To say Adam Duvall has struggled since the deadline deal with the Reds is being very kind in the description of his performance. While nearly everyone agrees that the Braves sacrificed little, they have also received little in return. Aside from this week’s non-steal “steal of home,” there have been few good things to remember about Duvall’s run as a Brave to this point. In 41 plate appearances since the deal, he’s reached base safely seven times. I’ve done the numbers and that’s a .171 OBP.
Duvall has struggled all season – really his entire career – at getting on base. Before the trade, in 370 PA in 2018, he was hitting .205 – which, if you’re curious, is the definition of not hitting your weight. While Duvall saw his walk rate tick up a few points this season ahead of the trade, he was still only reaching base at a .295 clip with the Reds. The Braves didn’t expect Duvall to hit for average when they acquired him or be a big on-base guy. Even during a solid pair of seasons before this year, Duvall was a .245 hitter with a .299 OBP. He’s not going to be Tony Gwynn. He’s more like Tony Gwynn Jr if the latter traded in his speed for power.
It’s that lack of power that has puzzled the Braves to this point. In 2016, Duvall had a .257 ISO. In 2017, it was .232. Before the trade, he was sporting a .193 ISO. Now – Duvall’s next extra-base hit will also be his first as a Brave.
To comically put this in perspective: since the trade, Duvall has a .276 OPS. Acquired a day later, Kevin Gausman has a .298 OPS.
Everyone point at Duvall and laugh.
Okay, got that out of your system? Let’s dive more into what’s going wrong here. As I said before, Duvall was already struggling in 2018 ahead of the trade. While batting average isn’t a be-all number, a .205 average is pretty ugly. Better than a .105 one since the trade, though. But here’s the deal – Duvall’s Statcast numbers point to Duvall being closer to his previous two years of data than some extreme fall from grace.
Duvall’s 2016 Barrel rate – defined as the ideal mix of exit velocity and launch angle – was 12.1%. That ranked in the Top 8% in baseball. It fell to 8.9% last year but is back in double digits this season at 10.5%. His xwOBA was .337 in 2016 – it’s .332 this year. His Hard-Hit% was 41.2% in 2016 – it’s 40.5% now. He’s hitting the ball at nearly the same exit velocity as he did in his best season. The reason why I’ve quoted a lot of 2016 stats is that all those numbers fell in 2017. In fact, it’s easy to argue that Duvall is hitting the ball better in 2018, but not getting the results.
There is a troubling trend, though and that’s launch angle. Now, when I say that phrase, many people get upset because of a common misunderstanding. We’re not talking about getting more launch angle. Big launch angle is not for every hitter. For instance: Freddie Freeman. His exit velocity has fallen each of the last two seasons. Not that you should be alarmed, but his exit velocity is actually very close to Duvall (88.8 mph for Freeman, 88.6 mph for Duvall). But Freeman has a significantly lower launch angle at 14.7 degrees. That number has come down with his exit velocity from a 17.3-degree launch angle in 2016. Duvall’s launch angle has gone the other way in the last three years – 19 to 21.2 to 22 degrees this season.
But Tommy, I thought all you nerds loved launch angle while writing your little blog posts in your momma’s basement.
Learn this simple principle – the higher your exit velocity, the higher your launch angle can be. Let’s look at Freeman again – and no, I’m not comparing Duvall to Freeman in talent. Freeman’s 17.3-degree launch angle in 2016 wouldn’t have been as effective if he didn’t also have a 91.3 mph exit velocity. It allowed his expected SLG and xOBA to rank with the Top 3% in baseball. The following year, his exit velocity fell nearly 2 ticks to 89.6 mph. But he had better expected SLG and wOBA because he also lowered his launch angle to 15.8-degrees.
But like I said, Duvall has gone in the other direction. While his exit velocity has remained about the same throughout the last three years, his launch angle has continued to climb. Duvall’s exit velocity is good. But it’s not elite. Joey Gallo‘s the extreme example of just that. His launch angle has been above 22 degrees the last two seasons. But he can get away with that more because he hits the ball at a 93 mph exit velocity.
So, Duvall’s making too much bad contact. But that’s not the entire story here because like I said, his Statcast rates are better than they were in 2017 and are closer to his best season, 2016. Armed with that knowledge, the Braves – and, before them, the Reds – should expect that Duvall’s numbers would more closely resemble last year’s totals at the very least.
Some of the struggles are due to more shifts – 7% more to be exact. Better and more frequent shifts mean a higher likelihood of outs being recorded.
But the biggest culprit – and people who are so steadfastly anti-Duvall will hate to hear this – the biggest reason for Duvall’s troubles is blind, stupid, simple, doo-dah, clueless luck!. Now, if Duvall’s launch angle was better, his luck would almost certainly improve. However, the boy just needs the Baseball Gods to smile onto him a bit more. In 2016, he had a .275 BABIP. The following season, it went up to .290. This season – it’s .233. That includes a .143 BABIP since coming to Atlanta.
Duvall could be doing everything perfect at the plate and would still fail because he offended the Baseball Gods – or at least is extremely unlucky.
In the short-term, that should fix itself. These kinds of spells can last a year – just like a string of good luck can last a year as Chris Johnson well knows while counting his millions. But typically, to use an old baseball adage, players hit themselves out of a slump eventually. It’s often less due to adjustments at the plate and more because of better luck in the field. The hits will fall for Duvall eventually. I don’t know when, but hopefully, it begins in 2018.
Long-term, Duvall needs to tweak his swing. He can’t make Gallo-level contact with the ball so he can’t live in Gallo-level launch angle. Getting his launch angle back in the teens without sacrificing exit velocity would help a good deal. There’s a talented player here and pretending otherwise is just foolish. Certainly, he’s not hitting right now. It would be even more foolish to say so. But giving up on a player who had a 4.1 fWAR and 5.0 bWAR in the previous two seasons makes zero sense as well.
Duvall is not Freddie Freeman or Joey Gallo. Or any number of players. But he is a productive player with a career 102 wRC+ again left-hand pitching. Maybe all he is is a platoon player and that’s fine. But he’s certainly more than we’ve seen to this point. Braves fans, don’t overreact based on three dozen plate appearances. Be smarter than that.