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He is 6-foot-5, 240 pounds of bulging biceps and towering home runs. They call him Quadzilla because of his massive quadriceps. When he’s running, he looks, roughly, like a freight train at full speed.
Ha! Not one bit of that is true about Matt Duffy. But one thing is true about him: He’s the engine that has turned the Chicago Cubs around in a season when they were built to lose. . .on purpose.
A strange thing is happening in Chicago, where, if memory serves, the Cubs have spent four years leading the league in SWSF. You probably haven’t heard of that stat. That’s because I just made it up: Strikeout While Swinging for the Fences. If memory serves, the Cubs have a perfect 100% SWSF rate in every crucial at-bat since 2017.
So Cubs management pretended to be poor and dumped as many big-time salaries as possible, but they had to put someone on the roster. So they signed Matt Duffy, a singles hitter who runs fast and has one talent the Cubs haven’t seen in years: When he swings, his bat hits the ball, though usually not far. It’s a curious thing in modern baseball, which is built on home runs and strikeouts and nothing in between.
And a few weeks after Duffy was moved into the starting lineup at third base, pushing superstar Kris Bryant into the outfield, the surging Cubs are now just ½ game behind the faltering St. Louis Cardinals.
By the end of the day today, the Cubs should be in first place.
This is going to cause all sorts of problems for Cubs management and ownership. The Cubs spent a century as baseball’s lovable losers, then they finally won the World Series in 2016. And now that ownership wants them to lose so they can cut payroll, the Cubs have decided not to accommodate.
Let’s call it the reverse goat curse. After years of losing and taking pride in folklore, like a curse of a goat-owner keeping them from winning the World Series, maybe the Cubs have decided that they are actually winners now.
That’s not going to fly with management. The Cubs still have the massive future salaries of fan-favorites Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez to unload. The trade deadline is still two months away, and the Cubs are a major market team that pretends it can’t afford major market players. So they dumped the best starting pitcher in the National League, Yu Darvish, for negligible, lowly paid prospects.
What are the Cubs going to do? Let’s look at Bryant, who is having another potential MVP season. If the Cubs hang on to him through the season, and he leaves as a free agent, then the Cubs get nothing for him.
The option: Trade him before the deadline in July and get some prospects to build for the future. Across town, the Chicago White Sox once dumped salary while in the thick of a pennant race, and their fans still remember it as the White Flag trade.
The Cubs have had the most patient, loyal fans in all of sports. But after 112 years with one championship, they will not put up with a salary dump in the middle of a pennant race.
We’re only a third of the way into the season, which means the Cubs might not keep this up. And while I have put this on Duffy, the truth is, there are other parts. Closer Craig Kimbrel, for one, is ruining management’s plan to lose.
The Cubs’ bullpen, meanwhile, hasn’t given up an earned run in the past 29 ⅔ innings. Javy Baez is starting to hit, too. And Joc Pederson. With Duffy on the injured list, Pederson hit two homers in Tuesday night’s win over Pittsburgh. He credits his newly-grown mustache which, honestly, no one can see.
“Look at the thing,’’ he told reporters on Zoom after the game. “This is hard work. It’s there, though. I need the right lighting.’’
The Cubs are finding that some of their home-grown pitchers can pitch after all. And some of the fill-in guys, such as Jake Marisnick, are also putting their bat on the ball. Baseball is so obsessed with home runs now that guys who hit singles can go for a song.
That was sort of the point of analytics and Moneyball in the first place: finding value in nontraditional things. Now, it doesn’t seem to be about pitch counts anymore so much as swinging for the fences.
When the Cubs signed Duffy this offseason, the headline in the Cubs blog bleedcubbieblue, screamed:
“Cubs sign Matt Duffy to a minor league contract.’’ And “He was really good. . .a while ago.’’
The final sentence of the story read, “If you were looking for a bigger name, look elsewhere.’’
Duffy is 30 and was actually second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2015 when he played for San Francisco. The winner that year:
Duffy bounced around and was injured regularly. Tampa Bay dumped him after the 2019 season. Texas dumped him in June of 2020, and the New York Yankees dumped him in December.
Now he’s hitting .278 for the Cubs, while their home run numbers, and strikeout numbers, go down. And runners are knocked home from third base.
I think he’s taking pressure off the home run hitters, who know they aren’t the only way to score a run anymore. He’s now the face of the Cubs, though nobody would recognize him. He’s definitely not the Cubs’ Quadzilla.
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