Earlier this week, the Giants faced a roster crunch. Alex Dickerson and Darin Ruf both returned from the IL to rejoin a suddenly crowded outfield. The Giants needed to make two decisions to open two spots on 26-player. One of those choices was relatively easy: they optioned Jason Vosler, a rookie with three options and a 98 wRC+. The other was much harder. Ultimately, Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris opted to send LaMonte Wade Jr., who owned a 127 wRC+, down to Triple-A Sacramento.
Without context, demoting a player who has been 27 percent better than league average is a head-scratcher, but anything the Giants did would have been second-guessed. One option would have been DFA’ing Mike Tauchman, whom the Giants acquired in a trade for Wandy Peralta back in April. Tauchman has struggled this year but has put together better at-bats as of late (in addition to saving three games with his glove and a well-timed grand slam). Alternatively, Steven Duggar, who has hit .316/.380/.573 in 46 games, could have been sent down.
Earlier in the year, Duggar appeared doomed to be the odd man out. The 28-year-old had never put up a wRC+ greater than 87 in a season, and that was all the way back in 2018. In 2019, Duggar mustered only a .234/.278/.341 slash line, and in limited time in the 2020 season, he was even worse. So far in 2021, Duggar has easily been the best fifth outfielder in the majors. His 1.6 fWAR ranks 22nd among all outfielders, placing him between Juan Soto and teammate Mike Yastrzemski. His .403 wOBA puts him seventh among outfielders with at least 100 plate appearances. With numbers like that, it’s easy to see why he’s still with the big league club.
Now, there are, of course, some red flags with Duggar’s performance. The .463 BABIP and the 66-point difference between his wOBA and his xwOBA should immediately jump out as being unsustainable. So, too, should the 34.1 percent strikeout rate raise some concerns. No one is going to argue that Steven Duggar is now Kroger brand Mike Trout. However, Duggar isn’t just dinking and doinking his way to a .256 ISO. He’s engineering his own luck, and it’s fair to wonder if Steven Duggar can hit.
A .337 xwOBA is still a nice number to put up, especially for a player whose previous career-high was .265. When Duggar makes contact, he’s usually putting the ball where it’s going to find grass or the seats. His barrel percentage is a healthy 13.7 percent, and he’s already clubbed six home runs, matching his career total in a quarter as many plate appearances.
His average exit velocity is up to a competent 88.8 mph, but more telling is that he’s posted his highest maximum exit velocity ever at 109.1 mph. In the first three years of his major league career, Duggar only had three balls hit at 105 mph or more. In 2021, he’s already done that seven times.
Some of this might be attributable to changes in the ball. The new baseball is seeing higher exit velocities but less carry. More than hitting for power, Duggar is doing a better job of keeping the ball off the ground and getting it over the infield. Duggar has hit just 35.6 percent of balls on the ground and is hitting nearly as many line drives. His Sweet Spot%, his percentage of batted balls between 8 and 32 degrees, is 45.7 percent, 12.4 points above the league average. That places him fifth among all batters with at least 50 batted balls.
Statcast numbers from 127 plate appearances are hardly convincing, but there’s more evidence that he’s improved than there is that he’s the same. Plus, last year, Duggar made mechanical adjustments to his swing that didn’t pay dividends until now.
Here’s Duggar in 2018. Notice that he has a slightly open stance, and as he prepares to receive the pitch, he’s holding the bat perpendicular to his body. His swing features a high leg kick and a relatively low finish, especially since he effectively golfs this pitch onto the Willie Mays wall.
Here’s Duggar again in 2021. His feet are parallel with his shoulders, and his hands are higher. He’s cut down on the leg kick, and his finish is longer and higher.
It’s a worse result on a more poorly located pitch, but Duggar’s swing now is more difficult to exploit with high velocity. A high leg kick can generate more power, but it’s another thing that a hitter has to time. Shortening that movement means Duggar has more margin for error. Also, keeping his hands high gives him a more direct path to the pitch, enabling him to catch up to high heat. In 2018 and 2019, Duggar put up -3.4 runs on pitches 95 mph or higher. Since making the adjustments in 2020, Duggar has been worth 4.9 runs against that level of velocity.
Though he’s pummeling fastballs, Duggar is still vulnerable to breaking balls and offspeed. Fortunately, he has a good idea of the strike zone; his 9.8 percent walk rate is another career-high. He does a good job of laying off those pitches, but he’s yet to prove that he can do anything against non-fastballs thrown in the zone.
If Duggar’s wRC+ stays in the triple digits, he’s a tremendous player. Duggar didn’t make it to the big leagues because of his bat. He got the call because of his glove. In 2021, Duggar ranks in the 94th percentile for outfielder jump and the 88th percentile for Outs Above Average. Duggar is a big reason why the Giants outfield ranks fourth in Defensive Runs Saved.
The Giants’ roster crunch isn’t over yet. Tommy La Stella is slated to begin a rehab assignment this week, and Evan Longoria will return in about a month if all goes well. LaMonte Wade Jr. will force his way back to the majors one way or another. If Duggar keeps hitting like this, there’s no way the Giants could demote him. Right now, it appears to be Mike Tauchman’s job to lose unless the Giants decide to sell from the strength of their outfield depth to address the weakness of their bullpen. In which case, Duggar or Wade could be available. Duggar’s emergence has created tough questions for Zaidi and Harris, but that’s a good problem to have.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.