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Tampa Bay Rays Season Preview: Reintroducing Matt Duffy

Matt Duffy is stepping into some big shoes over at third base. Will his feet hold up?

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Duffy came to the Rays in 2016 as the major league portion of the return for former top prospect/heartbreaker Matt Moore. Duffy was dinged at the time, having missed the entire month of July, but once healthy, the righty-swinging third baseman was expected to take over as the Rays everyday shortstop, a position he played extensively in the minors.

The experiment lasted for about a month before injuries resurfaced, as Duffy never quite got “healthy” and everybody decided it would be best to get his barking heel fixed permanently with surgery.

Well, permanently is maybe not the right word...

You are excused if you rolled your eyes when you heard that Duffy missed about a week this Spring with “back tightness.” Because...well, come on!

Everyone who isn’t a newborn Rays fan knows what happened to Duffy last year, so I don’t want to re-live it. But the good news — should you choose to believe it — is that Rays tell us that this year will be different, because Matt is in the Best Shape Of His Life and he’s really Fixed now, that back thing is nothing to worry about, honest, you guys, we pinkie-swear promise.

So, assuming all that is actually true...

Who is Matt Duffy?

It feels like the Duffman has been around forever, but he only has one full and injury-free season in the Bigs: 2015, when he finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting. That year, his 113 wRC+ hitting and solid third base play over 149 games helped him put together 4.7 fWAR, and aided San Francisco in an odd-year second place finish in the NL West.

Of course, the memories Giant’s fans have of Duffy go back a touch farther than that, to his amazingly large cat, Skeeter, (Rest in Peace, you glorious feline), and to at least this Game Two scamper against the Cards during their most recent even-year triumph:

Prior to finding success with the Giants, Duffy was a defensive standout at Long Beach State, starting all over the infield. His bat lagged behind however, and he wasn’t taken until the 18th round of the 2012 draft.

Duffy didn’t fully break out until his age 22 season with the San Jose Giants in the California League. His rise with San Francisco was quick after that, landing him in a utility role with the big club by August 2014, and leading him to take over as the regular third baseman when Pablo Sandoval left for the Red Sox in 2015, having been blocked at short by Brandon Crawford.

Where Will Matt Duffy Play?

A lot (and nothing) has happened in the two years since. After an injury-impacted 2016 with the Giants, the aforementioned experiment at shortstop with the Rays, and the lost 2017 season, we can expect to see Duffy back at the hot corner for the Rays in 2018, thanks to last year’s acquisition of defensive wiz Adeiny Hechavarria.

How long that lasts is an open question.

The Rays acquired Duffy believing he could be their everyday short stop, and his month of play showed they were right. His arm and his instincts are next level on the left side of the infield. But Hechavarria also has next level elements to his defense, including incredible footwork at short, so he continues to hold down the position for now.

With both Wily Adames and Christian Arroyo knocking on the door, it’s not clear whether Duffy will stick at third or bump over to short or second. He has a few years left on his rookie contract though, so expect him to share the infield with those two in 2019... somewhere.

Okay, enough about where he’s gonna bring it. What, exactly, does Matt Duffy bring?

What Does Matt Duffy Have to Offer?

The projection systems don’t love Duffy, probably because they are just as skeptical about his health as you are. Steamer sees a .267/.320/.388 slash line with a 92 wRC+, while ZIPS projects a .257/.308/.387 and 87 wRC+. This would be good enough for about the 20th best hitting second baseman and 22nd best hitting third baseman last year.

Duffy profiles as a high contact guy with only modest power, mostly because he doesn’t hit a ton of fly balls. For his career, his fly ball percentage is way down there at 27.2% (league average is around 35%). Of course, he hasn’t really been around much during the “fly ball revolution” or baseball’s recent obsession with launch angles, so it will be interesting to see what changes for him this season.

But here’s something fun from Eno Sarris back in April 2016: Apparently Matt Duffy was hip to launch angles before launch angles were cool, finding the optimum launch angle at the tenth highest percentage in the league during the 2015 season. (Editor’s Note: The more you hear Duffy talk, the more he seems like the new Sam Fuld of the Rays)

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of data to work with to prove out those launch angles. What we do have show that Duffy’s ability to find the sweetspot took a dive during the injury-plagued 2016 season. But even so, he still turned a top-50 season as far as launch angles go.

It seems what robs Duffy of homers isn’t launch angle, though. It’s exit velocity, which averages a pedestrian 87.6 mph for his career per Statcast.

So, can Duffy add a few more mph in exit velocity? If the heel/foot is fixed, maybe! (Also, getting out of the NL West probably won’t hurt.) No, he’ll never be Evan Longoria. But if he does add just a couple ticks, he could easily be a 20 homer guy. That just might lead this team.

Which is kind of sad.

And if he can’t?

Matt Duffy will always be a glove man first and foremost. In 2015 and 2016, he combined for 23 defensive runs saved at third base for the Giants, putting up 12.7 and 15.5 UZR/150, respectively.

Even during his brief stint at short for the Rays, he proved to be more than adequate, accumulating a 6.9 UZR/150 and managing to stay even money in DRS over 153 innings. There is no reason to believe he has lost anything at third, or that his glove won’t translate to plus play at second base.

So regardless of how he hits, we can hope to see lots of this:

And this:

And this:

You know, assuming Joe Benge doesn’t run out of bubble wrap.