Over the past half decade, the San Francisco Giants have found ways of getting meaningful contributions out of players who were thought to be past their prime or not highly-regarded. This year, the Giants have nurtured the offensive development of three infielders who didn’t show much power before the major leagues, turning what might otherwise have been an average lineup into one of the best offenses in baseball.
Those three infielders are Matt Duffy, Brandon Crawford, and Joe Panik. Together they form three quarters of one of the most productive offensive infields in the game, and it’s fair to say not many people predicted that statement being made about the Giants before the start of the season. The stories behind Crawford and Panik’s breakouts have already been chronicled: through a few swing changes and pulling more fly balls, both Giants middle infielders have increased their power production by leaps and bounds this season. However, we can’t be terribly surprised by those two putting it together, as one was a highly-regarded prospect (Panik), and the other was a very good college player (Crawford).
The same cannot be said of Matt Duffy. An 18th round pick in the 2012 draft out of Long Beach State, Duffy tallied a total of 501 college at-bats, hitting zero home runs during them. Over parts of three years in the minors between 2012-2014, Duffy hit 13 home runs in 1,087 plate appearances: that’s a minor league home run rate of one every 84 plate appearances. To put it another way, Jose Altuve hit a home run, on average, every 77 plate appearances between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, so Duffy homered in the minors at a rate just below what Jose Altuve has for the past two seasons. Duffy was productive in other ways, however, showing doubles power and a nice balance of patience and limited strikeouts.
Then 2015 rolled around, and the 24-year-old forced himself into an everyday role over Casey McGehee by hitting everything in sight. Duffy had eight homers in the first half of the season, performing 27% better than the average major league hitter (while also barely showing his stolen base ability). His average fly ball and home run distance currently sits at 297 feet, ranking 34th in the majors — just behind Andrew McCutchen. That power explosion, coupled with his above average defensive work (something he was known for dating back to his college days), have put him in very good company among rookies in 2015. Take a look at the top 10 rookies in the first half of the season by Wins Above Replacement: