For most prospects, the 2020 cancellation of the minor league season represented a jarring time that jeopardized their career progress. For Jarren Duran, it became a time of transformation that set the stage for one of the most promising minor leaguers in the Red Sox system to take his game to another level.
In college and his pro debut, Duran showed considerable promise as a player who slashed line drives into the gaps and used speed to create havoc. But his power was well below-average — he hit eight homers in 199 professional games in 2018-19 — raising questions about whether speed and average alone could allow him to emerge as an everyday player.
Duran overhauled his swing in the winter of 2019-20 to create more lift and improve his ability to drive the ball. Still, no one could have anticipated how far those changes would have gone by the time he showed up at the McCoy Stadium alternate site in 2020.
He blasted eight homers in two months of intrasquad scrimmages. This year, in 28 minor league games with Triple-A Worcester through Friday, the 24-year-old outfielder had launched 11 round-trippers, hitting .277/.373/.613, and driving the ball like few others in the minors.
“The consistency of him driving balls over the fence — and beyond — in games and even more so in BP definitely stood out [starting at the alternate site],” said Red Sox VP Ben Crockett. “It was just very different from where he had been.”
How did he come out of the shutdown as an appreciably different player? For that, Octavio Duran — Jarren’s father — deserves a significant measure of credit.
There were some players who lacked access to workout facilities when spring training shut down last March. Jarren Duran was not among them.
His father, Octavio Duran, is a 6-foot-1-inch mountain who started weightlifting in high school — a way of competing on the basketball court when he was undersized, prior to a growth spurt — and never stopped.
“I studied [weightlifting] and learned from what suited me, not what people recommended. I created my own workouts,” said Octavio Duran, a manager at PepsiCo. “I’m just a gym rat. It’s one of the things I love. I have a passion for it.”
Because of that passion, Jarren Duran went to work immediately at the conclusion of his four-day, cross-country drive from Florida to Buena Park, Calif. His goal was to stay ready if and when the Red Sox recalled him.
“I came home to a garage full of weights and everything that’s been there for years,” said Jarren Duran. “I’m thankful I have a dad who loves to lift, stay in shape — it definitely helped me out [during the shutdown].”
A partnership was reborn. For the first time in years, Jarren Duran was at home with his parents, Octavio and Dena. On most days, Octavio would return from work and join his son in the garage gym.
“It just felt amazing to spend that quality time with him,” said Octavio Duran.
That they could be workout partners represented its own noteworthy development. As a kid, Jarren Duran was an apple who’d fallen far from the tree, a fact about which he was constantly aware from Little League through high school — where he stood at just 5-3 as a freshman.
“[Friends] would always tell me, ‘Wow, look at your dad — he’s so big.’ Then they’d come back to me with, ‘What happened to you, bro?’ ” Jarren Duran recalled. “It definitely got old quick. I was like, ‘Dude, I get it. I’m the runt of the litter. I come small.’ ”
That status shaped Duran in important ways. First, he built his offensive identity around the fact that he was small. At an early age, he defined himself as a table-setter who tried to complement power hitters rather than becoming one.
He also concluded that to overcome the limitations of his size, much as his father did as a high school basketball player, he’d need to outwork his peers.
“That kind of built my character,” said Jarren Duran. “Everyone else was bigger than me. I had to work twice as hard to catch them.”
When Jarren Duran hit his own late-high school growth spurt — growing 5 or 6 inches between his junior and senior year of high school — he, too, took up weightlifting. But even as he gained size and strength, elite speed defined his game in high school and in college at Long Beach State.
The absence of power left him available to the Red Sox in the seventh round of the 2018 draft. Though the Sox believed that Duran could tap into more physical strength and saw promise in his 2020 spring training prior to the shutdown, it remained an open question whether he would do so.
Father and son set about answering that question during the shutdown.
“He was still typecast as a line-drive, gap guy using his speed,” said Octavio Duran. “He knew he had to evolve and develop by getting stronger so he could drive the ball further, hit it out of the ballpark, and become an all-around baseball player.”
Jarren Duran sought to add weight, strength, and explosiveness during the shutdown. His daily routine featured multiple workouts incorporating several elements, including cross-training as well as lifting.
In that context, Octavio Duran could see how far his son had come — how Jarren could, in some respects, match him in pure strength as a weightlifter while also achieving ridiculous levels of explosiveness that the father couldn’t fathom.
“I worked out with him, but the stuff he did was crazy. I couldn’t keep up with him. He’s very strong and I’m not a spring chicken anymore,” said Octavio Duran. “I could see that he passed me. I tried to hang on like most dads would want to, but the torch got passed.”
Jarren Duran disputes the claim.
“I think he’s underselling himself,” said the son, before acknowledging that he kept pace with his father by squatting in excess of 400 pounds last summer. “He’s still got it.”
The mutual admiration and enjoyment of the time together proved considerable. The quality of the work being done was apparent to both. Still, it remained to be seen how it would translate to the field when the Red Sox summoned Jarren Duran to Pawtucket in mid-July.
It didn’t take long to understand that the outfielder’s career had moved onto a new path. In batting practice, it immediately became apparent that Duran was a different hitter.
“I didn’t really think about my game changing. It all felt the same to me, but it was just happening,” he said. “I was just able to do stuff I’d never done before, like drive the ball a little further, hit home runs. It was just kind of like an eye-opening experience to put in this extra work and then to see it unfold.”
The fruits of that work have continued to become apparent through an eventful 11 months in which Jarren Duran has now starred in Pawtucket, Puerto Rico, spring training in Florida, the start of the minor league season in Worcester, with Team USA in the Olympic qualifiers, and again now with Worcester. He’s knocking loudly on the door to the big leagues.
The accolades are coming quickly. The sense of possibility is growing rapidly — a process set in motion in a home gym near Anaheim last summer.
“All the credit goes to him. You can guide your children to do stuff, but it doesn’t mean they’ll do it. [But] he’s one driven individual,” said Octavio Duran. “It’s just blowing my mind how he has taken his game to another level. I knew he was always a very good baseball player growing up, but what he’s accomplished, what he’s done in his career is amazing. I’m so proud to be able to watch him do the things that he does. Words can’t explain how far he’s gotten and I’m so proud of him.”
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.