Walk rate rises as average, slugging percentage drop off for Reds outfielder
By Cody Pace
CINCINNATI -- In the span of 46 games, Adam Duvall has fundamentally changed his identity as a hitter.
The Reds outfielder burst onto the scene in his first 59 games, batting .258 with 18 homers and a .589 slugging percentage, enough to earn him a National League All-Star bid in his first full season.
But underlying those numbers was an anomaly -- Duvall walked in just 3.2 percent of his at-bats. In the modern era, no qualifying hitter has ever posted a walk rate that low while posting a slugging percentage as high as Duvall's -- only Dante Bichette in 1995 and Joe DiMaggio in his rookie season in '36 had a walk rate below 4 percent and a slugging percentage above .570.
"You'd like everybody in your lineup to be able to be high on-base, high slugging, and that would be a perfect world," Reds hitting coach Don Long said. "I think it's more a matter of finding what guys' strengths are, and then whatever their challenges are, trying to make those a little bit better."
Naturally, it raised the question of whether or not Duvall could sustain an unprecedented pace -- neither DiMaggio nor Bichette ever walked below 4 percent again, and DiMaggio became a 10-percent-or-higher walk guy.
Duvall has seemingly answered that question over his past 46 games, walking 10.6 percent of the time to raise his season walk rate to 6.7 percent, more than twice what it was after 59 games. Duvall said it hasn't been intentional, though.
"I wouldn't say that I've been more patient. I've just happened to get more walks," Duvall said. "I feel like I've done a better job with two strikes, and I think that's helped getting a couple more walks."
Theoretically, getting on base more often would be beneficial for Duvall, but his performance has dropped off as his walk rate has increased. In his past 46 games, his average is only .217 and his slugging percentage is down more than 150 points to .434. By weighted runs created plus (wRC+) -- which quantifies the runs a player creates on a scale, with 100 at league average -- Duvall has gone from 24 percent above to eight percent below the average.
According to Pitch-f/x, Duvall's increased patience has seen him improve his swings on pitches outside of the strike zone by nearly 10 percent, but he's also swinging at about three percent fewer pitches inside the strike zone, and his slugging percentage on pitches in the zone has dropped from .861 to .589.
When analyzing Duvall's adjustments in approach, one thing that both Long and the outfielder continually mentioned was being in a better position to hit. Part of that has Duvall on top of the ball more -- baseball terminology for keeping the upper body over the plate.
"I think it's a byproduct of him getting in a better position to hit so he's recognizing what's good to hit and what isn't," Long said.
While this has allowed Duvall to see the ball better, it's also changed his swing. Over the past 46 games, his average launch angle has dropped from 19.9 to 16.1 degrees, according to Statcast™, and his ground-ball rate has risen more than 7 percent to 40.8 percent.
This is where Duvall has to make a tough decision: attempt to resume his old pace, which could allow him to get exploited on pitches outside the strike zone; or continue at his current pace, where he misses out on good pitches.
"I think it's just, for one, when you get a good pitch to hit, not missing it," Duvall said. "Because then you put yourself in a tough position. Then I think the other part is just going to your zone and looking for what you want and really being stubborn in the fact to not swing at anything until you get that pitch."
Someone who understands this dilemma is D-backs third-base coach and former Nationals manager Matt Williams.
"From my own experience, I can tell you that I never met a pitch I didn't like," said Williams, who walked 4.4 percent of the time and slugged .561 in 1993 for the Giants. "I subscribe to the theory that only the mailman walks. But that's really just a question of knowing who you are and what you can and can't do. I don't know [Duvall], per se, but I don't know if I would want him to be more patient and draw walks."
The reality of Duvall's situation is that opponents don't care that he's walking more, because they'd rather him draw a walk than put the ball over the fence.
"Me as an infield guy and a guy that looks at positioning defense and things like that against Duvall, I'm saying, 'OK, well, we've got to make sure that we're positioning ourselves right, because he's going to get up on the dish and he's going to hack, and he's looking to pull the ball over the fence,'" Williams said. "So we're not worried about the walk, necessarily, as their opponent."
Cody Pace is a reporter for MLB.com based in Cincinnati. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.