Many Atlanta Braves fans seemed to be happy to have Adam Duvall back in a Braves uniform in 2022 after having to trade for him with the Miami Marlins the previous season. Unfortunately, his campaign was cut short due to injury.
When the Braves acquired Adam Duvall from the Marlins for Alex Jackson at the Trade Deadline in 2021, it came with an interesting contract situation. Duvall was signed with a mutual option by the Marlins but also was still arbitration-eligible. So, when Duvall declined his mutual option in the 2021-2022 off-season, he was still under team control by the Braves for one final, arbitration-eligible season.
The Braves did not manage to agree with Duvall on a salary for the season. Because of the lockout, arbitration hearings were held in the first part of the year; the Braves prevailed over Duvall in his hearing, resulting in a $9.275 million salary for the 33-year-old in his final arbitration go-around.
What were the expectations?
According to RotoChamp, Steamer had Duvall projected to have 29 HRs with a slash line of .224/.289/.458. That production, combined with him roving the outfield, suggested something between 1 and 2 WAR, a quintessential, high-quality fourth outfielder, if not quite a starter. He’d serve as a starter, in center field, at that, theoretically, until the return of Ronald Acuña Jr., and then the Braves would figure it out from there.
Obviously, Duvall did not get the 29 HRs because of his injury which saw July 23rd be his last game of the season. He hurt his wrist chasing down a Shohei Ohtani foul ball, jamming it against the left-field wall; what seemed fairly minor on camera led to premature end of his season. That being said, he was on pace for 20 HRs and had a slash line of .213/.276/.401.
We know the offense was down across the league. The league average OPS was the lowest since 2014, and second lowest since 1992. However, Duvall had a wRC+ of 87 which is 13 percent below league average. 87 wRC+ was his worst offensive output since 2018, when he joined the Braves the first time via a trade with the Reds at the Trade Deadline.
Overall, Duvall ended with 0.9 fWAR in 315 PAs, essentially living up to expectations, but doing it in a strange way where he added value with his glove and not his bat. He finished with 3 OAA in a half-season in center field, which was amazing because his previous experience in center was just barely over 200 innings there, almost all of which came last season.
One interesting wrinkle about his performance was that, as the season got to around its halfway point, there was chatter that the effort that he exerted on defense detracted from his offense. Duvall played center almost exclusively through May, first playing corner outfield on May 26, and last starting in center on May 27. (Michael Harris II was called up the next day). Through May 27, Duvall had a .267 xwOBA and a .244 wOBA. After May 27, when he played exclusively a corner outfield spot, he had a .327 xwOBA (probably much closer to expectations) and a .360 wOBA. It’s possible that this was just a coincidence, a set of offensive inputs and outputs that just so happened to align to when he switched positions... but it’s also possible that Duvall was really incapable of playing center and hitting with authority in the same game.
What went right? What went wrong?
Beyond the overall poor performance, there are other things that jump out at us about Duvall’s 2022, before his season-ending injury.
Duvall has had extreme platoon splits in recent years. As far as OPS+ goes, in 2020 he hit lefties 18 percent better than righties, then in 2021 he hit righties 50 percent better than lefties, and in 2022 he was back to hitting lefties better again at 56 percent better than righties. That in itself paints part of the picture since there are far more righty pitchers than lefties. (These patterns are borne out with xwOBA, though are generally not as extreme.)
Duvall’s average exit velocity (EV) against breaking balls plummeted in 2022. At 83.5 MPH, it was by far the lowest of his career. In 2021 his EV was 88.6 MPH on breaking pitches. It’s not clear whether this was something related to him getting winded from running in center, or just a year-to-year swing, but he didn’t change his level of oomph on other pitches, just breaking pitches.
As stated above, Duvall was back to doing well against lefties and not so much against righties in 2022. In terms of EV against lefties, Duvall actually had a career high against breaking balls at 96.4 MPH, but a career low against righties at 81 MPH. Typically a hitter will see more pitches against a righty in a season, and righties will see way more breaking pitches from righties than lefties, and 2022 was no different. Duvall saw 338 breaking pitches against righties, to only 94 against lefties.
Duvall was also having issues hitting breaking pitches hard against righties as well. It could be assumed based on his average EV, but it is not necessarily the same thing. As can be seen in the chart below, his 23.0 percent hard hit rate against breaking pitches from righties was the lowest of his career, and plummeted from the last few years.
Due to lower EV and hard hit percentage being down against breaking pitches, it makes sense to see that his barrel percentage against breaking pitches versus righties is down as well. In 2020 Duvall’s barrel percentage dropped from 20.2 percent way down to 7.8 percent of the time. This was the second lowest of his career (4.7 in 2017).
Variation in profile aside, Duvall still had some nice moments in 2022. One of his biggest hits came early in the season, with a tie-breaking double late against the Padres, giving the Braves a lead they’d ride to a win:
And, of course, there was Duvall walking the game off with a single against a tough righty in Tyler Rogers:
Not really pictured here, but worth noting, was that Duvall’s defense, especially in center, was very impressive. He covered enough ground that he made plays without needing to leap or dive, and posted +3 OAA in center in under 400 innings, which is an elite rate if not an elite total.
Still, the season wasn’t without its struggles offensively, whether because he winded playing center, or just because he’s a high-variance hitter. Two games in particular stand out as really rough. On April 24, Duvall went 1-for-5. However, his last out was brutal — the Braves came in to the ninth with a four-run deficit, scored three runs while making one out, and then put the tying run on second when Marcell Ozuna doubled. Duvall came up to extend the rally, and...
The Braves lost by that 5-4 score when Eddie Rosario also struck out.
Much later, on June 26, Duvall had another bad 1-for-5 day. While he hit a double and advanced to third on a wild pitch in his first PA of the day, he hit into this double play in the fifth, and made a bunch of other outs as the Braves lost in 11 innings to the Dodgers. In the bottom of the 11th, with them down by two, he grounded out to start the inning, and the Braves lost without scoring another run.
Adam Duvall is now a free agent. If the Braves do bring him back, which many fans would surely be happy with at the right price, hopefully Duvall can make the adjustment on breaking pitches against righties. It seems to be the key reason for his dropoff.
That said, it’s hard to know exactly what Duvall will give whichever team grabs him for 2023. He’ll be playing in his age-34 season and coming off a wrist injury; a below-average batting line seems possible and something right around average seems like a slightly optimistic outcome. His defensive aptitude from the last few seasons was somewhat unexpected, so it’s hard to know whether he’ll be able to showcase it in 2023 as well. He still seems like a fourth outfielder at this point, albeit one with perhaps more downside than before due to his age and wrist injury. That said, if he keeps playing defense like he has, he’ll give his employer a much more useful glove-and-homers profile.