Jarren Duran Brings New Swing to Spring

Jarren Duran
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Spring Training stats mean nothing, right? We all know better than to take the sample size of a couple of plate appearances and declare a position battle won, or a starting rotation slot solidified. That being said, these first few weeks of live baseball are our first real chances to see glimpses of the work that’s been done over the winter, to try to pick apart new swings and arm slots and mechanical tweaks that may unlock a next level of play. A few Grapefruit League home runs won’t turn a quad-A non-roster invitee into a Silver Slugger, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from the exhibitions.

This spring, Red Sox outfielder Jarren Duran has been among those making a little noise early in camp. Duran showed up to Fort Myers with a lot to prove after a frustrating 2022 spent bouncing between Boston and the Triple-A WooSox. For the most part, he was unable to reproduce his minor league success in the majors, slashing .283/.349/.491 in 68 Triple-A games but .221/.283/.363 in 58 contests with the big league club, good for a .284 wOBA and a 78 wRC+. To go along with the troubles at the dish, he struggled to get comfortable in center field. He’s always had the raw speed to play any outfield position, and his reaction times were above average, but his arm is a weakness, and his route-running was among the worst in the league according to Statcast’s Route metric, which indicates that Duran lost 1.4 feet on outfield plays as a result of his route. Overall, that was enough for him to measure as well below average defensively.

What’s worse is that some of Duran’s more flagrant miscues came at particularly conspicuous times. The narrative nadir of the Red Sox’ disastrous season may have been a July 22 home game against the Blue Jays: Boston gave up a franchise-record 28 runs that night, four of which came around on a two-out pop fly off the bat of current campmate Raimel Tapia, which Duran lost in the lights, resulting in an inside-the-park grand slam. It was a perfect image of a bad team’s rock bottom.

This is the contextual backdrop to Duran’s spring. The outfielder talked candidly last year about how hard the season had been on him mentally, and it certainly left him with something to prove heading into 2023. Leading off in the Red Sox’ traditional opening exhibition against Northeastern University, Duran took a 2–1 pitch off the Green Monster replica in Fort Myers for a double. In his first Grapefruit League action on Monday, after he and fellow Team Mexico outfielder Alex Verdugo entertained camp by hiring a Mariachi band as part of a presentation on their country of heritage, he was the star of a 4–1 win, doubling again and hitting a solo home run in his two plate appearances and making a pair of nice catches in the outfield.

It’s an adjusted swing that had Fort Myers chattering before the club even took the field. This spring, Duran has shifted his hand position prior to the pitch, starting with his hands closer to where he wants them to begin his swing and cutting out a noisy loading motion he had used previously. This has the effect of shortening and simplifying his swing, allowing him to throw the barrel into the zone basically straight from his stance position instead of having to wind his hands back to load his swing. His shoulders appear to be more square to the plate instead of closed off to the pitcher as they’ve been in years past. Following the pattern of simplifying the load, he’s turned what was at times a dramatic leg kick into a quick toe tap.

The message here seems to be: get your hands to the ball and put it in play. With his speed, Duran is able to do a lot of damage when he gets the chance to run the bases. But his elevated swing-and-miss figures at the big league level haven’t given him much chance to do so. In 2020, Duran and the Red Sox lowered his hands to start as part of a swing redesign documented by Eric Longenhagen here. This helped him run into some power in Triple-A in 2021, when he went deep 16 times in 60 games. But at the big league level, it left him with a long swing vulnerable to a lot of whiffs; his strikeout rate over his first 91 major league games is over 30%. Even in his time in the minors, his swing-and-miss rate jumped up a few percentage points. Take a look at this strikeout from his MLB debut season in 2021:

At the moment Drew Rasmussen releases this fastball, Duran’s hands are moving up and back, his leg is elevated, and he has a whole lot of movement to execute to catch up with the 98-mph pitch. Compare that to his home run Monday off Twins right-hander Oliver Ortega:

Duran is able to get his barrel to the ball extremely quickly here and drive the ball to the opposite field, thanks in part to a much more compact approach — a good sign that the swing is still powerful enough to clear the fence every now and again.

It’s a good sign, too, that all three of his extra-base hits this spring have gone the other way; Duran is at his best when he’s using the whole field, pulling inside pitches and driving outside pitches into left. Prior to his swing changes in 2020, over 36% of his contact went to the opposite field at every minor league level. Since then, he’s averaged well below that, including a 29.0% mark in the majors. When Duran pulls the ball, he drives it into the ground more often, but he tends to drive the ball in the air a fair amount to the opposite field, which plays well when the target is the Green Monster (or the Florida version of it).

The thing is, Duran hasn’t had trouble hitting at the minor league level, nor in Spring Training; his trouble has been in getting those successes to translate at the big league level, and all he can do about that between now and Opening Day is give the Red Sox reason to believe he’s capable of it.

Duran will get to see a lot of live pitching with Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, but Boston’s outfield depth chart will make it a tough battle for playing time when he returns. Enrique Hernández has taken up the starting shortstop role for the time being with Trevor Story injured, but the Sox added Masataka Yoshida and Adam Duvall this offseason to round out the projected starting outfield with Verdugo. Beyond that trio, Rob Refsnyder, who played quite well in a limited stint in Boston last year, and Christian Arroyo are capable of filling in as corner outfielders and offering Boston a little more positional versatility. Tapia and others are hoping to impress in Fort Myers and battle their way into some playing time. Duran can offer the Red Sox some center field experience and the type of speed that really doesn’t exist anywhere else in that clubhouse, but he’ll have to convince Alex Cora and the front office that the bat and the glove can stick, and that is no small task.

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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1 year ago

But is he in the best shape of his life?

1 year ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

For Duran that’s a tall order. 🙂 He’s always had a Gabe-Kapler-esque physique.