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Boston Red Sox v San Francisco Giants Photo by Kavin Mistry/Getty Images

The AL Batting Title Race Is Wide Open - And Jarren Duran and Masataka Yoshida Are In It

The Red Sox have 26 batting titles in their franchise’s history. Could Masa Yoshida or Jarren Duran add another?

For the 27th time in Red Sox history, there is an outside chance that one of their hitters can win a batting title. 26 batting titles is a pretty staggering amount. The most recent was Mookie Betts, hitting .346 during his MVP season of 2018. Before that, the Red Sox had four batting titles in five years from 1999-2003, with two from Nomar Garciaparra, one from Manny Ramirez, and, of course, one from Bill Mueller.

Boston Red Sox Batting Titles, all-time
mlb.com

Only one of those 26 batting titles came from someone hitting less than .320, which was Carl Yastrzemski in 1968 at .301. If a .301 league leader seems outrageous, that’s because it was. MLB felt that they had to lower the mound after the season, due in part to Bob Gibson’s MVP campaign, which included a 1.12 ERA, still the lowest ERA since the Dead Ball Era ended. Gibson had 28 complete games in 1968, 13 shutouts, and a record 74 fastballs thrown within an inch of the batter’s head (unofficial).

The .320 line is relevant this year. For a season that has been considered a “hitting environment”, I was surprised to see that only ten qualified hitters are above .300 to date. Through August 9th, runs are up 6.9% this season from last year, home runs are up 11%, and the league-wide batting average is .248 compared to .243 a year ago, when Luis Arraez won the AL batting title at .316, and Jeff McNeil the NL at .326.

Of the ten hitters this year who are over .300, five are in the American League, including Red Sox left fielder Masataka Yoshida.

espn.com

Entering play on 8/10, there are 143 hitters who qualify for the batting title. To qualify, a player must have 3.1 plate appearances per scheduled game, to date. In a typical 162-game season, a player must get to 502 plate appearances. If we move the threshold down to 300 plate appearances, there are 13 players hitting above .300, with the Red Sox having two of those 13. Jarren Duran, Cody Bellinger, and, most notably, Corey Seager are the three who do not (yet) qualify for the batting title.

(American Leaguers in Green, non-Qualified hitters in Orange)

BA Leaders, min. 300 PA
Fangraphs

With 48 games to play, Duran would need 3.34 plate appearances per game to get past that threshold, which shouldn’t be an issue. The more obvious name within striking distance to win the batting title is Corey Seager. Seager, who has played just 72 games this year for 325 plate appearances, is hitting .353 and will need 3.77 plate appearances per game in his final 47 to qualify. Very doable but would also require Seager to stay on the field for the rest of the season. Seager has already missed 31 games early in the season with a hamstring injury and spent ten days on the IL recently with a right thumb injury. Bruce Bochy has already mentioned giving Seager days off to manage the thumb injury. 502 PAs will be cutting it close for Seager and .320 could easily win the batting title again this year.

Five days ago, when he was hitting .317, it was easy to dream on Jarren Duran being the 2023 AL Batting Champ. A quick 1-for-18 slide (with way too many pop-ups) over the last five days has brought that average down to .302, but that can flip back the other way just as quickly if he can get back to hitting ground balls and line drives and let his legs do the work. Yoshida, currently second in the AL Rookie of the Year odds to Gunnar Henderson, deserves all the credit in the world for his first campaign in the United States. However, Duran’s jump from afterthought to the top of the league in a few different categories this season is fascinating.

Since his season debut on April 17:

  • Duran’s batting average of .302 is ninth in MLB.
  • Duran is second in doubles (33) to Freddie Freeman (38). Those 33 doubles are fourth in MLB, even if going back to Opening Day.
  • Duran is tied for eighth in stolen bases, with 23. This comes with a 92% success rate (23-for-25). Of the 12 players in that time frame with 20+ stolen bases, only CJ Abrams has a better success rate, at 96% (24-for-25).
  • Duran is second in MLB in BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play), at .391.

A high BABIP is generally considered lucky, and .391 is likely unsustainable. However, Duran has the type of speed that could make BABIP largely irrelevant as someone who can beat out ground balls at such a high rate and who also hits the ball hard.

Baseball Savant

Along with the offensive gains, we’ve seen strides defensively as well. Duran hasn’t been perfect but the improvements are clear. His Outfield Jump is in the 99th percentile on Statcast, his arm strength 64th percentile, and Outs Above Average are 58th percentile at exactly zero.

One final thought, since I’m already here manipulating stats to make a point. While Duran has been given a bit more leeway against lefthanded pitchers in recent weeks (he’s now hitting .302 vs. both LHP and RHP), for most of the season Alex Cora used Jarren Duran and Rob Refsnyder as a straight platoon, thanks to Refsnyder being an on-base machine against lefties. The moment that the starting pitcher left the game and either Duran or Refsnyder were at the plate, the other was pinch-hitting. What if this approach had been used exclusively this season, creating a monster switch-hitting outfielder named: JaRob DuRefsnyder? How about a .312/.382/.488 slash line with a 137 wRC+ for DuRefsnyder?

Fangraphs Splits

Have I gone too far? Maybe, but no matter how you feel about Jarren Duran, it has been quite a transformation from a year ago when he had issues both on the field and in the clubhouse, something that even Duran has admitted himself. Under club control through 2028, Duran will not be a free agent until he’s 32 years old even though he is two months older than Rafael Devers. If he can continue to play at this level, he will be a great addition to a cost-controlled core of hitters who will go through their prime together in the coming years.

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