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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Matt Duffy

Here’s one division rival the Yankees should consider.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

The Yankees have been busy this offseason, working to improve the team not just in 2020, but beyond as well. For example, Matt Blake joined the organization as the pitching coach, and Gerrit Cole hopped on board as the ace. The winter is far from over, however, and a few more additions can be made. In their search for a middle infield depth piece, the Yankees might want to consider a familiar face in recent division rival Matt Duffy.

His numbers might not jump off the page, but he does have a few characteristics working in his advantage. Take plate discipline for starters, which illustrates Duffy’s ability to lay off pitches out side of the zone while generating an impressive contact percentage. Among players who accumulated 700 plate appearances or more over the past two seasons, Duffy ranks 34th in contact percentage, and 18th in zone-contact percentage with an outstanding 92.2%, between Alex Bregman and Jose Ramirez.

His ability to make contact has allowed him to consistently place under the league average in strikeout percentage by a healthy margin. For example, in 2018 when Duffy made 560 plate appearances, his strikeout rate was 16.6%, compared to the league average of 22.3%. Injuries prevented him form performing as much in 2019, but the trend continues.

Having the ability to make contact is often a good thing, however if a player isn’t producing when putting the ball in play, it doesn’t mean much. While Duffy does maintain positive plate discipline traits, his batted-ball profile works against him, highlighted by his above-average groundball percentage. Each season Duffy manages to generate a groundball rate over 50%, this past season the result was 53.8%. The rest of the league hit groundballs 45.4% of the time. Avoiding strikeouts is great, but if groundballs are the end result, there might not be much incentive to add someone like Duffy.

In contrast, Duffy does have his ability to hit line drives working for him. Using the same criteria of 700 plate appearances over the past two seasons, Duffy ranks 30th in line-drive percentage out of 220 players, decimal points behind Mike Trout and Aaron Judge. This is not to say Duffy has the power ability of Trout and Judge—that’s far from the truth—but it allows us to see that about 24.7% of his batted balls are producing great results. Throughout the past two seasons Duffy has generated a 0.591 batting average and 0.765 slugging percentage when hitting line drives, per Statcast

Yankees increasing power production

Player PA 2016-18 HR/FB 2016-18 ISO 2016-18 PA 2019 HR/FB 2019 ISO 2019
Player PA 2016-18 HR/FB 2016-18 ISO 2016-18 PA 2019 HR/FB 2019 ISO 2019
DJ LeMahieu 1898 9.80% 0.131 655 19.30% 0.191
Cameron Maybin 1225 8.30% 0.110 269 16.50% 0.209
Matt Duffy 926 5.50% 0.083 169 3.10% 0.075
Gio Urshela 211 3.50% 0.070 476 17.50% 0.219
Regular Season Statistics FanGraphs

Duffy lacks power, as he hasn’t posted an ISO over .100 since his first full season in 2015, The Bombers, however, have made a science out of taking contact-first hitters and developing their power. DJ LeMahieu, Gio Urshela, and Cameron Maybin are all examples of that, but Duffy would compare most to LeMahieu out of all three, considering similarities in plate discipline and batted-ball profiles. LeMahieu hits the ball on the ground slightly less often and is slightly more successful at avoiding strikeouts. Their biggest difference?LeMahieu offers a much higher average exit velocity of about 91 mph, compared to Duffy’s 87 mph average.

Overall Duffy proves to be a tough out at the plate but doesn’t produce enough power to be considered a game-changer. Joining the Yankees’ system could elevate his game, though. Finding another LeMahieu buried in the depth of the free agency market might be difficult, but if the price is worth the risk, acquiring Duffy could reward the Yankees. He clearly wont’t be expected to hit as hard as LeMahieu, but he can become an excellent reinforcement as many Yankees were in 2019.