John Bazemore/Associated Press

According to the best measure we have, the top power hitter in Major League Baseball in 2016 is David Ortiz. That’s not too surprising. Although he’s 40 years old, he’s still David Ortiz.

But the best power hitter in baseball after him? Adam Duvall. Didn’t see that one coming, did you?

It’s true, though. The Cincinnati Reds’ left fielder was as anonymous as any major league player coming into the year, but that is indeed him behind Big Papi at the top of the isolated power (slugging percentage that ignores singles) leaderboard:

  1. David Ortiz: .368
  2. Adam Duvall: .330

Duvall’s 18 home runs also make him one of the top five home run hitters in the sport. He maintained his position in that club by helping the Reds to a 9-8 win over the Atlanta Braves Monday night with a long two-run blast in the first inning. Here, look upon the clobberage with your own eyes:

Non-Reds fans may have only three questions right now. One is “Who?” The next is “Seriously, who?” And the last is “How?”

The first two are easy enough to answer. The 27-year-old Duvall is a Kentucky native who went to Louisville and was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 11th round of the 2010 draft. He debuted in the majors in June 2014 and came to the Reds in the Mike Leake trade last July. He entered this year with 55 major league games under his belt, in which he’d hit .204 with eight home runs.

That last part is obviously where the other question comes into play, but Duvall’s rise to (literal and figurative) power is less impossible and more just improbable.


John Minchillo/Associated Press

With just a .259 average and a .288 OBP to his name, Duvall hasn’t managed much consistency to go with his power. That’s not a fluke. He has an aggressive approach that’s led to a whole lot of strikeouts and not many walks, which is consistent with how he’s performed for the bulk of his pro career.

But as the Baseball America book on him following the 2014 season stated, “Duvall’s calling card is his plus power.” He flirted with 30 homers in the minors in 2012, 2014 and 2015. Each time, those dingers were the saving grace of good-not-great slash lines.

So, what we’re seeing now isn’t a completely new version of Duvall. It’s more like the ideal version of Duvall.

When something like this happens, things tend to trace back to a tangible root cause, such as a different setup (Daniel Murphy) or an entirely new swing (J.D. Martinez). But nothing like that stands out for Duvall, whose adjustments have happened exclusively between his ears.

Duvall recently spoke of a “mental adjustment” in talking to John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle. Before that, he offered specific clues to Manny Randhawa of Sports on Earth. After coming out of the gate this season “trying to inside-out a lot of stuff,” he got back to being a little more of himself.

“But then I started to try to really drive the ball into the center of the field, and it helped,” he said. “I was able to get the contact point a little bit further out.”

The right-handed swinger’s batted ball profile doesn’t read like one from a guy who’s trying to inside-out pitches. In fact, it reads like one from a guy who has never cared less about doing that:

Adam Duvall’s Directional Splits
2014 50.9 22.6 26.4
2015 60.5 10.5 28.9
2016 50.7 30.3 19.0

FanGraphs

Duvall’s opposite-field rate is comfortably at a new low, allowing for more balls to center and the left of center. The traditional term for a hitter like this is “dead-pull hitter.”

This is an approach that can backfire if a hitter tries to pull literally everything thrown his way. Generally, pitches on the inner half of the plate are good for pulling. Anything beyond that is dicey, so it’s good for dead-pull hitters to pick their battles.

Duvall is doing that. Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, here are his pre-2016 swing rates:


Image courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net.

Compared to his 2016 swing rates:


Image courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net.

There’s probably an equal amount of red in both pictures, but it’s noticeably shifted more to the inside in the second picture. Duvall has been hacking at exactly the kind of pitches that a hitter like him should be hacking at.

This approach has produced not just a steady stream of balls to center and left, but also a fly-ball rate north of 40 percent and, entering Monday, a career-best 47.6 hard-hit rate on fly balls. Add all that up, and you get a regular dose of loud sounds like this one:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Of course, any skepticism about Duvall’s power outburst remaining this impressive is warranted.

It’s hard to imagine him staying on his 40-homer pace no matter what happens. But if pitchers start throwing to Duvall the way they should, it’s even harder to imagine. They should be attacking him away, away and away. And according to Baseball Savant, that means reversing what’s so far been a career-low rate of away pitches against him.

But regardless of what pitchers do against Duvall, his power outburst should have some degree of durability. His raw pop isn’t going anywhere. In all likelihood, neither are his regular at-bats at dinger-friendly Great American Ball Park. And though pitchers can avoid his danger zones, that doesn’t mean the man himself has to change them.

Because while he might not yet be established as one of the best, Duvall is now certainly a professional slugger.

 

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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