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There’s Still Hope For Jarren Duran

He just needs to figure out who he is.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox

One of the most important things to do in life – and also, unfortunately, one of the hardest things to do in life – is to figure out who you are. Everything else that’s good about being alive – expressing your passion, excelling at work you enjoy, finding friends who understand you, learning to love and be loved – all of that stems from first figuring out who you are and becoming comfortable with your place in the world. I suspect that this is something you have to work at more or less continually throughout your life, from the moment you first experiment with a goth or punk stage in your early teenage years, all the way through to your final achy, forgetful days, when you have to prove your value in a youth-obsessed society that says you no longer have any.

This isn’t easy to do. And if you’re ever wrong about who you actually are, and if that sends you off into the wrong career, or the wrong marriage, then it can feel impossible to get back on track. But you have to. It’s the only way to be happy.

This brings us to Worcester, where, while playing for the wrong Red Sox, Jarren Duran needs to ask himself a question: who is he?

In case you missed it, last week Duran did the single coolest thing you can do on a baseball diamond: he stole home (sorry, Izzy Alcantara stans, side kicking the catcher in the face and then charging the mound is only the second coolest thing you can do). Here it is:

A straight steal! And one that made the defense look completely foolish, which is what the best baserunners tend to do. As the announcers allude to, it wasn’t just a cool play, it was an important one. Coming with two outs in the seventh inning, it extended the WooSox lead to three in a game they would eventually win 5-3.

This is the type of play that someone with Jarren Duran’s elite speed should be known for. This is who Jarren Duran should be. Even with all his struggles in the field and at the plate, the speed is still there. He can strikeout three times, bungle a play in the outfield and still be an asset to his team if he can use his legs the right way at the right time. But if you’re now thinking back on his miserable 2022 season and wondering why you can’t really think of any great Jarren Duran baserunning highlights, that’s because there really haven’t been any. Jarren Duran has forgotten who he is.

With Boston this season, Duran stole seven bases and was thrown out just once, which translates to an 88% success rate. That’s elite, automatic greenlight type of speed. But, those 7 steals came in 74 base-stealing opportunities (base-stealing opportunities defined as the number of plate appearances in which he was on first or second with the base ahead of him unoccupied). That means he stole a base just 9% of the time in which he could have, which is significantly less than other elite base-stealers. Billy Hamilton is probably an unfair measuring stick, but he stole a base in 35% of his opportunities in 2022, and once finished the year with a 50% rate. Jorge Mateo and Jon Berti are both over 25% this year, and most other elite base-stealers fall somewhere in the 12-20% range. Trea Turner is the only elite runner who attempted to steal as rarely as Jarren Duran did – and in light of the fact that he’s hitting at the top of one of the game’s most productive lineups, it’s obvious why he’s been so cautious.

It isn’t just in the stolen base department where Duran is appearing a little gun shy, either. He took the extra base only 35% of the time, which, had he qualified, would put him all the way down at 102nd on the MLB leader board (for reference, Ronald Acuna Jr. leads baseball in taking the extra base by doing so 76% of the time; Xander Bogaerts leads the Red Sox at 56%). Duran scored from first on a double just once this year. He advanced from first to third on a single just three times. The basepaths should be Jarren Duran’s happy place – the one place on the diamond where he knows exactly who he is and what he’s capable of. And yet, it appears that even there he’s lost his confidence.

Unfortunately, this sort of existential crisis has been something of a hallmark of Duran’s professional career. In five years as a pro ballplayer, he’s never known quite who he is and what he’s supposed to be. After spending almost his entire college career at second base, he was shifted to centerfield when he entered the minor leagues, where he’s never shown the least bit of comfort. After two minor league seasons in which he hardly ever homered, he added muscle and completely retooled his swing, embracing the launch angle revolution in an attempt to become someone who could show power to all fields. None of these versions of Jarren Duran have led to big league success, and now, he doesn’t even know if he’s a big leaguer at all.

When you’re struggling to figure out who you are as a person in the world, you can usually console yourself with the thought that you have plenty of time to figure it out. But Duran doesn’t even necessarily have that going for him. He turned 26 two weeks ago, older than Rafael Devers and long past the age where he could still be considered a prospect. In baseball terms, he’s practically middle-aged. He should be entering his prime right now, not struggling to find a position.

But if Duran doesn’t have Father Time on his side, he does have someone else: Theo Epstein. The rule changes that Theo is spearheading for next year are going to have a big impact. And while it’s the pitch clock and the ban against the shift that get most of the attention, the game may change on the basepaths more than anywhere else. The size of the bases is increasing from 15 square inches to 18, meaning that the distance between each base (which was never actually 90 feet as measured from edge-to-edge) will shrink. What’s perhaps even more drastic, is the limit on pick-off attempts. Pitchers will now be permitted to throw over only twice during an at-bat. If they throw over a third time and it doesn’t result in an out, the umpires will issue a balk allowing the runner to advance.

These rules have been in place in the minors all season, resulting in a whopping 2.83 stolen base attempts per game, compared to MLB’s 1.36. In other words, it’s the best time to be a speedy ballplayer since the days when Ty Cobb was flying around the bases with spikes up.

What does this mean for Jarren Duran? It isn’t clear yet, particularly in light of the fact that he still hasn’t hit major league pitching consistently, and still doesn’t have a defensive position — there are no forthcoming rule changes that will help him there. But maybe the rule changes will give him a chance to finally figure out who he is as a ballplayer. Maybe this is a chance for him to make the base paths his home. Maybe, next year, he can become someone else by becoming the ballplayer he was always meant to be.