Jarren Duran may be sculpted from granite, but beneath that chiseled exterior lies an anxious people-pleaser who's a little bit needy for approval. He wants to play hard and contribute to wins and do the right thing, but sometimes he gets in his own head, and then in his own way.
His path to the big leagues has been anything but smooth since he arrived amidst considerable fanfare in 2021. An unheralded seventh-round pick out of Long Beach State in 2018, he rocketed through the minors on the strength of his ludicrous athleticism, blazing speed, and eventually, surprising power.
By the time he arrived two summers ago, he was viewed as something of a savior. When he singled in his first at-bat off Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, seismographs could measure thousands of Red Sox fans shifting excitedly at the arrival of the next big thing.
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It didn't last. Duran hit .215 as a rookie and returned to the minors. He was little better last year, batting .222 while moving his hands all over his batting stance as if auditioning to play Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. His struggles at the plate were bad enough, but he exacerbated them with one of the signature lowlights of 2022, when he failed to pursue an inside-the-park grand slam off the bat of future teammate Raimel Tapia. If the Red Sox had dumped him this winter, no one would've complained.
He arrived at spring training as an afterthought. The Red Sox signed outfielders Masataka Yoshida and Adam Duvall to start alongside holdover Alex Verdugo, with Rob Refsnyder and Tapia eventually squeezing Duran right off the roster.
He might have stayed there, too, except Duvall's broken wrist created an opening. The Red Sox initially summoned the right-handed Bobby Dalbec to run the gauntlet of Tampa's left-handed staff, but shortly after the Red Sox returned to Fenway to face the Angels, Duran got the call.
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On the surface, it looked like replacing one 4-A player with another. Duran hit just .195 in 11 games at Triple-A Worcester, but five of his eight hits went for extra bases, he walked (10) nearly as many times as he struck out (11), and he consistently hit the ball hard. Could he finally make some noise at age 26?
Just four games into his return, Duran is doing everything in his power to make the answer to that question yes. In Thursday's 11-5 victory over the Twins, Duran did a little bit of everything. He went 1 for 2 with a double, walk, sacrifice fly, and three RBIs. He barreled up everything with exit velocities of over 104 mph, including a 111 mph liner off the ankle of Twins starter Kenta Maeda that knocked him from the game.
He's now hitting .385 with a 1.104 OPS. He is forcing himself into an everyday role, at least for the time being, and if the changes he has made to his swing prove lasting, we may finally be looking at his breakout season.
"He's been good," manager Alex Cora told reporters on Thursday, including Julian McWilliams of the Boston Globe. "You can see it with the intent of the swing. You see it from batting practice. It's not the show that he was trying to put on the last few years, hitting the ball in the air to the pull side. Now he's driving the ball to left field and left-center."
If there's an obvious place to start, it's with Duran's hands. They were all over the place last year, including a spell where he held the bat at his waist like a samurai sword. He never looked comfortable, particularly against high fastballs, which tied him up as he dropped his hands in his setup and then tried to crank them back up to the top of the zone.
Now he's holding his hands high – think former Red Sox and A's outfielder Josh Reddick, but even a little higher – and he's wearing out left field and left-center. His double was a shot off the tin Moderna sign to the left of the 379-foot sign in center, and his sacrifice fly traveled nearly 390 feet to straightaway center.
"I feel like I'm keeping my rhythm right now, which is a big thing for me," Duran told reporters. "If I keep my rhythm, then I feel like I'll make better pitch selection. That all comes into play."
The result is a player who's fitting in after a couple of years of trying not to let everyone down. He arrived two years ago desperate to be a good pro, but instead drove himself into a state of constant doubt that he was being what he called "the annoying rookie." He arrived at spring training last year determined to have fun again, but the constant tinkering with his stance and struggles seeing the ball in center robbed his game of joy.
Now he's letting the game come to him, and it's working. He credited teammates like Kiké Hernández and Justin Turner for taking him under his wing, and he no longer feels the pressure to produce at every second.
"If I swing at a ball in the dirt, they don't care," he told reporters, including Jen McCaffrey of The Athletic. "I used to think it was the end of the world if I did something bad, that they were going to be mad at me, but they've been behind me 100 percent and I'm thankful."
This is the player he has always wanted to be, and the Red Sox can only hope he's unlocked for good.