The Rays Make a Smart Bet on Matt Duffy

After months of rumors, the Rays finally traded a starting pitcher, shipping Matt Moore to San Francisco in exchange for a three player package headlined by infielder Matt Duffy. Eno Sarris already talked about what the Giants are hoping they get in Moore, so let’s talk about what they gave up to upgrade their rotation with a young controllable starting pitcher.

The prospects in this deal are both interesting. Lucius Fox cost the Giants a $6 million signing bonus last year after being declared an international free agent, and we rated him as the Giants #3 prospect this spring, noting his upside as a high-end athlete who might hit. He’s not close to the big leagues, but there’s some real upside here, especially if he turns out to be an above-average defensive shortstop; you don’t have to hit that well to have value if you can field at that level.

The other prospect, Michael Santos, is your typical deadline trade chip; a projectable hard-thrower in A-ball, nowhere close to the big leagues, with about as wide a range of outcomes as you could imagine. We ranked Santos as the Giants #16 prospect back in the spring, and he’s pitched well (though without missing bats) this year, so there’s some value there, though like Fox, he’s a long ways away.

But there’s one piece of the trade that isn’t a long-term project. While they got two A-ball lottery tickets in the deal, they also got back a big league infielder who put up a +5 WAR season last year. And more than anything else, this deal will probably be decided by the answer to the question: what is Matt Duffy, really?

18 months ago, Duffy was considered a fringe prospect, a guy who scouts looked at as a bench guy if he made it to the big leagues. Here’s what Kiley McDaniel wrote about him last summer, during his breakout season, when he was forced to reevaluate his previous assessment of Duffy’s abilities.

Another interesting element of this list is to compare players who are similar in value now that weren’t close entering the year, like numbers 15 and 16 on this list, Matt Duffy and Jorge Soler. Since age, track record, contracts and other factors come into play beyond just the PV/FV grade, I can’t say this perfectly maps to trade value, but to say before the season that Soler and Duffy could be near each other seemed impossible. For reference, Duffy’s 40+ FV grade would’ve ranked him in the 700-800 range on a prospect list entering the season, if I went that deep, and Soler was 14th.

Some in the game categorize successful big-league players as those with and without prospect hype. Corey Kluber and Gerrit Cole are giving their teams similar value this year and one of them was a top prospect in his age group at around 17 and every year since then, while the other could’ve been acquired for little until he turned 27 and emerged as an asset. One of the first things I wrote for FanGraphs was admitting this sort of player (and others) often are overlooked. This kind of list and others like it trying to capture true talent level and upside will help you more quickly notice when a Matt Duffy, Matt Carpenter or Matt Shoemaker is emerging, since you can notice when he starts passing hyped prospects that you’d otherwise just assume are better without investigating.

This list is also another way to attempt to get things more transparent and accountable with my rankings. The Duffy/Soler example is more of an outlier than an example of a blind spot (or so I think right now), but it’s a perfect example of the sort of thing at which the rankings media doesn’t re-visit often enough.

In the span of a few months, Kiley noted that Duffy raised his profile from something like the 700th best prospect in baseball to a top-15 prospect, putting him right behind guys like Blake Swihart and Eduardo Rodriguez on that write-up. Duffy fit the Matt Carpenter mold almost perfectly, as a high-contact 2B/3B who developed enough power to hit better than expected, and then turned out to be a pretty great defender as well.

The Giants have had a history of developing guys like this, with Joe Panik and Brandon Crawford also turning into better big leaguers than they were minor leaguers, so Duffy’s emergence wasn’t entirely new for the franchise. But there’s also always some lingering some skepticism with these guys, as they don’t really have the kinds of tools that generally go along with the level of production their numbers suggest they put up, and it takes a long track record before people start accepting that they really are terrific players.

Duffy’s track record remains quite short, and in 2016, his profile looks something like the regression-to-the-mean you might have expected if you remained skeptical based on his lack of physical skills. After running a 116 wRC+ last year, he’s put up just an 88 wRC+ this year, with his ISO and BABIP both going the wrong way. At that level of offense, Duffy can be seen as Juan Uribe on a diet, or the current version of Chase Headley. If Duffy is more like what he’s done this year, or what scouts thought he was prior to last season, then this is a perfectly reasonable trade for the Giants, and he can be replaced by what they have internally, especially after acquiring Eduardo Nunez last week.

But 2015 happened, and it happened not that long ago. For 612 plate appearances, Duffy was an above-average big league hitter, while both UZR and DRS loved his work at third base, as did Giants fans in filling out the Fans Scouting Report. His defense was even good enough for the Giants to give him some reps at shortstop, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s graded out as a high-end third baseman. If he’s really a legitimate gold-glove caliber defender, even an average bat makes him a very nice contributor, and when he’s hitting like he did last year, he’s a cornerstone player.

25-year-olds coming off +5 WAR seasons aren’t traded too often, and they definitely aren’t traded as one part of a pacakge for a mid-rotation starter who hasn’t lived up to expectations. By including Duffy in this deal, the Giants seem to be betting on 2015 being the outlier, more of a fluke than a legitimate breakout. If they’re right — and they’ve mostly been right when it comes to trading away their own players of late — then the Rays might be getting more of a nice role player than a core starter for the future. So let’s try and figure out what Matt Duffy might do going forward.

To start, we should note that the projections remain a bit skeptical of his offensive abilities. Both ZIPS and Steamer’s rest-of-season forecasts call for a 98 wRC+, a bit worse than his MLB-to-date career numbers. You don’t usually see players at this point in their career expected to perform worse than they have previously, but Duffy’s 105 wRC+ is propped up by a .321 BABIP that both systems expect to come down a little bit, especially since the most recent data we have pushes back against the idea that Duffy can run higher-than-average BABIPs on a consistent basis. As a low-to-moderate power guy who doesn’t walk, a near-average BABIP for Duffy means his value will almost entirely depend on how much contact he makes, and since he’s not an elite strikeout-avoider like Daniel Murphy or Jose Altuve, he’s projected as roughly an average hitter.

But there might be some reasons to think he could do better than those forecasts suggest. Back in April, Eno noted that Duffy hits a lot of baseballs in the ideal range of launch angles, and that particular leaderboard was chalk-full of guys who became much better hitters than they were projected as coming up through the minors. It’s worth copying that leaderboard into this post, for reference.

Percent of Balls in Play in Ideal Launch Angle Leaders
Rk. Player Results Total Balls in Play % of BIP
1 J.D. Martinez 48 421 11.4%
2 Brandon Belt 33 349 9.5%
3 Paul Goldschmidt 39 422 9.2%
4 Brandon Crawford 36 392 9.2%
5 Bryce Harper 35 394 8.9%
6 Jose Bautista 38 445 8.5%
7 Kyle Seager 45 529 8.5%
8 Matt Carpenter 35 427 8.2%
9 Jay Bruce 36 440 8.2%
10 Matt Duffy 39 480 8.1%
11 Chase Headley 36 448 8.0%
12 Ian Kinsler 44 549 8.0%
13 Angel Pagan 34 425 8.0%
14 Adrian Gonzalez 37 464 8.0%
15 David Ortiz 35 441 7.9%
16 Mike Trout 33 422 7.8%
17 Joey Votto 32 411 7.8%
18 Evan Longoria 37 481 7.7%
19 Josh Donaldson 38 499 7.6%
20 Logan Forsythe 33 435 7.6%
21 Ender Inciarte 35 473 7.4%
22 Brian Dozier 36 488 7.4%
23 Daniel Murphy 34 466 7.3%
24 Neil Walker 32 441 7.3%
25 Mookie Betts 38 524 7.3%
26 Curtis Granderson 31 431 7.2%
27 Albert Pujols 38 532 7.1%
28 Adrian Beltre 34 510 6.7%
29 Buster Posey 34 511 6.7%
30 Michael Brantley 32 483 6.6%
SOURCE: Statcast
Minimum 30 balls in play in 2015.

Carpenter is the easy comparison, and of course he shows up there, but that list is a veritable who’s who of where-did-that-power-come-from guys. Brantley! Betts! Murphy! These are encouraging names, if you want to think Duffy’s 2015 success was somewhat sustainable despite skepticism based on his tools. But I think there are two names on there that probably are even more encouraging to the Rays.

Kyle Seager is up there, and he had almost exactly the same profile coming up as Duffy, down to the idea that he had a second baseman’s bat and a third baseman’s glove. He got to the big leagues as a 23 year old with an average bat, but each year, he has added more and more power, and now he’s established himself as a solid +4 WAR player; nobody looks at Seager as a guy who is too little to be an impact third baseman anymore. We shouldn’t project Seager’s power growth onto Duffy — for one, Seager just hits way more fly balls — but he is a good example of how this kind of player can develop power to round out an already strong base of skills.

The other example is Logan Forsythe, who will now be Duffy’s teammate with the Rays. Forsythe came up to San Diego, didn’t hit for much power, and was basically a utility player until he got to Tampa Bay and figured out how to start driving the ball consistently. Up until last year, Forsythe had a .108 ISO, and he didn’t control the strike zone well enough to make up for it, so he had a career 85 wRC+ through age-27.

Since the start of the 2015 season, however, Forsythe has run a .167 ISO and a .323 BABIP, so his wRC+ has spiked up to 121, making him one of the game’s better-hitting middle infielders. The Rays are almost certainly looking at Duffy as another Forsythe, a guy they can buy low on and establish as a quality hitter at an up-the-middle position. And if Duffy adds power in the same way that Forsythe adds power, he’d have a chance at being a legitimate star.

Of course, these are the optimistic comparisons; not every underpowered corner infielder figures out how to drive the ball. Headley looked like he had figured it out in 2012, when he launched 31 homers, but then he hit 4 the next season, and immediately went back to being Chase Headley. Josh Harrison appeared to have a monster breakout season in 2014, but has given back all his power gains since then, and once again looks more like a utility player than a star. Those are definitely possible outcomes for Duffy as well.

But it’s worth noting that Headley and Harrison have still been at least average hitters, and if that’s your downside, well, that’s a pretty nice floor. And clearly, there’s upside if Duffy hits for enough power to be an offensive asset. For the Rays, this looks like they bought low on a guy who is an average player at worst, and could be a star if he develops like some other undersized, low-tools contact hitters have recently.

But there’s also a real question of how he fits in Tampa long term. Evan Longoria seems entrenched at third base, at least for now, and pushing Forsythe from second base to first base means that some defensive value is being wasted on the Rays infield. With Forsythe signed through 2018 and Longoria under contract through 2022 (with an option for 2023), it seems possible that Duffy was acquired with an eye towards more moves in the future.

If Duffy comes to Tampa and hits, it’s possible the Giants just traded Moore for Longoria’s replacement. Or perhaps they see Duffy as a guy who can be a better defensive second baseman than Forsythe, and will flip him to a team looking for cheap offense this winter. Long-term, it doesn’t seem likely that the Rays will keep all three, and Duffy gives them some options. And, of course, he might not hit well enough to convince the team to move either one.

But as a guy with some legitimate contact skills and some real defensive value, Duffy’s an interesting player even if 2015 goes down as his career year. Even if he’s just Martin Prado with a better glove, that’s still a nice player, and a guy the Rays should be pretty thrilled to get back for a starting pitcher they didn’t really need. And if Duffy wasn’t just a creation of the Giants Magical Infielder Production System, and there’s some more power to be unlocked in the future, well, this could go down as a terrific deal for the Rays.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

Lucius Fox to commute to Rays spring training in Cespedesian style, showcasing a different Wayne Enterprises vehicle each day