Jarren Duran is far from starry-eyed when he thinks back to his 2021 big league debut.
As much as his first opportunity to play in the big leagues represented the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, what occurred once the Red Sox summoned him from Triple A last summer did not. Duran hit .215/.241/.336 with a 35.7 percent strikeout rate, and by the end of August, the Sox sent him back down to the minors.
“I felt like a complete failure,” Duran said. “You hear what people say about you and you feel bad about yourself.”
In some ways, that bad taste made a conversation on Thursday with the Triple A Worcester coaching staff all the more rewarding. Between games of a doubleheader in Toledo, Duran — hitting .397 with a .478 OBP and .638 slugging percentage along with seven steals in 15 games — learned that he was being called back to the big leagues.
While the Sox had wanted to give Duran more time to build on his outstanding start in the minors, the placement of Kiké Hernández on the COVID-related injured list created a need in center field. And with that, there was little question about Duran’s worthiness to fill it.
The Sox’ summons of Duran in time to play center and lead off against the White Sox on Friday night came as a source of validation. Duran went 1 for 4 in the 4-2 loss, tripling and scoring in the eighth inning, but striking out to end the game.
“It feels like redemption,” said Duran, whose parents were with him in Toledo when he received the unexpected callup and followed him to Boston. “I’m going to come out here and play the way I know how to play, play with my hair on fire.”
Duran had been doing just that in Triple A with a different approach at the plate. The 25-year-old has experienced a series of dramatic changes in his offensive approach in the minors, transforming from a line drive-hitting leadoff hitter whose game was built around his legs in both college and early in his minor league career to someone who rebuilt his physique to emerge as a power hitter in 2021.
But with a swing-for-the-fences approach in which he held his hands extremely low in his pre-pitch setup, Duran developed holes in his swing, and big league pitchers exploited them repeatedly and mercilessly in 2021 — particularly at the top of the strike zone. And so, Duran entered 2022 determined to recalibrate his game, finding ways to use his legs both in the batter’s box (he’s reintroduced bunting and all-fields line drives into his game) and to drive the ball to (and over) the gaps.
Meanwhile, he’s adjusted his hand position — just under the letters pre-pitch — in order to give himself a better chance to attack pitches in all parts of the zone with a more adaptable swing.
“Everybody has always talked about how I had no power so I tapped into it a little bit and they’re like, you can’t hit line drives anymore, so it’s like, come on, what do you want from me? Come on people, be happy with what I’m doing for you,” he joked.
“It feels good just to get back to where I was. Line drives, maybe tap into the power some of the time, just get on base for guys, just run the bases, and like I said, play with my hair on fire.”
To a Red Sox team mired near the bottom of the league in offense (3.5 runs per game entering Friday), the current version of Duran — “a better version than the one we saw last year,” according to manager Alex Cora — is precisely who they hope he can become: A player who looks to alter the dynamic of the game in numerous ways rather than just swinging for the fences.
To Duran, that is the game that comes naturally to him — and the one he now understands the Sox want him to play. In contrast to the 2021 season, when Duran felt like he had to be more than he’d been in the minors once summoned to the big leagues, the 25-year-old arrived in Boston on Friday and viewed his responsibilities — batting leadoff and playing center — as familiar rather than foreign.
“I dwelled on the mistakes [in 2021]. I came up here thinking I had to be amazing, I had to do everything and I was terrible,” Duran said. “Now I’m just coming up here to play my role. Like [Cora] talked about today, I’m coming up here just to do my role and do what I need to do.”
It remains to be seen how long his stay runs. It’s possible he is only up until Hernández gets healthy, though certainly Duran’s performance could alter the duration of his opportunity. Those are issues about which Duran no longer concerns himself.
“I don’t need to look up and play manager,” Duran said. “I don’t need to think into that. That’s their job. My job is just to play.”