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How Adam Duvall Is Defying Baseball Wisdom

The Reds slugger doesn’t need to reach base often to be valuable

Getty Images
Getty Images

Matt Christopher wrote more than 120 sports books for kids, but none entranced readers quite like The Kid Who Only Hit Homers, in which Sylvester, the protagonist, excels in his youth baseball league by doing exactly what the book’s title says.

It’s a fun fictional story, nothing more. But if Sylvester actually existed, and if he grew up and maintained his hitting pattern into his late 20s, he’d look a lot like Adam Duvall, the left fielder currently blasting baseballs into orbit over Southwest Ohio.

He’s blasting them far, and he’s blasting them often, providing punch for an otherwise anemic Cincinnati lineup: Duvall leads the NL with 22 home runs, with 20 coming since May 3.

There’s a reason that Duvall isn’t already smiling at us from Wheaties boxes, though, and it’s not just because the 2016 Reds are a blend of bad and boring. It’s because Duvall hits homers or he doesn’t hit at all: He pairs a .580 slugging percentage with a woeful .291 on-base rate thanks to one of the worst batting eyes in the game. During one recent six-week stretch, Jeremy Hellickson, a pitcher with two career walks entering the season, reached base on balls more often than Duvall.

No qualified batter has ever posted an OBP below .300 while hitting for such consistent power. Nobody has really come all that close.

If Moneyball taught us anything — or, at least, if superficial reads of Moneyball taught us anything — it’s that not making outs is important, meaning it’s hard to be a valuable baseball player when the first digit of your on-base percentage is a two.

Duvall is defying that piece of axiomatic baseball wisdom, however. Acquired from San Francisco in the Mike Leake trade last summer, Duvall has already been worth nearly two wins above replacement this season, ranking him among the top dozen NL outfielders.

That’s quite a feat for a low-tools player who was never a top-10 prospect in the Giants’ organization (per Baseball America) and who was largely overlooked as a throw-in for Leake. Even this offseason, Duvall was anonymous to the point that FanGraphs described him as one on “a list of fake names a baseball video game would generate to fill out the low minors rosters.”

Baseball Prospectus knew Duvall a little better, describing him as a “poor man’s Mark Trumbo.” The comparison to Trumbo, who leads the AL in homers despite a similarly unsightly walk rate, is easy; FanGraphs eventually made the connection, as did Vice Sports, and on The Ringer MLB Show in mid-June, staffers transitioned seamlessly from talking about Duvall to talking about Trumbo.

That’s not high praise in today’s baseball climate, when one-dimensional power is widely shunned; long gone are the days of Juan González MVP votes and Bash Brothers fetishizing. A player like Trumbo would have been a franchise cornerstone two decades ago — but in today’s game, in which teams value multifaceted skill sets and on-base ability, he has been discarded by three clubs in as many seasons.

It’s probably for the best. Ryan Howard’s bloated contract extension has become a cautionary tale. And opposing general managers shouldn’t have to do much more than scrounge under their couch cushions for change this July if they want to trade for Matt Kemp or Jay Bruce, two replacement-level players putting up empty power numbers.

The backlash against any player seemingly resembling those long-ball-reliant husks of former All-Stars has gone too far. Duvall is dismissed preemptively, leaving him both underrated and largely anonymous nationally when, in reality, of the 15 outfielders who made last season’s All-Star Game, only Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Lorenzo Cain have been more valuable than Duvall this year (and Cain by a mere 0.1 WAR).

Part of Duvall’s quiet success has come on defense; a porous corner infielder before this year, the Red has excelled in his first stint in the outfield, by both advanced metrics and the eye test. He hasn’t been at it long, but he seems to hew closer to Alex Gordon and Ryan Braun, who successfully completed the infield-to-outfield transition in recent years, than he does to someone like Trumbo, who could charitably be described as an adventure in the outfield.

Even at the plate, though, Duvall generates more value than his frightful OBP might suggest. He has created runs at a rate far better than the average hitter thanks to his home run binges, exemplifying the perhaps anti-evolutionary notion that a high-power, low-OBP approach can work if the first part of the formula carries enough wattage.

Trumbo is proving the same with his three-month hot streak for the first-place Orioles, and even Billy Beane has tried to take advantage of this new market inefficiency by trading for Khris Davis in the offseason and accepting a sub-.300 OBP in exchange for top-level power numbers.

As home run totals boom across baseball, we might soon find more players who are proving sneakily useful despite anachronistic batting lines. That’s already the case with Duvall, whose success with such a single-minded offensive philosophy suggests he might do well to double down on this approach.

Except Duvall is the Red Who Only Hits Homers, so there shouldn’t be any singles or doubles involved at all.