The song is “Witchcraft,” by Frank Sinatra, and it was recorded 34 years before Matt Duffy was born. Yet somehow, in a Giants clubhouse that typically favors Juicy J’s “Bounce It” as a cranking-loud soundtrack, the ethereal bass clarinet works. It strikes a smooth, magical accompaniment as Duffy walks to his locker.
Besides, isn’t some sort of sorcery happening here?
“It’s been kind of cool,” he says, “a fun ride.”
Ride? Try a lunar mission, a hallucinogenic excursion. This time last summer, Duffy was playing shortstop for the Richmond Flying Squirrels of the Double-A Eastern League. He had three home runs, three more than he’d managed in his entire career at Long Beach State, which meant Giants scout Brad Cameron was gambling when he endorsed Duffy as an 18th-round draft pick — 568th overall — in 2012. Clearly, he wasn’t sneaking off to a strip mall to purchase performance-enhancing substances, as Bruce Bochy noticed upon meeting him.
“I thought he was the scarecrow from the `Wizard Of Oz.’ He was all bones,” he said of Duffy, who was 6 feet 2, perhaps 168 pounds and surely playing a prank as an underpaid, underfed member of the grounds crew.
But he was summoned to the big leagues anyway, last August, another middle infielder seemingly stamped from a clone mold that Brian Sabean has stashed in a warehouse somewhere. Joe Panik and Brandon Crawford were developed with ample pedigrees. Duffy? Since when did they let Lou Seal out of his mascot suit? Or was he just a techie who missed the shuttle bus to Cupertino? Seriously, why were the Giants force-feeding a kid who obviously symbolized the decline of their farm system? That’s what many of us wondered then.
Now? Matt Duffy is the No. 3 hitter and third baseman for a team gunning for its fourth World Series title in six years. He’s one of the best rookies in baseball and, most importantly, is having a considerably better season than the expanding man he replaced, Pablo Sandoval, even though Duffy will make $507,000 this year and Panda is in the first season of a five-year, $95 million deal in Boston. Not only has Duffy made his bosses look brilliant after they let Sandoval leave, he covered their asses when they first tried to install Casey McGehee, a colossal bust at third base. Buster Posey is the MVP of this operation, if not the entire National League, while Hunter Pence is the wild-haired turbine and Madison Bumgarner is the rock with the Ford truck. Yet without Duffy — who, astonishingly, has nine homers and 46 runs batted in and remained in the three hole Monday night even after Nori Aoki’s return to the lineup — the Giants wouldn’t be the hottest team in the majors, a 4-2 win over Milwaukee giving them 12 victories in 13 games.
And to think, only weeks ago, he was best known for a very large pet cat who became an Internet sensation. Skeeter has had his 15 minutes. Duffy has become the star of the household and one of the baseball season’s best stories.
“It’s fun to watch,” Posey said. “He’s obviously very talented, but he’s a smart baseball player who’s only going to get better. He understands the game, and he has an approach at the plate where he understands what the pitcher is trying to do to him. He’s going to make adjustments even quicker.”
“Duffy’s been awesome,” pitcher Tim Hudson raved. “He stepped into that three-hole and it hasn’t been too big of a moment for him.”
Said Bochy: “I just like the way he battles up there. He’s a tough out.”
He’s still thin, despite putting on 10 pounds, another reason he’s the antithesis of Sandoval. For all his popularity and all the Panda heads behind the dugout, for all the home runs in October 2012 and the final out last fall in Kansas City, Sabean and Bobby Evans made the absolute right call in easing his departure. They knew a quick, steep decline was possible for an overweight player who will turn 30 next summer, and sure enough, Sandoval is hitting .260 with seven homers and 32 RBI. As his waistline expands, his defense deteriorates, and with a .194 batting average and no homers against lefthanders, he has been platooned lately by the last-place Red Sox.
His successor at AT&T Park is batting .307, with a double and two singles Monday night. Duffy’s Wins Above Replacement measurement is 3.18, highest among NL rookies — including the heralded Joc Pederson and Kris Bryant —and 45th among all players and pitchers in the majors, right between Albert Pujols and Gerrit Cole. For someone who is learning how to play third base, he’s a quick study. He can steal bases, too. To call him a godsend is understating matters.
Gobsmack is more like it.
I ask him if he realizes his numbers are better than Sandoval’s. Still realizing he’s a rookie, still understanding his place in a constellation clubhouse, Duffy might prefer not answering the question. He does anyhow.
“I’ve been told that, yeah,” he says. “I don’t know. I don’t wish ill fortune on anybody, but I’m just trying to do what I can to help this team win. I’m not too worried about that. If he was in our division, I’d be a little focused on it, and it would directly affect us. But we’re just focused on what’s going on here.”
What’s going on here is a team “firing on all cylinders,” as Bochy says, with the front office smelling more playoff blood. The Giants are seeking a front-line pitcher to team with Bumgarner, whether it’s David Price (the Tigers are deciding whether to deal him) or Cole Hamels, the favored arm of the rival Dodgers. As I’ve written, ad nauseum, the Giants desperately need a dominant No. 2 starter to allow another outstanding rookie — Chris Heston, who is 11-5 after allowing two runs in seven innings Monday — to settle in the No. 3 role and keep up with the Dodgers, who could trot out Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke and Hamels in the playoffs. But while the Dodgers don’t know what they are offensively, the Giants have countered with a feisty, jabbing attack largely fueled by their all-homegrown infield, with Crawford (14th) and Panik (42nd) also major factors in WAR geekery.
Does he ever stop and think how much life has changed in a year?
“I was kind of thinking about it a little bit,” Duffy says. “But I’m definitely not satified. We want to do what we can to get back to where we finished last year. It also would be exciting to be in the lineup and experience something like that.”
Bochy, no fool, isn’t moving him out of the No. 3 hole until further notice, if at all. Something special is happening when Panik and Duffy are getting on base for Posey, in the league’s top five in batting average and RBI. “We’re doing pretty good right now,” Bochy said. “I don’t want to break up what’s going on with the batting order.”
As for Duffy’s suddenly dangerous power stroke, this is why the Giants are a special organization. It’s called attention to detail. They’ve refined his swing and developed his torque from the lower body, which makes Posey such a potent hitter. “It’s not really our approach to try to hit balls over the fence,” Duffy says. “When I try to do it, I usually get out. Whatever happens up there, happens. If the ball gets lifted a little and goes over the fence, that’s good.
“Just give it your best at-bat. Usually, good things happen.”
So many good things are happening for Matt Duffy, an extraordinary event takes place in front of his locker. Several questions are asked — and not one is about the fat cat.
All are about the big bat, as Sinatra plays on. Wicked witchcraft.