Nobody batted an eye when the Cubs signed Matt Duffy to a minor-league deal (pun intended). Teams make these kinds of under-the-radar moves all the time; a seasoned veteran with something to prove who, in the name of depth, can be stashed in the minors and brought up if someone gets injured. Sometimes, they even have a strong spring and make the Opening Day roster as Duffy ultimately did.
But, as the season progressed, he proved invaluable, not only with his defensive versatility but also his pinch-hitting prowess and approach at the plate. The more he produced, the harder it was for David Ross to ignore, and by April 21, Duffy was in the starting lineup 70% of the time. His style and overall demeanor felt familiar but, at first, it was hard to connect the dots. And then the lightbulb went off.
Duffy’s ability to play to contact and willingness to go the other way is indeed reminiscent of 2016 World Series MVP Zobi-wan Kenobi himself. Like Zobrist, you’ll never see Duffy come out of his shoes on a swing, and he’s more than happy to take what the defense gives him. Sure, this may seem like an overly bold assertion on the surface, toeing the line of absurdity. How can you liken a Cubs legend to a player who was an offseason afterthought?
So, instead of being guided by nothing more than a feeling of déjà vu, let’s dive into the numbers to see whether or not they back such a claim. When comparing Zobrist in 2016 (his best season in Chicago) to Duffy in 2021, analyzing 14 vital statistics, the results were a bit shocking; Duffy, as a Cub, has been even better than Zobrist. Don’t believe it? Take a look for yourself:
|ZOBRIST (2016)||DUFFY (2021)|
|*Through 106 PA|
|POS||2B, RF||3B, 2B, 1B, LF|
All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com
A juxtaposition of each player’s first 106 plate appearances, Duffy’s amount before going on the injured list, shows he outpaced Zobrist in seven categories and tied him in two others. Even more impressively, he did so while playing twice as many positions. Something else which stood out on paper was the lesser-known aLI statistic which measures how often a player comes to bat during a pressure situation (runners on, in the later innings of a tight game, etc.)
The baseline for a player’s aLI rating is 1.00, meaning not only has Duffy produced, but he’s consistently done so in the clutch. Zobrist, by contrast, and through no fault of his own, found himself having to deal with far less drama at the plate in 2016. Duffy went from a player you hoped could get the big hit to one you almost expected to. It was a drastic transformation from a guy who was considered a long shot to make it out of Spring Training.
Beyond the numbers, Duffy provides the team with the same veteran leadership in the clubhouse as Zobrist did during his tenure in Chicago. This was on full display when the Cubs visited Cleveland in May. Youngster Adbert Alzolay served up a two-run homer in the bottom of the fifth inning, allowing the Indians to take the lead. Alzolay was visibly frustrated when Duffy took him into the tunnel and gave him a pep talk.
Alzolay responded with a 1-2-3 inning in the sixth to get back on track. When asked about it after the game, he gave full credit to Duffy for the assist. “I love having those kinds of guys around. When you get in a situation, you know they got your back. He came down, talked to me, got me out of that hole I was getting into at that moment, and just brought me back to go out and compete,” he told Marquee Sports Network.
Since Zobrist’s departure, the Cubs’ lineup has desperately needed a player like Duffy. Barring a disastrous ending to his season, he’s someone GM Jed Hoyer needs to re-sign for next year, especially as insurance in case Hoyer fails to extend the team’s young core. Zobrist’s go-ahead RBI double in the World Series is a moment that will forever endear him to Cubs fans around the globe.
And, who knows, if Duffy sticks around long enough, maybe he can have one just like it.