It was a rough week for the Cincinnati Reds last week. (This is your cue to scream: It’s been a rough half-decade for the Reds!)
First, they were swept by the Milwaukee Brewers, a division rival who—in stark contrast to the Reds—made a big push last offseason to, you know, improve the team. (Radical concept, to be sure.) Then the Reds lost a series to the Miami Marlins, a team that gutted its roster over the winter, trading away every player of value in an apparent attempt to see if they could be the first big league squad to lose all 162 games. Yet they still came to town and soundly defeated the local nine.
As the Reds continue to sink further into the abyss, no player has been more emblematic of the team’s current struggles than leftfielder Adam Duvall. Duvall is tied for the team lead in home runs (5), but otherwise the season has been a disaster. Coming into Monday’s game against New York, he was hitting .161/.240/.366 in 33 games with a 65 OPS+ (100 is average). By one measure, Duvall has been one of the five worst hitters in the National League this season:
All of these hitters aren’t bad players, of course. Chicago’s Anthony Rizzo is a perennial All-Star and he’s not really the fourth-worst hitter in the league, unless the bad back that he claims he suffered from a Cincinnati hotel bed is worse than anyone imagined. But Rizzo, Duvall, and everyone else on this chart has been really bad this season. Terrible, even.
Most nights, it’s been difficult to watch Duvall struggle like this. After all, there’s a reason he has become such a popular guy in the Queen City. We all remember his surprising selection to the NL All-Star team in 2015, his first full season in Cincinnati. The last two years, Duvall has averaged 32 home runs and 101 RBI, and he was a finalist for the Gold Glove award in each season. By some of the traditional metrics, he’s been exactly what you’d want out of a leftfielder.
So Duvall is going to get better, right? At some point, surely the homer-smashing RBI machine we all know and love will return, and all will be fine. Right? Well, he returned for one fine moment at least, launching the game-winning homerun Wednesday against the Mets.
Unfortunately, he’s never going to be the hitter he once was. In fact, though Duvall has been a perfectly fine player during his Reds career, he really wasn’t as good as you probably remember.
Before this season, Duvall had a career OPS+ of 101. That’s an almost perfectly average hitter. Yes, his power was very good (18th among all MLB hitters in homers over the last two years, and eighth in the NL in ISO, a measure of a hitters raw power), but his OBP was just .296. He has some strengths, he has some weaknesses; Duvall has not been a star, but there’s certainly some value in being an average hitter.
And if you have an average hitter who plays above-average defense, now you’re talking about a player that can play a corner outfield spot for a contending team. Except that Duvall probably isn’t an average hitter anymore. And it’s starting to look like he’s not an average defender either.
If you’re following the Reds closely, you probably know that Duvall has been struggling since long before Opening Day. In fact, since last year’s All-Star break, Duvall has posted a slash line of .196/.266/.379 with 16 homers in 417 plate appearances (spread over 105 games). That’s almost two-thirds of a season in which Duvall has been one of the worst hitters in baseball.
The metrics say that Duvall’s defense has been declining as well. Last year, despite the fact that he was a finalist for the Gold Glove, he was worth -2.1 defensive runs saved; that ranked 59th in baseball among players who played at least 100 innings in left field. (As a comparison, he was worth 1.0 DRS in 2016.) If you look at the defensive metrics for the last three years—and certainly, defensive statistics are imperfect—you see that his range and productivity have steadily declined almost since the day he took over a starting spot in the Cincinnati lineup.
We shouldn’t be surprised by that. After all, Duvall will turn 30 this year, and no player has ever escaped the ravages of time.
No, Duvall isn’t really the .196 hitter we’ve seen over the last 100-plus games. This year, in particular, his batting average on balls in play is way down, and his Hard% (the percentage of balls in play that were classified as hit with hard speed) is the highest of his career, so you’d expect him to rebound somewhat. Still, he’s staring down the barrel of age 30, so you wouldn’t expect him to improve as a hitter or a defender.
So how should the Reds handle Duvall? If you listen to the mobs on Twitter, you’d suggest that the Reds should trade him. But that ship has sailed. Sure, if the Reds can get a useful piece in a Duvall trade, they should deal him. Remember, however, that other teams use analytics, too. If a dumb guy on the interwebs can figure out that Duvall’s value has declined, the baseball ops department of a big league team should be able to stumble onto that information as well.
On the other hand, I don’t have a problem with the Reds hanging on to Duvall at this point. He’s relatively cheap—Duvall is making $645,000 this season—and the Reds have him under team control for the next three seasons. If Cincinnati can’t trade him, they should just keep him and force fans to adjust their expectations.
Which means Duvall needs to be the fourth outfielder on this team. He can be a great power bat off the bench, and he won’t be overpaid for providing that service. If and when a corner outfielder is injured, he can fill in. He can have a really nice Chris Heisey-type career as a backup with some pop.
Look, Adam Duvall seems like a great guy, and I’m happy to have him on the Reds roster. But there is no reason whatsoever to sacrifice even a single Jesse Winker at-bat in order to have Duvall in the lineup at this point. Not even one. It’s high time that the Reds conceded that point and started looking to the future.
Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, and the founder of Redleg Nation. His first book, “The Big 50: The Men and Moments that made the Cincinnati Reds” is available now, in bookstores and online.