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An Early Look at Adam Duvall’s Struggles

Disclaimer: I started writing this post prior to Duvall’s on Friday night, right about the time he decided he was going to make me look silly. Stats do not include games on Monday 4/15.

A quick glance at the Reds offensive production so far in 2018 provides some context for a horrendous start.  Jumping down towards the bottom of stat sheet, we find 2016 All-Star Adam Duvall, who has been off to a terrible start at the plate. He leads the team in both home-runs and RBI (not saying much at this point) but has struggled to get much going other than that and currently owns a 59 wRC+. And that follows two strong performances since I started writing this, when he had a 29 wRC+. He is not the only reason the Reds offense is struggling , but he is among the biggest culprits.

Duvall’s calling card is no secret; he is a slugger. Over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, he ranks 15th in the MLB with an ISO of .244. He hits the ball harder than average and pulls the ball more than average. So while a high pull rate isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is interesting that he is currently well above his own normal.

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League average is just under 40% while Duvall’s career average is just under 48%. So far in 2018 he is pulling almost 63% of balls, highest in the league among qualified hitters. Even for power hitters, there is an optimal amount of pulling the ball, and Duvall is way above it. Presumably, this is not something he is trying to do, but rather has been influenced in part by pitch location.

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Not surprisingly, the highest concentration of pitches Duvall saw in 2017 (left) were on the outside part of the plate as pitchers try to avoid playing to Duvall’s strength. In 2018 (right), he has seen a more even distribution of pitches across the strike zone. So if more balls are coming closer to where he can pull them, why is he not having success?

The easiest answer is that is has not been catching any breaks. While his BABIP as of Sunday night was a .156, it had been down to a .091 just a couple days earlier. The small sample of the young season shows how quickly a couple balls here or there can change things. Still though, a low BABIP indicates that there are better days ahead.

However, in addition to the high pull rate, other components of Duvall’s batted ball profile are not ideal. He is creating more soft contact than normal and is also hitting more groundballs than normal. It is not to a level he has not been before, but his soft contact was increasing in the latter half of 2017 and could be a larger trend. And the increase in ground balls has been accompanied by an all-time low line drive rate, which is generally the result of weak contact.

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Duvall has always gotten the ball in the air, as his career average 20.1-degree launch angle and 47% fly ball rate will attest to. So far this year, it has pretty much either been in the air or on the ground. And of the balls in play to the left side of the field this year, his launch angle is 4.6 degrees, compared to 9.8 degrees last year. Even though he has gotten pitches to the inside of the plate, he has not been able to drive them as he has in the past.

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Even with a high concentration of balls hit to 3B in 2017 (left), Duvall still made good use of left and center field. 2018 (right) has been way more concentrated to the infield, with very few balls going anywhere besides 3B or LF.

On top of his batted ball profile, plate discipline metrics also tell an interesting story.

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So far this year, 42% of pitches to Duvall have been in the strike zone, just below is career average of 43.4%. While that number may be a bit low, it is nothing compared to the drop off in Swing% which is 41.8% and well below his career average of 49%. Improving selectivity is something that players are always striving to do, so this makes sense, especially at the start of a new season. And while his BB% is slightly up, so is his K%, even despite a lower SwStrike%. Dvuall is taking too many pitches in the zone, most likely as he is not yet comfortable with his new approach. However, it could be an effect of not seeing the ball well out of the gate, which could also explain the weaker contact.

It is not like pitchers have figured out a magical way to always get Adam Duvall out. There is some variance at the pitch type level, specifically more sinkers and less four-seamers, but the overall breakout between hard, breaking and offspeed pitches is very much in line with what Duvall saw in 2016 and 2017. The only variation is with how Duvall has performed against the pitches.

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Higher whiffs per swing on breaking and offspeed pitches could be another indication that he is just not seeing the ball well at this point in the year. Even though he is swinging less and swinging and missing less overall, he is really struggling with non-fastballs.

Add it all up and Duvall is getting decent pitches to hit, but he is either taking them more so than before, swinging and missing on breaking/offspeed stuff, or swinging and not making solid, hard contact, leading to a lot of grounders to third base. Time will tell if he maintains and improves upon his newfound patience and starts connecting with and driving good pitches, utilizing the power that got him here.

The Reds Hit the Unhittable Bullpen

Prior to the 2016 trade-deadline acquisition of Andrew Miller, the Indians had a strong bullpen. Dan Otero was in the midst of a terrific year and was arguably a top-10 reliever in baseball. Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Zach McAllister compiled a strong relief core that was a huge strength for the American League Champion. They finished the season 7th in the league in total WAR at 5.0, aided by Andrew Miller’s 1.1. Miller instantly added a new dynamic to the bullpen and the Indians were able to ride them through all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. Ever since then, Cleveland’s relievers have been nearly unhittable.

Up until May 21, just before the Indians and Reds series began, the Tribe bullpen was spotting an ERA of 1.97 through 146 innings, which was first in the league with a .184 batting average against and a .248 opponent wOBA. As a unit they had converted all 18 save opportunities they had been given, never relinquishing a lead from the 7th inning on.

The Indians’ opponent for the next three days happened to be the Cincinnati Reds, who, believe it or not, currently lead the majors in WAR for position players, while also sitting 5th in OBP, 5th in SLG and 6th in wOBA. They have four players with double-digit home-run totals, the only team in the league that can boast that. Zack Cozart leads all shortstops in AVG, OBP, SLG, wRC+ and WAR. They also have a former MVP who is slashing .351/.510/.608/.1.118 for the month of May. While they might not be on everyone’s radar, this offense has been one of the league’s best so far in 2017.

The Reds hitters showed they are the real deal in the battle of Ohio, particularly against the very stingy Cleveland bullpen. In 7.1 innings in three games against the Reds, the Indians’ pen allowed 5 earned runs and gave up 10 hits and 2 walks while striking out 8. It’s not the worst line for a three-game stretch by any means, but given their performance prior to this series it can certainly be classified as surprising. All of the run-scoring damage took place during two at-bats: Eugenio Suarez’s game-tying home run against Bryan Shaw and Zack Cozart’s go-ahead single against Cody Allen.

Suarez’s home-run in the bottom of the 7th inning took the Reds’ chances of winning from 18.4% to 55%, easily the most impactful play in terms of WPA for each player this season. While the Indians ended up coming out on top, it was still the first blown save for the Indians this year.

Cozart’s 9th inning, go-ahead single the following night would prove even more significant as it came in the Reds’ final out of the game and added a whopping .648 to their win probability. It quickly became the second blown save in as many nights and ultimately resulted in a Reds win. The one caveat about this play is that Billy Hamilton’s speed had quite a significant impact. He may be the only player in the league that scores from first base in that scenario, which greatly affected the WPA for both Cozart and Allen. Nonetheless, Allen still got pegged for a loss in his worst outing of the year so far.

Going forward, this series will mostly likely come to be insignificant for the Indians. Andrew Miller still turned in dominant performances and Shaw and Allen are likely to remain the strong, reliable setup men they have proven to be. For the Reds, this series is more evidence that the lineup is up and down very much improved from last year, when they posted 15.4 WAR (they are currently at 10.1 in 2017) and an 89 wRC+. With Joey Votto continuing to put himself in the discussion at the best hitter in the game and a young group of players eager to prove themselves, this Reds offense could manage to surprise some more people down the stretch.