Is Jhoan Duran Getting Even Nastier?

Jhoan Duran
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

After I wrote about Red Sox outfielder Jarren Duran last month, consider this the next installment of my highly unrelated, only-for-the-joke “Duran Duran” series; today we take an entirely separate look at 25-year-old Twins closer and velocity king Jhoan Duran. This Duran was one of baseball’s best relievers as a rookie in 2022; this year, he returned to the Twins’ bullpen with a lot less to prove after his impressive rookie campaign. Nevertheless, he has made some significant tweaks to his already devastating arsenal, and he’s bringing more heat in his sophomore season than ever before.

Duran arrived on the scene in Minnesota last year at a rather uncertain time in his prospect journey. After registering on our Top 100 prospect lists as a high-velocity starter in 2020 and 2021, a forearm strain (and a global pandemic) limited the right-hander to all of five appearances across the river with Triple-A St. Paul in the last two years. The uncertainty around his health obscured his future outlook and called his potential as a starter into question. But he did enough in just seven Spring Training innings last season to show he was healthy and earn one of the final spots in the Twins’ bullpen, then made the absolute most of his first big league opportunity. In 57 relief outings, he allowed just 14 runs and limited hitters to a .251 wOBA, .187 xBA, .269 xSLG, and .232 xWOBA, all of which were in the top 10% of the league. His 34.7% whiff percentage was in the 94th percentile, and his 33.5% strikeout rate was in the 96th. Thanks in part to the trust he quickly earned from Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, he finished second among big league relievers with a 4.56 WPA.

He did it all with a four-seam fastball that averaged 100.8 mph, the fastest average pitch velocity in all of baseball since Jordan Hicks in 2019. Complementing the heat was a knee-buckling curve that played off the fastball exceptionally well, generating a .169 wOBA thanks in part to a 49.7% whiff percentage. Hitters chased at 43.7% of his curves outside the zone and whiffed on a remarkable 80.2% of those offerings, a testament to how deeply absurd it is to try to hit an 88-mph pitch with 42 inches of downward break when you thought it might be coming at you at 101. Here’s how those two pitches played off of each other in a one-out, 42-second save on Saturday:

As a third feature, Duran debuted what he has called a “splinker,” a portmanteau pitch he has thrown with a splitter grip but at closer to the traditional speed of a sinker, most often deployed on his arm side to come in on righties and tail away from lefties. In 2022, the splinker averaged a velocity of 96.4 mph with 13 inches of arm-side run and 26 inches of drop — a gnarly amount of movement at that speed. By Stuff+, it was rated at 142, the second-highest mark on a pitch qualifying as a splitter among pitchers with 50 or more innings. Given its capacity for generating swings, he used it often when down in counts as an opportunity to fight his way back.

Here’s how the pitch moved compared to all other pitches thrown consistently with an average velocity of 96 or more in 2022, with its closest comp being Camilo Doval’s sinker:

This offseason, Duran seems to have asked himself a question that other pitchers can only dream of: “What if I threw my 96-mph pitch with crazy movement even faster?” In 2022, the pitch was fun to marvel at, but most of Duran’s success was a result of the fastball-curve combination; hitters actually managed a .308 xwOBA off of the splinker, compared to a .166 mark on the curve and a .251 mark on the heater. But after gradually ticking up the pace of the splinker through 2022, he’s added significant velocity in the first month of 2023: through his first five outings, he’s thrown 18 splinkers ranging from 97.4 to 100.6 for an average velocity of 99.3 mph.

Cutting down the time it takes to get to the plate has cost the pitch about two inches of movement both vertically and horizontally, but the added velocity sets it even further apart from any other splitter-grip pitch. From a spin axis perspective, it performs just like other right-handers’ splitters — the only difference being that it’s thrown far harder. For comparison, the next-fastest pitch classified by Statcast as a splitter to be thrown at least 20 times in the Statcast era is Shintaro Fujinami’s, which he has debuted this year at 92.6 mph, nearly seven ticks slower.

In its limited use at this point in the season, Duran has located the splinker masterfully, catching the shadow of the plate 11 times and missing to the chase and waste zones just twice.

The 18 splinkers have resulted in four whiffs, eight fouls, four balls, and two routine grounders, including this one at 100 mph in on the hands of White Sox catcher Seby Zavala to secure Duran’s third save on Wednesday:

Duran’s juiced-up splinker is one of the early takeaways from the start of his year, but it’s hardly the only one. Though he was tagged for a pair of home runs against the White Sox this week after allowing only six all of last year, his arsenal is looking dangerous. Lest we forget the splinker is a supplementary option to his fastest-in-baseball four-seamer: that four-seamer has come out of the gates nearly a full mile per hour faster on average than in 2022, at 101.6. On Tuesday in Minnesota, Duran touched 103 twice, topping out at 103.3. Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) treated us to an overlay of Duran’s 103-mph four-seamer and 101-mph splinker, which look just about the same until the latter dips away in the final fraction of a second.

For the hitter, those fractions of seconds are getting all the more precious. In 2023, the 6-foot-5 Duran has managed to add around five inches to his release extension, up from 6.2 feet in 2022 to 6.6. That has meant that the perceived velocity of his high-octane offerings have been even more bonkers than the measured velocity; his 101.6-mph four-seamer has an average perceived velocity of 102.3, and the 99.3-mph splinker comes in at a perceived 100.9 mph. The knock on Duran as a prospect had been that his fastball wasn’t much more than raw velocity; this could help mitigate that criticism.

Duran’s Velocity and Perceived Velocity
Year 4-Seam Velo 4-Seam PV Splinker Velo Splinker PV
2023 101.6 102.3 99.3 100.9
2022 100.8 100.6 96.4 96.3
SOURCE: Statcast

Last year, Duran joined the exclusive 103 club, composed of the 16 pitchers who Statcast has tracked at hitting 103 mph; with 12 such pitches, he now ranks third on that list after Aroldis Chapman’s 274 and Hicks’ 72. In 2023, he joined the even more exclusive club of pitchers who have hit a perceived velocity of 104. Some data issues prevent us from knowing just how many are in that group (a 95.7-mph 2017 Justin Verlander fastball was recorded to have a 194.6 mph perceived velocity, for instance), but according to Statcast, just six others have hit that mark multiple times, including noted lunger Carter Capps.

Pitchers to Hit 104+ mph in Perceived Velocity
Player Pitches Average Measured Velocity
1 Aroldis Chapman 131 103.7
2 Jordan Hicks 26 103.7
3 Carter Capps 21 100.0
4 Camilo Doval 5 102.8
5 Jhoan Duran 3 103.1
6 Tayron Guerrero 3 103.6
7 Ryan Helsley 2 104.1
SOURCE: Statcast

As I mentioned, it hasn’t been all roses for Duran in 2023, and some misses over the middle of the plate (and a few far off the plate) have led to less-than-pretty results in a couple of these early outings. But a player who spent the bulk of two years without getting into more than five games has to have developed some patience, and Duran has a long season ahead to show off what this bolstered arsenal is capable of.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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Trevor May Care Attitude
1 year ago

In my head, I initially read “noted lunger Carter Capps” as referring to the man’s pulmonary condition, ala Doc Holliday in Tombstone.