In a Somerset lineup littered with top-rated prospects and future franchise cornerstone hopefuls, infielder Caleb Durbin is quietly having not only one of the best 2023 campaigns in the Yankees system, but in all of minor league baseball. The 23-year-old has flown under the radar - that has long been
In a Somerset lineup littered with top-rated prospects and future franchise cornerstone hopefuls, infielder Caleb Durbin is quietly having not only one of the best 2023 campaigns in the Yankees system, but in all of minor league baseball. The 23-year-old has flown under the radar - that has long been the story written on him dating back to his days in youth sports. Overlooked by essentially every major college baseball program on the map because of his slight 5’6”, 175-pound frame, the Division III Washington in St. Louis-product had just about every chip on his shoulder that one could carry after being selected in the 14th round of the 2021 by the Braves. That was until they opted to deal him this past December as part of the Lucas Luetge package a little over one year after drafting him.
“It feels like a fresh start,” admitted Durbin. “It’s obviously a new organization and they made it really easy on me. It was a super smooth transition; you kind of have this idea of what it would be like to get traded but unless you experience it, you don’t really know what it is going to be like. Right away they were in communication with me and really transparent with what they liked about my game and what they think they could help me with – that was huge for me.”
Durbin added, “It’s definitely a healthy combination of feeling like I’m not what I thought I was to the Braves kind of thing, so you twist it around and say that the Yankees like me and like what I could bring to the table. The edge of trying to prove the Braves and make them regret their decision is definitely in my mind, too.”
While Durbin certainly had mixed feelings emotionally when the trade phone call came his way, it appears as though the marriage of Durbin’s unique skillset and the Yankees innovative player development strategies have maximized what he brings to the table as a speedy high-contact, low-strikeout hitter.
“The biggest thing is that they saw a good foundation of base instincts and speed to work with me on and they have just given me more tools to at first and second to get more bags,” Durbin said. “The Yankees do this type of momentum-lead that I hadn’t seen anywhere else – the way they do it kind of minimizes the risk involved and tries to maximize the amount of stolen bases you’re able to get throughout the year. That has obviously helped me early on in this season.”
Durbin added, “The techniques that they teach have really helped me, but the fact that they preach base stealing is right up my alley. They are encouraging even bigger bodied guys to get bags. When you have that, and you get on first base and the first base coach is already telling you what to look for – they want you to go.”
After 39 games played this season, Durbin leads all players in the Yankees minor league system with 25 stolen bases in 29 attempts. If you think that’s good, he also never strikes out. Like literally, almost never. He has struck out just twice since being promoted to Double-A and he’s fanned only 11 times in 141 at-bats this season. His 1.91 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranks second in all minor league baseball and his 6.5% strikeout rate is third best.
Those impressive numbers are not just a mirage or a flash-in-the-pan, either. During his three years playing collegiate ball, he whiffed just 10 times in 439 plate appearances over three seasons while posting a .386 batting average.
“It has honestly just come naturally to me,” said Durbin of his elite plate discipline. “It’s obviously a big factor that’s helped me get to this level and to succeed at this level. It’s always kind of just been there since I was a little kid – I think the only thing that I can speak on is just repetitions. From an early age it’s always kind of been the foundation of my game.”
Durbin hit .333 and got on base at .464 clip in 22 games with High-A Hudson Valley before earning his well-deserved call to the Patriots on May 9. While his .254 average and .347 on base percentage don’t seem nearly as robust in Somerset, the advanced metrics behind the scenes paint a much different story than the ones on the back of the baseball card.
“Diving a little bit deeper into my numbers, my contact is actually better than it was in High-A,” said Durbin. “I’m just not getting the ball in the air enough. I had eight home runs last year so I know that I can get it over there, it’s just doing it a little bit more consistently so that I can get it out on the right day.”
Power is the remaining tool that Durbin is trying to harness and develop to really take his standing as a prospect to the next level. Despite upper- echelon contact data and advanced swing decisions, the Lake Forest, Illinois-native is still searching for his first long ball of the season. How does one produce power without sacrificing contact or inducing more swing-and-misses?
“It’s a combination of approach and intent to get the ball in the air, but also staying under control” admitted Durbin. “I don’t want to make the wrong adjustment; I want to stay within myself and really just work on the intent to get it in the air rather than trying to make a huge mechanical adjustment. One thing that has helped me is a little bit higher of a leg kick so that I can kind of stay on my backside to where I can get more into the ball.”
Defensively Durbin has served primarily as a second baseman with 29 games of action there with some additional work at the hot corner to add some extra versatility to his repertoire. He’s showcased strong range at second and has looked extremely comfortable and fluid there while posting a strong .991 fielding percentage.
“I know they [the Yankees] like me there a lot,” said Durbin of his role as a second baseman. “I’m really comfortable playing third, but definitely feeling good at second. I played shortstop all throughout college and that kind of helps me transition. I’ve got a good spot at second right now and I’m feeling really comfortable.”
Durbin wrestled for eight years growing up and his father and brother both wrestled collegiately at Northwestern University. It’s sort of his family bloodline and he has the prototypical grapplers frame that would be strong on the mat, but it was always the diamond that appealed to him naturally the most. Ball players with a frame like Durbin are not all that common because they don’t usually get an opportunity. The ones that have made it and had success are ones that Durbin has long admired and looked to for motivation.
“I still look at [Jose] Altuve and [Ozzie] Albies,” said Durbin. “Playing in the Braves system, I got to hear him [Albies] talk a few times and being around him. I try to model my game around [Dustin] Pedroia – the intensity aspect and just the laser focus and being even keel but intense at the same time. Obviously, the size is there, too. I try to model my game after him too, for sure.”
You can certainly say that he didn’t come from the biggest school and that he doesn’t have the biggest figure, but Durbin certainly has an even bigger desire to squash those narratives that have followed him everywhere he’s gone.
“To make it out of the school that I did and to be in the position that I am now, I have had to work extremely hard,” said Durbin. “That’s built in me as it is, but there’s also that chip on the shoulder to always prove myself. I got passed up in college and I want to prove to myself and prove to other people that I can play at a high-level.”
Matt Kardos | SomersetPatriots.com Beat Writer
Matt Kardos has covered the Yankees minor league system for over a decade and will spend his 11th season on the beat covering the Patriots for SomersetPatriots.com. Throughout his career, Matt has contributed to MLB.com, YES Network and Pinstriped Prospects. When he’s not at the ballpark, Matt enjoys traveling with his wife Kimberly, watching Jets football and collecting sports cards.