RED SOX INSIDER

Tomase: Duran's struggles may hint at why Sox acquired Schwarber

RED SOX INSIDER

Jarren Duran's athleticism is absurd, as he demonstrated during a pair of recent hustle plays -- first by taking second on a booted groundball that barely escaped the infield vs. the Yankees, and then on his inside-the-park home run that wasn't vs. the Blue Jays.

Both times, Duran tore not so much around first as through it, his legs churning like Bugs Bunny's old Tasmanian Devil.

What the Red Sox are learning early in Duran's career, however, is that all the athleticism in the world doesn't mean much if the ball's not in play.

Simply put, Duran strikes out. A lot. And as new acquisition Kyle Schwarber nears a return to action, we shouldn't be so hasty to stick him at first base, not with Duran struggling to put bat to ball and the Red Sox trying to make a run back atop the division.

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Fourteen games into his career, Duran is hitting .150 with a .486 OPS. He has struck out 17 times in 43 plate appearances, a 39.5 percent strikeout percentage that is untenable over a full season. He has struck out six times in his last seven at-bats, and a look at the video shows him striking out on pretty much everything -- fastballs up, fastballs down and in, fastballs away, sliders over the heart of the plate.

 

The expectation was that he might struggle with big-league velocity above the belt, but his issues have extended to all quadrants of the strike zone. And it's fair to ask how long the Red Sox can let him scuffle.

"We all know what he can do," manager Alex Cora said recently. "Obviously, there's a few things he needs to keep getting better at, but he's a good player. The fact that he knows what he has to do, he doesn't get caught up in the 2-for-4s and the 0-for-4s. He shows up and works."

The rookie's Achilles heel

Duran's strikeout rate with Red Sox (40 ABs)
39.5%
Red Sox' average strikeout rate as a team
23.2%

It's not as if he's alone in struggling. The offense as a whole has hit the skids in the second half, with the Sox hitting just .242 with a .306 on base percentage since the All-Star break. The only regulars hitting above .300 in that span are Rafael Devers (.333) and Kiké Hernández (.317).

That drop-off after Hernández is comically steep -- Alex Verdugo checks in next at .226, followed by Christian Vazquez (.222), Hunter Renfroe (.212), J.D. Martinez (.210), and Xander Bogaerts (.205).

So why focus on Duran? Because he's the obvious odd man out when Schwarber returns, presumably in the next two or three weeks.

Part of the motivation for promoting Duran in mid-July, after all, was to get an extended look at him before the trade deadline to ascertain the impact he might make down the stretch. The acquisition of Schwarber, who has played almost exclusively in the outfield as a big leaguer, suggests that management has its doubts about Duran's immediate viability.

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Of course, touted prospects have struggled in their Red Sox debuts before finding the range. Dustin Pedroia hit .191 during a 2006 September call-up and was only batting .172 the following May before finishing at .317 and winning the Rookie of the Year Award. Mookie Betts started similarly in 2014, hitting just .228 in his first 18 games before finishing that season at .291.

But whereas those players showed enough ability that their turnarounds felt inevitable, Duran is still finding his way. The Red Sox would like to see him control the strike zone. He has walked just twice, and one of them came in his debut. Cora has noted that the entire team needs to see more pitches, but it's particularly acute with Duran, who is chasing pitches out of the strike zone about a third of the time and making contact with that subset only about a third of the time.

"When we control the strike, we're good," Cora said. "When we don't, we get into trouble."

It goes without saying that 14 games do not a career make. Duran has improved so much in the last few months from winter ball to Olympic qualifying to Triple-A that it's entirely possible he figures out big-league pitching, too.

But anyone hoping he'd arrive in Boston and make an immediate impact must recalibrate their expectations, because this is going to be a process.