Chaim Bloom’s plan to replace Trevor Story began to take shape Wednesday morning, as the Boston Red Sox signed outfielder Adam Duvall to a one-year, $7 million deal. Duvall can earn an additional $3 million in playing time incentives; he missed the second half of the 2022 season with an injured wrist, and the Red Sox are hedging their bets against another IL stint.
A couple of weeks ago, this signing wouldn’t have made much sense. Boston’s outfield looked all set with Masataka Yoshida in left field, Enrique Hernandez in center, and Alex Verdugo in right, plus Rob Refsnyder on the bench and Jarren Duran at Triple-A. But then their second baseman/potential shortstop underwent major surgery on his throwing arm, and the Red Sox were thrown for a loop. The versatile Hernández, who’s played every position save for catcher, became the shortstop by default, and Boston needed a new center fielder. Enter Duvall.
Duvall took up center field late in life, making his first appearance there a few weeks before his 32nd birthday. He started his first game there the following April and didn’t become a primary center fielder until last year, his age-33 season. In 2023, he’ll attempt to play his first full season as a center fielder at an age when most players are already moving down the defensive spectrum.
Yet despite his late start, Duvall has taken to his new position like a natural. In 75 games, he’s been worth an impressive 5 OAA and 4 DRS. He has good instincts in the outfield, as demonstrated by his quick reaction time, which ranked 17th out of 105 qualified fielders last season and ninth out of 98 the year before. His arm is strong too, and he averaged 90.4 mph on his fastest throws from center, slightly better than league average. Finally, while Duvall does n’t run particularly well for a center fielder, he still moves well for his age – his sprint speed ranked in the 67th percentile last season and was fourth-fastest in his age group:
Fastest Players Age-33
Minimum 10 competitive runs
Duvall is fortunate to have found new life as a center fielder, since his offensive performance has declined over the past two seasons. He posted an 87 wRC+ in 315 PA last year and struck out nearly a third of the time. Had he qualified, he would have finished with the second-worst walk-to-strikeout ratio in the National League, a feat he also accomplished in 2021. To make matters worse, his power numbers, which were quite impressive two years ago , plummeted last season. His isolated power fell from .263 to .188, while his HR / PA pace sunk by 45%. The Statcast metrics weren’t any kinder; his xISO dropped from .272 to .186. None of those numbers are bad, per se – the league-average hitter had a .152 ISO last season – but Duvall needs power to compensate for his substandard plate discipline.
It’s a good thing, then, that Duvall began to heat up in the summer. After getting off to a dismal start in April and May, his power returned in June. From June 1 to July 23, he put up a 143 wRC+ in 32 games before a torn tendon ended his season. That’s obviously a tiny sample, but underlying his success was a flatter swing and a wealth of hard contact. It will make a tremendous difference if he can maintain such a swing throughout the upcoming season.
Duvall flew out a ton over the first two months of the year. He’s always been prone to flying out, but this was something else: in 186 PA, he flew out 30% of the time. League average was 20%, while his career average is 23.5%. The explanation was simple – he was hitting more fly balls than usual and swinging under the ball more often. His hard contact rate was down, his pull rate was down, and thus, his power disappeared:
Duvall’s Fly Balls
|Timeframes||FB%||Under% on FB||HardHit% on FB||Pull% on FB||PA/HR|
Under% and HardHit% via Baseball Savant
However, the veteran outfielder turned things around when the calendar turned to June. He flattened his swing and started hitting more balls on the ground. His groundball rate rose from 25.5% to 34.6% and his average launch angle fell by more than eight degrees. What’s more, the fly balls he did hit were of considerably higher quality. His average launch angle on fly balls dropped from 40.5 to 36.7 degrees – much closer to the optimal launch angle for a home run. The difference in his median launch angle on fly balls was even more significant, going from 41 degrees to 33.5. To put that in perspective, the major league average launch angle on a fly out in 2022 was 39.5 degrees. On a home run, it was 29.5. Armed with a flatter swing, Duvall flew out only 19 times in 129 PA (15%) from June onwards. Meanwhile, his home run rate skyrocketed. He hit just two dingers in April and May but exploded for 10 in June and July.
Lowering his launch angle wasn’t the only way Duvall improved. By making better swings, he made better contact on fly balls in just about every way. He hit the ball harder, he hit the ball farther, and he pulled the ball more often:
Duvall’s Fly Balls Part 2
|Timeframes||EV on FB||HardHit% on FB||Distance on FB||Pull% on FB|
EV, HardHit%, and Distance via Baseball Savant
A couple months of hot hitting can’t provide enough data to prove Duvall is truly a changed man. However, his midseason turnaround demonstrates why his full-season numbers only tell part of the story. He may not be an elite power hitter going forward, but his bat is n’t as dead as his 87 wRC + makes it look. The Red Sox are counting on that, since they really need Duvall to be their everyday center fielder and provide some right-handed power to a lefty-heavy lineup. Losing both Story and Xander Bogaerts at the same time left a massive hole up the middle and a lineup desperately in need of another righty bat.
Out of context, it sounds strange to say the Red Sox are replacing Bogaerts and Story with Duvall, but it makes more sense than it seems to at first. They let their superstar shortstop walk in free agency and planned to replace him with their second baseman, who used to be a superstar shortstop himself. Then Story needed surgery, so the Red Sox replaced him with their center fielder, Hernández. The guy they signed to replace their center fielder is a 34-year-old veteran who played shortstop in high school, second base in college, third base in the minors, first base in his rookie season, and the corner outfield spots until 2021. He’s never played a full season in center field. Okay, I guess it sounds pretty strange with context, too. The Red Sox are having an unusual offseason, and this is just the latest turn in a saga few could have predicted.
Strangeness aside, Duvall should be a fine center fielder in 2023. He plays solid defense, runs well, and hits with some pop. And if he keeps swinging like he was before his injury, the Red Sox might have just lucked into the best right-handed hitter in their lineup.