Double-A (where he hit .332) and none in Triple-A, yet he’s making a strong push to be on the Opening Day roster. Through Sunday’s game, Duffy is hitting .387 with two homers, three doubles and a triple that nudge his OPS to 1.166. Beyond the numbers, coaches love Duffy’s speed off the bench and the fact that he’s a tough out who can defensively handle second, short and third, and possibly the outfield in a pinch.
“You like his swing. It’s a simple swing with great balance, and he uses the whole field,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “It’s a tough (Double-A) league he was in last year and to do what he did is pretty impressive. This kid can hit. He battles up there. There are no at-bats that he gives away. He's going to grind you and fight you all the way through the at-bat. I think that's why he's had so much success.
“I threw him against some pretty good arms last year late in the ballgame and he had some pretty good at-bats. He has a lot of confidence and poise."
Bochy believes pinch-hitting is just about the toughest thing you can ask a young player to do, but Duffy was 6 for 15 in the role last season, driving in six runs. On Sept. 17, he hit a two-run single off Diamondbacks closer Addison Reed to give the Giants a win in the ninth. Duffy credits Shawon Dunston with giving him a tip he uses to prepare for pinch-hit appearances. Dunston told him that when you’re a pinch-hitter, you need to treat the first swing of your afternoon BP session seriously.
“Once you get in a game, that might be your only swing,” Duffy said. “Whenever I took BP in the past, the first round has been to get loose and hit the ball all over the field. But if I’m not starting, I take that first swing much more seriously. Little things like that get you in that mode of being ready right off the bat.”
Duffy could start the season in the same role, although his odds of lining up at Chase Field on Opening Day are hurt by the fact that Joaquin Arias is on a guaranteed deal and Ehire Adrianza is out of minor league options. If he’s headed for Triple-A for the first time, Duffy will be ready for that, too. He has prepared on dual tracks this spring. If he’s in the starting lineup on a given day, Duffy goes through a normal pregame workout in the morning. If he’s coming off the bench, he adjusts his daily routine and prepares as he would for a pinch-hit role.
On all days, Duffy works religiously on the finer points of playing multiple infield spots. A shortstop by trade, Duffy feels comfortable with the view and throw from third base, since it’s on the same side of the field. He feels his double-play turn at second is the play that needs the most work.
“It’s just the little things he’s working on — there’s nothing big that he needs to do, nothing glaring,” said Ron Wotus, who coaches the infielders. “He has the ability. He hasn’t played much, but this guy can play anywhere. In a perfect world, he would have played more second and third in the minors. We’re trying to expedite his development. Learning those positions at the major league level is not easy. It takes time, reps and experience.”
Being a big leaguer also takes durability, and after the World Series the Giants asked Duffy to add about 15 pounds to his naturally slender frame. He was able to put on about 10, weighing in at 180 last month after finishing the 2014 season in the 160s. The gain wasn’t easy for a guy with a high metabolism. Duffy was snacking all day, every day in the offseason, setting alarms on his phone after meals so that he would remember to have another energy bar or banana 90 minutes later.
“Basically, if I ever felt hungry, I had waited too long. That was the goal,” he said. “It’s exhausting to eat that much, and to feel full constantly is not a good feeling.”
It has paid off, though. Duffy said he feels “sturdier” this spring, with throws coming out of his hand better and the ball jumping off his bat a little bit more. That increased strength was clear Sunday when Duffy hit a solo homer to a left-field berm that had been visited by Albert Pujols earlier in the inning.
Duffy said he hopes to make it a difficult decision for management when it's time to set the roster, and with April 6 fast approaching, he's doing just that.
“You always want to break with your best club because it’s important to get off to a good start,” Bochy said. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but he’s gotten a lot of playing time for that reason. These guys are being evaluated every day.”