Jarren Duran made his MLB debut with the Boston Red Sox on July 17, 2021. It was a much anticipated call-up and one many thought should have come much sooner. It’s hard to believe after this slog of this season, but the 2021 Red Sox were actually good, and adding Duran into the mix seemed like it would provide an adrenaline boost to a team already in contention. The seventh-round draft pick had shot up the prospect rankings during his time in the minors, becoming the the No. 3 prospect in the Red Sox’s system and the No. 52 prospect in baseball according to FanGraphs. It was tough to argue against the rationale.
With a tantalizing combination of power and speed, Duran torched AAA before his promotion, producing a 132 wRC+ and a .258/.357/.516 slash line across 283 plate appearances. He also threw in 16 stolen bases, which was just gravy and, dare I say, expected gravy since he had made a habit of racking up double digit stolen bases totals at the lower levels while touting 70-grade speed. So while the speed was great, Duran turned into a must-promote prospect last season because of his work at the plate, particularly his budding power. While he had consistently posted above average marks in wRC+ throughout his time in the lower levels, the sudden pop in his bat made it impossible to ignore him. He slugged 16 home runs in AAA in 2021 after only hitting eight combined in 2018 and 2019. (Remember, the minor league season was canceled in 2020). Diving a little deeper, Duran’s ISO also shot up, landing at a mark of .258 after he straddled the .100 line for most of his career. Add in what appeared to be an improving approach at the plate as evidenced by a 10.6 percent walk rate, and Duran, despite limited time at AAA (and in the minors overall), was duty-bound for Boston.
That’s when things started to go wrong.
Despite starting his MLB career on a high note, singling off New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole in his first professional plate appearance, Duran never got comfortable in his initial taste of big league baseball. There was no reason to be particularly worried though. He only got 112 plate appearances in 2021, and plenty of players struggle when they first reach the show. Dustin Pedroia had a 41 wRC+ in 2006 when he first made the bigs, and he was an MVP two years later. Mike Trout had an 87 wRC+ in his first year in the league and he was and still is Mike Trout. Unfortunately, Duran, who came into 2022 needing to prove himself, is nowhere near an MVP level. In fact, he’s barely been better than a replacement level player this year, producing a 79 wRC+ in 219 plate appearances since returning to the lineup near the beginning of June. In addition to his struggles at the plate, Duran has also had trouble as a fielder, and that’s putting it lightly.
Over the weekend, the underperformance finally became too much, and the Red Sox sent Duran back to AAA, leaving us to wonder what to make of the 25-year-old’s future. If he can’t even earn at-bats at the MLB level during the last month of a lost season for the Red Sox, when exactly will he get the chance again?
The answer is next year, of course, if not later this month. It would be malpractice for the Red Sox to just give up on Duran already. He’s still only 25 and while his MLB performance has been discouraging, his raw skills are still very enticing. Even if he isn’t a superstar, he could still very well be a solid regular at the very least, with FanGraphs still giving him a mark of 50 in terms of future value. To climb the mountain ahead of him, there are some key aspects that Duran will need to work on.
Starting with his offensive approach, Duran’s weak points are many. He has struggled to hit big league heat, with a .318 wOBA against fastballs in 2022 alone, which is actually better than his xwOBA on them (.311). He has also had trouble handling changeups, with a brutal .156 wOBA against such offerings. Surprisingly, he’s had some success against curveballs and sinkers, but he’s also seen those less frequently than most other pitches.
With teams able to hone in on Duran’s problems with changing speeds, opposing pitchers haven’t had to veer away from the zone much to get him out. His swing rate outside the zone has been around league average the last two seasons, but he has still struck out quite a lot anyway, with a 31.1 percent K rate in 2021 and 2022 combined, although he has cut that number down by almost seven percent this year. In addition to all the strikeouts, the gains Duran made in drawing walks in the minors have not translated to the majors, as he has walked in only 5.4 percent of his plate appearances with the Red Sox.
When Duran actually hits the ball, which is much more rare than he and the Red Sox would like, the results aren’t great either. He’s been comfortably above league average in hard hit rate, and near league average in average exit velocity and barrel rate. But his main issue has been a failure to get much lift on the ball. Duran has pounded balls into the ground on roughly 50 percent of his MLB plate appearances, while his average launch angle has remained safely below league average.
On the defensive side of things, the worst of fielding mishaps can happen to just about anyone. But Duran’s troubles go beyond just had a few high profile errors. He has accrued -12 defensive runs saved overall during the last two seasons, although, somehow, he’s had a positive mark across 46 ⅓ innings in right field. Unfortunately, the bulk of his playing time has been in center field, where things are far less peachy. The results have been particularly troubling given Duran’s speed and the fact that he ranks in the 79th percentile in outfield jump this season.
Going deeper, Baseball Savant breaks down an outfielder’s ability to track down balls hit to the outfield, otherwise known as jump, into three parts: reaction, burst and route. Duran is in the top 10 qualified outfielders in reaction and the top 35 in burst. Unfortunately, he is tied for the third-worst mark in route. So, while his outfield jump is pretty good, it could be better. In fairness, there are plenty of outfielders who are considered good outfielders with less than ideal reaction numbers, including Enrique Hernández and Jackie Bradley Jr., but both of those guys make up for it to some degree with superior work in the other two categories compared with even Duran’s solid numbers.
To sum it all up, despite getting a good jump on the ball and has the speed to reach anywhere on the field, including the very tip of the triangle in center at Fenway Park. But Duran’s ability to take good routes to the ball has been wanting, largely negating his ability to cover a ton of ground very quickly. When you add his pedestrian (at best) arm, Duran’s defense just doesn’t make the grade. Maybe it would if he were producing at the plate, but as we’ve already covered, he isn’t doing that either.
Whether by the eye test or the numbers, Duran’s first few tries at the MLB level have, as the saying goes, not been what you want. The holes in his swing and overall game are glaring and in need of major improvements. So far, he hasn’t been able to make them, which is why he was sent down to the minors once more. While the recent demotion may not portend forfeiture on the part of the Red Sox when it comes to his potential, it does not provide optimism either. A year ago, Duran’s struggles could be chalked up to adjusting as a rookie. This year, that argument can still be made but with much less strength behind it, meaning Duran is in for a second-straight offseason clouded by questions about his ability to play at the MLB level, with this one carrying a much higher degree of scrutiny than the first.