Braves: Trading for Adam Duvall is paying off… two years later

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Other than the Matt Kemp trade made during the offseason leading up to the 2018 season (featuring Kemp to the Dodgers, in exchange for Charlie Culberson, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, and Brandon McCarthy), Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos hadn’t yet made much noise as the team’s leader. Anthopoulos was hired in November of 2017, and other than a few small signings netting minimal returns or merely providing a bit of excitement — like bringing in former Blue Jay employee Jose Bautista and veteran journeymen Jonny Venters — he mostly kept the roster the same. 

However, the 2018 trade deadline offered an opportunity, and Anthopoulos had himself a busy few days, completing a couple of deals with the Orioles and Reds on the day before Deadline Day. The trade with Baltimore netted reliever Brad Bach in exchange for international bonus money, but the deal with the Reds allowed the Braves to cash in on a few players who had been underperforming for quite awhile. On July 30th, Cincinnati sent then 29-year-old outfielder Adam Duvall to Atlanta for pitchers Lucas Sims, Matt Wisler, and outfielder Preston Tucker (who the Braves had just acquired the previous December). 

And when I say the Braves acquired Duvall in exchange for players who had been underperforming… that’s probably being a bit too nice.

  • Sims, a former no. 13 prospect in the Braves’ system entering the 2016 season, regressed with every promotion in the minors until finally earning a debut during the last two months of 2017. He went on to post a combined 5.96 ERA in ten starts and ten relief appearances overall as a Brave.

 

  • Once upon a time, Wisler was ranked even higher within the Braves’ prospect class, coming in at no. 34 in baseball (per Baseball America) as he entered his MLB debut against the Mets as a 22-year-old in June of 2015 — a season in which he made 19 starts and posted a 4.71 ERA. However, a 6.25 ERA in his next 215.2 combined innings as a Brave put a damper on any potential he had. 

 

  • And lastly, there was Tucker, who Anthopoulos acquired from the Astros in December of 2017 after he already had 146 big league games under his belt. Tucker actually hit well as a Brave during that half-season, getting in 62 games and posting a .256 average with 14 extra-base hits (four HR) before the trade.

 

As you can see, neither of the three above were slated to be long-term contributors for the Braves, so adding a player like Duvall — who was coming off an All-Star season in 2016 and a 31-homer, 99-RBI year in 2017 — seemed like a steal of a deal for Anthopoulos.

Although, as we painfully witnessed during the second half of the 2018 season, Duvall’s horrific start with the Braves made us wonder why a deal was even done in the first place.

 

A second-half to forget in 2018

Just how bad was Duvall’s second-half of the 2018 season? Well, considering he managed to produce minus-0.5 bWAR in a 33-game span with the Braves… it was pretty damn bad. 

Duvall’s 2nd half (2018)

33 G, .132 AVG, .344 OPS, 1 XBH 

 

In 53 at-bats as a Brave during that 2018 season, Duvall didn’t homer or tally a single RBI — and home runs and ribbies were literally the exact reasons he was acquired. And to make matters worse, Duvall struck out at a 32% clip and walked only three times (5.7 BB%), making him practically an automatic out at the plate. It was just an excruciating slump to watch, and by the time the 2018 season ended, Duvall’s reputation as a power-hitter with a strong glove had almost completely vanished. 

 

A little better in 2019

Considering he posted a -6 wRC+ (yes… that’s a minus) during the 2018 season as a Brave, any production going forward would’ve been an improvement for Duvall. Although his first half of 2019 featured 101 games in Triple-A Gwinnett before making his season debut with the Braves in late July. 

Those four months with the Stripers helped, though. Gwinnett was one of the most prolific lineups in Triple-A’s International League last season, and Duvall began to reclaim his power stroke there, slugging 32 homers and knocking in 93 runs to go with a .266 AVG. And with an MVP-like performance in the minors, Duvall went 3 for 5 with a homer and two RBI in his first big league game of the year against the Phillies on July 27th. 

However, a six-game hitting streak to start his time in Atlanta — in which he slugged five homers and hit .480 — quickly faded, and by late August, Duvall was hitting just .247 (still a good AVG for his all-or-nothing approach). Determined to end the 2019 season on a much better note than the year prior, he wound up hitting well during the Braves’ final month. From August 27th to September 29th (16 games), Duvall slashed .317/.364/.707 with four homers and eight RBI — good enough for a 0.6-WAR season as primarily the team’s starting left fielder during the second-half. 

Duvall’s 2019

41 G, .267 AVG, .882 OPS, 10 HR, 19 RBI

 

In terms of what we’re seeing now, though, it was the playoffs last season that really magnified Duvall’s resurgence, given he finished with a hit in three of the Braves’ five games against the Cardinals (when seemingly every other regular in the lineup couldn’t muster anything). In those five games — though just 12 PA — Duvall hit .273, including two clutch hits that either put the Braves ahead or tied the game:

  • A huge solo-homer off St. Louis starter Jack Flaherty, to put the Braves up 1-0 in the 7th inning in Game 2…

 

  • As well as a two-run single in the 9th off reliever Carlos Martinez to tie the score in Game 3. 

 

A key contributor in 2020

As you can see, after quickly hitting rock bottom following the trade that brought him over from the Reds a season in a half ago (even featuring a demotion to the minors), Duvall has made quite significant strides, to now becoming one of the offense’s key contributors. 

He’s currently fifth on the team in AVG (.265), tied for second in home runs (9), fifth in OPS (.877), and third is SLG% (.573), while currently maintaining the second-highest wRC+ (119) of his six-year big league career (despite walking at a near career-low, at just 4.2%). Also, Duvall’s already just a homer away from his full-season ZiPS projection for the 2020 season, and with 0.4 fWAR tallied before Sunday’s game against the Nationals, he’s only 0.1 WAR from reaching his projected WAR total for the entire year. 

So how’s he doing it?

Like seemingly all Braves hitters this season, shown by the team’s no. 1 rank against the pitch, per FanGraphs‘ Pitch Value, the 32-year-old Duvall is making elite contact against the fastball.

 


 

chart 1
Adam Duvall’s AVG vs. fastballs (2020) *Graph from Baseball Savant

 

Duvall has always handled the heater well throughout his career (save for 2018 of course, when he hit just .216 versus the pitch), but in 2020, it’s as if he’s sitting on the offering all the time. He’s seeing his normal share of them (52.2% of pitches thrown his way), and he’s making opposing pitchers pay by averaging .364 and slugging .727 against the heat. And to go with that strong average and elite SLG%, Duvall’s also whiffing far less frequently against the fastball, cutting his whiff-rate by 7% relative to 2019 (20.1% down to 13.1%) — a career-best whiff-rate against heaters.

 


chart 3
Adam Duvall’s Swing & Miss vs. fastballs (2020) *Graph from Baseball Savant

 

And that’s not all; Duvall has gotten more aggressive at the plate in 2020 as he’s currently swinging at the first pitch 40.3% of the time — more than 10% more frequently than his career rate and 12% more than the MLB average. The fact that he’s swinging at more first-pitch pitches, but keeping his overall chase-rate right in line with the last few seasons, means he’s obviously seeing the ball really well to keep from going after pitches out of the zone when it’s an 0-0 count.

 


chart 2
Adam Duvall’s Chase Rate vs. fastballs (2020) *Graph from Baseball Savant

 

And even better, Duvall’s rate of contact, when he does chase after pitches out of the zone, is also the highest of his career (64.4%), showing that when he does choose to go outside the zone, he’s consistently making contact. 

Even with some legit strides made during 2019, I’ll admit I never saw this coming from Duvall. In March of last year, our own Chase Irle wrote about how Duvall was probably on his way out, and even The Athletic‘s David O’Brien shared the same feelings.

 

But after improved play in 2019 and these huge numbers in 2020, Duvall’s place on the Braves’ roster is perhaps as valuable as it’s ever been.

He’ll enter and play most of 2021 as a 32-year-old (his birthday was this past Friday) and will play his third and final arbitration season at what’s likely a very affordable salary (his 2020, pre-COVID salary is for $3.25 million). And with a couple of outfielders on their way up to the majors, in Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, Duvall could make for a decent trade piece sometime next season if the solid play continues. Or the Braves could simply hold onto him, for his glove and DH capabilities have been more useful than just a stop-gap so far this season. 

To me, Duvall comps to Jay Bruce from a few seasons ago, though obviously not as consistent of a hitter throughout his career and is a better defender. Bruce had an out-of-nowhere resurgence in 2017 with the Indians and Mets as a 30-year-old, posting 2.4 fWAR plus a .254 AVG and 36 home runs. He landed a three-year, $39 million contract because of it, though that deal has aged pretty poorly, given Bruce has put up just 1 WAR since and topped out at only 98 games in 2018. 

Obviously, Duvall has one more season to go until free agency, and we’ll never know just how great he was this year, simply due to the shortened season. Still, in a 162-game season, he’s on pace to finish with around 30 homers and close to 80 RBI — something Duvall has done twice in his career (2016 & 2017). 

That’s what’s ironic about all of this. When the Braves acquired Duvall in 2018, this is what we were expecting from him. However, it appears Duvall was a season and a half late when it came to playing to his full potential. Either way, this is the Adam Duvall the Braves traded for.

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