My first ever conversation with Jarren Duran took place prior to spring training when the Red Sox held their annual rookie development camp. Things started off clumsily. The speedy outfield prospect has a certain intensity about him, and his responses to my initial inquiries came couched with edgy caution.
Duran has a 50% ground-ball rate since turning pro, and when I noted that worm-killing isn’t exactly de rigueur in today’s game, his reply was a terse, “Yeah, but I can’t beat out a fly ball. That would be a waste of my speed, so why not use the tool that I have?”
Fair enough. Duran has plus-plus wheels — he swiped 46 bags last season — and he profiles as a table-setter as opposed to a bopper. Even so, is a willingness to stay on the ground really in his best interest?
“I’m willing to accept any ball that will give me a hit,” Duran proclaimed. “Ground balls. Line drives. Even fly balls. I’m just trying to make hard contact.”
Again, fair enough. But it’s not as though the 23-year-old Long Beach State product is wholly without pop. The 2018 seventh-round pick did leave the yard five times between high-A Salem and Double-A Portland, and he’s by no means built like a beanpole. Plus, fence-clearing ability is a quality any hitter should aspire to. Right?
“Bobby Dalbec is the big guy, the home run hitter,” Duran said of his muscular minor-league teammate. “I’m the little guy who gets on for the bigger guys.” When I pointed out that he’s bigger than Mookie Betts, Duran shrugged and deadpanned, “He’s got more power than me.” Asked if power is something he’s hoping to grow into, his response was an equally-shrug-worthy, “If it comes it comes. If it doesn’t it doesn’t.”
Then the ice broke and the skies cleared. Duran, who is a chiseled 6’ 2”, 200 pounds, proceeded to mellow as we further discussed his game.
“I’ve got a toe tap,” Duran told me. “My hands are quiet; they kind of just chill back by my left chest. Cleaning up my hand path is something I’ve worked on. I used to start high, drop low, and then come forward. Now I’m trying to stay low and go straight forward, which makes me quicker to the ball. My bat path is pretty flat.”
The lefty swinger reiterated that he doesn’t identify as a long-ball threat, but rather as a gap-to-gap guy who is going to hit singles, doubles, and triples. Casting himself as a throwback to the Astroturf 1980s, he added that he likes to lay one down.
“Everybody wants to talk about hitting, but nobody wants to talk about bunting anymore,” the second-baseman-turner-fly-chaser told me. “The bunt is a lost art in this sport. Except for guys like Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton, who can get away with it… I mean, bunting is harder than you think.”
He puts a lot of time into it. He did as a Dirtbag, and he continues to do so in pro ball, “probably more than any other guy.” Moreover, his practice routine goes beyond simply squaring around and tracking the ball to the bat. For Duran, bunting is a multi-faceted art form.
“You’ve got the push bunt to third, and the one where you drag it past the pitcher toward the second baseman,” Duran explained. “And then you’ve got one that’s called ‘walk the dog,’ where you literally walk it down the first base line and just have to beat the ball. [Salem manager] Corey Wimberly worked with me on that one a lot. Walk the dog is one of the hardest bunts, but it’s nice to have it in your toolshed.”
“I wouldn’t if they were playing back!” Duran exclaimed. “I trust my speed enough, plus the placement of the bunt is more important than how good the fielders are. If they’re playing back, I’m going to take that shot. Then, if they scoot way in, respecting my bunt game, I can slap one through the five-six hole.”
In other words, hit a ground-ball single. That’s an atypical approach in the launch-angle era, but it’s basically who Duran is. While his physical stare suggests that he could pack more of a punch, he’s largely satisfied to slash and burn. Dubbed by some a poor man’s Jacoby Ellsbury, Duran — a .303/.367/.408 hitter last year — may or may not be Boston’s centerfielder of the future. He enters the season tenth on our Red Sox Top Prospects list.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
John Means heads into the 2020 season a veritable lock to front the Orioles’ starting rotation. The 26-year-old left-hander is coming off a rookie campaign that saw him log a team-best 3.60 ERA over 155 innings. Moreover, Means managed to finish with more wins  that losses , no small feat when you toed the rubber for a 54-108 cellar dweller.
His performance qualified as a pleasant surprise. At this time last year, the former West Virginia Mountaineer was at best a borderline candidate to contribute meaningfully to the team that drafted him 331st overall in 2014. Humble to fault, he’ll be the first to admit it.
“Honestly, when I went to spring training I was on the very bottom of the totem pole as far as 40-man goes,” Means told me on the final weekend of his breakout campaign. “I wasn’t exactly their prime attention. I’ve really been a prospect.”
In terms of rankings, that’s an accurate assessment. Means was nowhere to be found on our 2019 Orioles Top Prospects list, nor was he ranked by Baseball America. A year earlier he’d been ho-hum in the minors, and his lone MLB appearance qualified as a clunker.
That was before he changed his offseason program, and received career-changing advice from Chris Holt, whom the Orioles had hired away from the Astros as their new minor league pitching coordinator.
Prior to last season, Means worked with Brian DeLunas and Josh Kesel at P3 St. Louis, “doing weighted-ball stuff, and kind of that whole new-era sort of deal.” The result was increased velocity, which when paired with a markedly-improved change-of-pace, metamorphosed Means into a successful big-leaguer.
“Coming up through the organization, we had a pitching coordinator that told me to throw my changeup like my fastball,” Means explained. “So I did. I got behind the pitch, and it was straight and hard. When I got to spring training, Holt told me, ‘No. Pronate it. You don’t have to make it look exactly like your fastball. You can get inside the ball.’”
Means did that, and suddenly his changeup was 4-5 mph slower. Mixing and matching it with a heater that was now 2-3 mph swifter, he was no longer a fringy, 4-A type of hurler. He had the ability to tie high-level hitters into knots.
Had he not trained at P3, and received words of wisdom from Holt?
“I wouldn’t be here,” said Means. “I could always pitch, but having that combination as a weapon makes a big difference. The separation makes a big difference. I have a lot of hop on my heater, a lot of vertical, and going from 88-89 to 91-92 makes my changeup a lot more effective.”
Means has other weapons as well. He augments his four-seam fastball (50.7%) and changeup (29.0%) with a slider that he threw 14.4 percent of the time, and an occasional curveball. The least-used of his arsenal is a pitch he had grand plans for when we spoke at the end of September.
“I’m working on this new curveball, which is kind of like a sweeping slider,” Means said. “My slider has cutter-like movement, and while it does well against lefties, I want something to back-foot righties. So I’m trying to get more depth and sweep to my curveball — it’s a spike, a knuckle curve — in order to do that.”
Needless to say, an improved fourth pitch would make Means even better than he was in his rookie campaign — a rookie campaign that no one expected him to have. That southpaw himself included.
“Had you told me last offseason that I’d be doing this, I’d have said you were crazy,” admitted Means. “From that perspective, it’s been a pretty crazy year. I’m definitely happy with how I’ve performed, but at the same time I’m hoping to be even better next year.”
NPB announced earlier this week that the remainder of its preseason games will be played without fans in attendance, due to concerns relating to the coronavirus. On a related note, Japan’s Rugby Football Union has begun postponing games.
Kerwin Danley will be MLB’s first African American umpire crew chief this season. Thursday’s announcement also included the news that Ramon De Jesus, who has worked on a fill-in basis, will become MLB’s first full-time Dominican-born umpire.
Ramón Conde, whose MLB career consisted of 14 games with the Chicago White Sox in 1962, died last Sunday at the age of 85. The native of Puerto Rico went hitless in 16 at bats.
The Philadelphia Phillies have hired Bill Hezel as a pitching consultant. Hezel will retain his Assistant Director of Pitching position at Driveline.
The Boston Red Sox have promoted Greg Rybarczyk to Director, Education and Process Analysis, within their R&D department. Rybarczyk, who had held the title Senior Analyst, Baseball Analytics, created “Hit Tracker” in 2005.
A reminder that the SABR Analytics Conference will be taking place in Phoenix from March 13-15. Highlights will include Brian Kenny discussing the state of analytics, and Statcast updates from Jason Bernard, Greg Cain, Clay Nunnally, and Daren Willman.
Some months ago I asked St. Louis Cardinals assistant GM and director of amateur scouting Randy Flores about his club’s philosophy when it comes to draft-eligible players with loud, but very raw, tools. In other words, lottery tickets as opposed to relatively safer picks.
“Going to extremes isn’t something we want to do in my department,” Flores responded. “We don’t want to only draft athletes, only draft guys with upside based on amazing physical tools. We also don’t want to ignore that. You want that healthy balance at all spots in your draft, so that intersection of upside and skill is something we’re intent on keeping.”
Flores went on to say that a lot of responsibility comes with his role, as the Cardinals rely heavily “on the pipeline provided by our draft, and by our international scouting.” He added that he’s following in the footsteps of talented people, and that he and his staff are working hard to maintain that level of success.
Dereck Rodriguez was one of the 105 pitchers featured in last year’s Learning and Developing a Pitch series. The San Francisco Giants right-hander, The San Francisco Giants right-hander, who converted to the mound three years after being drafted in 2011, described his changeup as part of that particular installment.
The story behind his breaking ball is somewhat simpler.
“My curveball is a pitch that just happened to click one day,” Rodriguez told me last summer. “I was throwing it in the bullpen, playing around with grips, and there was the shape. What it was doing is what I wanted it to do, so I kept working on that one. Of course, sometimes my curveball does things on its own. It backs up, or whatnot. But the one I like is a straight 12-6.”
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
The Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli wrote about how left-hander pitching prospects Zac Lowther and Alex Wells are paying close attention to a pair of veteran southpaws who are in Orioles camp on minor league deals.
MiLB.com’s Benjamin Hill took a deep dive into 2019 Minor League Baseball attendance totals.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
In 2017, Christian Yelich homered 18 times, walked 80 times, and scored 100 runs. Last season, Yelich homered 44 times, walked 80 times, and scored 100 runs.
George Mullin went 20-20 with a 100 ERA+ for the 1907 American League champion Detroit Tigers.
Phil Marchildon, a native of Penetanguishine, Ontario who pitched 1,213 innings for the Philadelphia A’s, missed the 1943 and 1944 seasons due to military service. During that stretch he spent nine months in a German prisoner of war camp.
Babe Ruth was released by the New York Yankees, and then signed by the Boston Braves, on February 26, 1935.
Players born on February 29 include St. Louis Cardinals Gas House Gang legend Pepper Martin, who was nicknamed The Wild Horse of the Osage. Martin played on a pair of World Series championship squads, slashing .418/.467/.636 in sixty Fall Classic plate appearances.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.