The Twins Get To Have Their Cake and Eat It Too With Duran

Photo Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Jhoan Durán has brought the fire that fans have been craving for years, and he just may be having the best season from a Minnesota Twins reliever ever. And yet, he probably doesn’t get half the recognition he deserves. Years from now, statheads will look at his Baseball Reference page, and his awards box will be relatively empty, save for a down-ballot Rookie of the Year vote or two.

He wasn’t named an All-Star. He also won’t get much consideration for this year’s Cy Young award or Most Valuable Player. But Durán has played every bit of those three parts for this year’s Twins team. Without him, the team isn’t in a playoff hunt, and Target Field’s radar gun would be an afterthought. Instead, he’s become a staple to manager Rocco Baldelli’s winning strategy, and his outings are must-see TV.

Durán’s surface numbers are fantastic, and some of his stats under the hood are so nasty that they put Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, and Randy Myers to shame. While that trio was dubbed “The Nasty Boys” in the early 1990s due to their unbelievable offerings out of the Cincinnati Reds bullpen, that distinction fits Duran far more appropriately. He’s not just a nasty boy. He’s El Chico Malo.

Durán has three legitimate pitches that stifle opposing hitters. His splinker set a record for hardest off-speed pitch ever recorded (earning him a celebratory cake from his teammates), and hitters miss his curveball nearly half the time (44.2%). If he throws his four-seam fastball any harder, it might tear a hole in the space-time continuum. These three offerings make for the nastiest repertoire in baseball, and each gets key strikes in its own way.

Let’s start with the heater. Durán is in the 100th percentile in fastball velocity, and his four-seam averages a blistering 100.7 MPH. So far in his young career, the rookie has topped out at 103.4 MPH, trailing only Jordan Hicks of the St. Louis Cardinals for hardest-thrown pitch in 2022. Durán has thrown that pitch for a strike 71% of the time (10th-highest rate in MLB among qualified relievers), and hitters have swung at it 53% of the time (6th-highest). When opponents make contact with this smoldering pitch, they only have a .230 batting average and a paltry .299 slugging percentage. Hitters haven’t been able to consistently get a hold of Durán’s fastball, whether due to the incredible velocity or the fact that they have to prepare for two other plus offerings.

His two other primary pitches are also lethal, even if they lack the spotlight that his fastball often receives. They get plenty of outs with swing-and-miss outcomes, as well as softly hit ground balls or weak pop-ups. Durán gets ground balls 66% of the time that he throws a non-fastball, which is the highest mark in MLB this year.

Going back to his aforementioned splinker, Durán uses this pitch in spots where the hitter may be sitting on a fastball. Instead, they get this wicked nonsense that looks like it falls off a table. That’s the point. But not only is the ball falling off a table, but now it’s falling at 100 miles per hour. The hitter’s brain is calibrated to expect the fastball in or near the strike zone, but then they end up chasing the splinker down and out of the zone. Speaking to that, opponents have chased 41% of his off-speed pitches out of the zone, placing him in the 90th percentile in baseball in that regard. It explains the swing-and-miss. It explains the elite ground ball rate, and it certainly passes the eye test. Long story short, it’s an elite pitch from an elite player.

That brings us to Durán’s most underrated tool in his skill set – the curveball. His yacker has turned into a perfect tool that catches opponents off guard early in counts, especially the first pitch of an at-bat. Durán gets the most misses on this offering, and it’s an exceptional tool for getting ahead in the count. Once he gets to two strikes in an at-bat, the hitter has little chance of saving himself from getting out. Opponents have an anemic .116 batting average in these scenarios, and Minnesota’s star hurler has turned up the heat, especially lately. In August, opponents had a .151 OPS with two strikes against Durán (the league average is .488).

At-bats in high-leverage situations are always challenging. Now imagine essentially getting only two strikes to make something happen.

That’s the kind of cheat code that Duran has provided for this contending Twins team. He won’t end up with many accolades to his name this season, but the rookie sensation has given the team and fans everything they’ve wanted in a star reliever for years.

The Twins got their cake. Now they get to eat it, too.

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