The 2016 baseball season is officially in full swing. To kick things off we spoke to one of last year's biggest breakout rookies, Matt Duffy. The third baseman didn’t hit a single home run in college, and in the 2012 draft was selected 568th overall. Last year he hit .295, including 12 homers, and was runner-up for National League Rookie of the Year. Duffy says he had a unique advantage when he landed in the majors: He was used to failing.
Here, he shared a few tips on everything from the funniest player to follow on Instagram to the aspects of the game most casual fans miss.
MF: Your breakout performance last year was pretty incredible—what do you attribute that success to?
MD: It was a combination of things. I gained a little weight, which helped with overall oomph, and I made some small swing adjustments with help from Bam-Bam [Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens]. 2014 vs. 2015, it’s not a huge change—just enough that a lot of those fly outs turned into homers.
People talk about what a rail-thin guy you are. Weren’t you trying to bulk up in the off-season?
I’m at 176, 177 right now. I don’t want to gain too much weight because you can lose strength and elasticity. I don’t want to change the way my body plays the game. And I’ve got an extremely fast metabolism—I have to set an alarm and eat something every hour and a half.
What sort of mental changes have you made?
When I was in college I hit no homers. I never hit above .266. Getting through that gave me an advantage over other guys in pro ball because, up to that point, most of them hadn’t dealt with that kind of failure. They didn’t know how to combat those feelings of insecurity.
How did you gain the clarity to channel that?
Actually, Ken Ravizza [professor of applied sports psychology at Long Beach State University at the time] taught me how to stop the downward spiral and turn those feelings around when you go 0 for 25. Baseball is based on confidence, so it’s all about what you do with each at bat to keep your confidence high.
So, how do you do that when you’re having a bad day at the plate?
Let’s say I strike out in my first at bat on a slider in the dirt. I haven’t done anything to help the team or myself, but I can say, “OK, I’m facing this pitcher again in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and two outs—and I’ve now seen his best out pitch.” So now he’s going to have to second-guess himself. I’m also a big fan of Harvey Dorfman’s book The Mental Keys to Hitting—I’ve read it so many times, I’ve got highlighter and tabs all over it.
What’s some of your favorite Dorfman wisdom?
Chapter 1 is all about how you’ve got to see the ball. There’s a difference between looking at the ball and actually seeing the ball. Chapter 7 talks about baseball as it relates to your life. Some guys take it as life or death. If you do that with a game that’s so based on failure, you’re going to lock yourself up, whereas if you enjoy what you do, you’re going to do it better. So, I ask myself: “Am I seeing the ball to the best of my ability?” And, “Am I enjoying this?”
Speed is a big part of your game. Is speed becoming more important in baseball as power numbers drop off?
Speed doesn’t slump, whether you’re hitting well or not that day or that week. I’m never going to be a burner, but if I can take just a couple of seconds off down the line, that’s a couple of hits a month.
What do you make of the unwritten rules against excessive celebration?
It’s a pretty touchy subject. I’m not one to do bat flips or throw my hands up in the air or whatever. But I’m not against players showing emotion—on both sides. I’m hard-nosed—just play the game, run hard, that’s it. And I think there’s a line, in terms of antagonizing the other team. I’m not a fan of hitting a homer and then staring down the pitcher.
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What MLB players do you enjoy following on social media?
On Instagram, Johnny Cueto's pretty entertaining. On Twitter, Dan Haren. He’s good at making fun of himself. I respect that.
Who has the best stuff in the league?
Kershaw has great stuff with exceptional command and we face him a ton. You got to be ready to hit every pitch because if makes a mistake it might be the only mistake he makes against you all year. Greinke has exceptional command. Best stuff? Arrieta. 95 mile and hour Wiffle Balls.
What’s something you think a lot of casual fans miss while watching major league baseball?
Adjustments that teams and players make during games. What do hitters do to make adjustments when a pitcher does something they’re having trouble with? The best players make adjustments in the middle of an at bat. Again, that hypothetical—maybe I got out on a slider in my first at bat. Fast forward to 4th inning, how does that pitcher attack and how I change? Do I lay off? Maybe it takes me two at bats. How do pitchers approach hitters the first time through the lineup versus the second and third time through?
I used to really enjoy writing when I was younger. I really enjoyed diary type stuff. I never stuck with it. I would make up stories pretty often. Just fiction stories. In 4th grade I made my own newspaper. All of it was fiction. At the time I thought that “breaking news” was something that was breaking—like a car accident or a train wreck. But baseball just kind of took over.
Bruce Bochy is almost certainly headed to the hall of fame. What’s it like playing for him?
He's not a man of a ton of words. He has a low key, calm vibe in the dugout and in the clubhouse. Always asks you how you're doing. Kind of father figure-type vibe. He understands that you’re not going to be perfect. He stands by you as your player and his guy. He’s good at managing people. [Former Giants reliever] Jeremy Affeldt said last year [that he's an] exceptional people manager and he knows what situations they thrive in. He knows where your best role would be on that day, where you’ll succeed. [I've] never had a manager I feel as comfortable with, just the amount of trust. He’s very insightful and very in-tune with his players.
While visiting the White House last year to celebrate the Giants' 2014 World Series victory, you were the victim of what appeared to be a rather vicious bit of rookie hazing. While lining up before the president’s address one of your teammates appeared to hit you in the groin. Was this retribution for something else? Looks like the culprit was Brandon Crawford.
That wasn’t retribution for anything else. That was totally uncalled for. We have a guy on our team who has a reputation for horse play like that. It wasn’t [Brandon] Crawford. It was Matt Cain. He's got a reputation for that. He's sneaky, he's very sneaky. Typically if he does it on the field its no big deal, I've got a cup on. But we're in the White House. I was totally not expecting that.
It seems like your internet-famous cat has no problem gaining weight whatsoever. How is your obese cat, Skeeter?
It all started with a picture that my dad took of him and I when I was playing Call of Duty a few years ago. It was a bad angle for him. Then this past year it was finally posted by one of the team photographers. I didn't think it was big deal. But the next morning I turn on the TV and there’s me and Skeeter on MLB Network. He's good, he's a family cat so he's at my parents house. He was up to 35 pounds at one point. Now he’s down to 28 or 27. His belly swings outside his body as he walks. The vet says that other than being obese he's a very healthy cat. It's funny to me how much people will grab on to something so simple. He's famous [for] nothing.