One of the Yankees‘ overlooked moves last winter stemmed from DFA’ing left-handed reliever Lucas Luetge, which resulted in the Atlanta Braves claiming him on waivers. The two sides would work out a trade, with the top prospect in that deal being Indigo Diaz, who was the #21 prospect in the Braves organization. Caleb Durbin, the second player the Yankees acquired, wasn’t ranked in either organization’s top 30 according to Baseball America, FanGraphs, or MLB.com.
Drafted out of Washington University in St. Louis, a Division III school, Durbin had already begun his professional career as an underdog. As a 14th-round pick, there weren’t many expectations for him, but upon arriving at the Yankees’ organization, he’d fine-tune his game and put up his best season as a professional.
Transitioning to the Yankees and Making Massive Strides
The bright lights of New York are something people talk about, but it’s hardly discussed how difficult it can be to get traded at the Minor League level. Durbin had spent just one full season in the Atlanta Braves farm system, and one of the biggest challenges that a prospect faces in their journey is navigating through that first year. When asked about the challenges of being traded to the Yankees, Durbin was candid about it being an adjustment:
“When you get into pro ball, that first full season, you learn a lot from it, it’s a big learning curve. You learn a lot about yourself, mentally, physically, how to get through a full season, and also getting to know the way that kind of org works in Spring Training and at the affiliates too and getting comfortrable with the guys around you and the coaching staff…that comfortability kind of goes away when you get traded.”
Not knowing anyone on the player or coaching side in the Yankees’ organization, Durbin expressed that the Yankees were swift in the welcoming process and “couldn’t have done a much better job” with getting him through that transition period. They were quick to get to work on things Durbin would need to improve to take his game to the next level, with swing decisions and quality of contact being the two biggest areas he needed to progress in.
Durbin, who struck out just 10.9% of the time in 2022, already possessed an excellent hit tool but only slugged .372 and often struggled to swing at good pitches to hit. It hindered him at High-A, where he’d have those swing decisions exposed upon his promotion during 2022, being held to a .306 OBP and 79 wRC+. Caleb would delve into the adjustments he made between 2022 and 2023 and the mindset that yielded success for him at the plate:
“I don’t have a ton of swing and miss in my game, so I don’t have to worry about actually hitting the ball. So when I simplify it to just trying to pick my good pitches, see the ball in the zone, and then not cheating myself with my swing and really putting a good, full intent swing on it, when I kind of simplify it to that, it kind of just clicked for me at some point this season.”
The Yankees would assign him at High-A with the Hudson Valley Renegades, and after hitting .333 in his first month of play, he’d find himself with the Somerset Patriots shortly after. Double-A is viewed as the toughest leap, as that’s where you begin to face MLB-caliber talent and older competition, but after putting up a .692 OPS in May, Durbin would have that “click” he spoke of.
Though injuries cut into his final months of the season, he’d collect 13 extra-base hits in 30 games with a 139 wRC+ and .500 SLG%, tapping into his power and only striking out 5.7% of the time over that stretch. His MiLB season was undoubtedly successful, and had it ended there, he would have finished with the best strikeout rate in the organization, with 36 steals in just 69 games.
Instead, Caleb Durbin would head to the Arizona Fall League, and his performance in the highly-touted circuit would not just put a bow on his season but put his name on the prospect map.
The Yankees have had some notable prospects appear in the Arizona Fall League, such as Tyler Hardman, Andres Chaparro, and Jasson Dominguez, and Durbin took note of their experiences. It wasn’t just a matter of getting more swings at the plate, as there was still some adjusting he wanted to do at the plate. In Double-A, Durbin would see his flyball rate increase by 14% compared to his flyball rate in High-A. It came at the sacrifice of line drives, and he saw virtually no change in groundball rate.
“I did a better job [with] my contact quality and hitting the ball harder, but the thing that kind of still was lacking was getting it in the air more. So that was a big thing that I wanted to improve on going into the Fall League was just really committing to elevating and getting the ball in the air more to see if my power could play to get more extra base hits and whatnot.”
Caleb Durbin would slash .353/.456/.588, and that SLG% is the biggest key here. He hit nine doubles and three home runs, driving in 12 runs and stealing 21 bases in 23 tries, and he was one of the best players in the AFL this past season. The progression he was looking for at the plate was there, and that approach centered around elevating the ball, which helped him have his best stretch at the professional level.
The most shocking part of that stretch was the fact that Durbin’s strikeout rate in the AFL was just 6.8%, a mere 0.6% increase from affiliated play (6.2%) in 2023. Hitters frequently trade quantity of contact for quality of contact, and yet Durbin was an exception to this trend. Caleb Durbin managed to take the Yankees’ mantra of hitting strikes hard and fused it with his contact-first profile, and it blossomed into a dominant year.
His success was impressive, but his bat and newfound power are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the person and player that Durbin is.
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Going Beyond the Numbers With Baseball
Playing baseball is a grind; it’s the longest professional season of the four major sports, and the toll a full season can take on somebody mentally and physically. Baseball is a game not just about talent or production, but like all things in life, it has a mental aspect to it as well. Clubhouse and team culture play a role in how a team reacts to the inevitable highs and lows of a season, and Durbin spoke on that element of the sport and how he tries to positively contribute to the locker room.
“One thing I’ve learned Being in pro ball is it’s such a long season, right? So having those guys in the clubhouse that you know are good for morale especially getting injured this year. Like it’s really important to stay positive and kind of, make fun of yourself sometimes, make fun with your teammates, because it’s such a long season.”
Caleb Durbin would spend two months on the IL following an ankle injury in June, and he wouldn’t return to action until after the All-Star Break, and he wasn’t shy about that process either. Oftentimes, we hear about the frustrations that fans have regarding a player’s injury or how the team is impacted on the field without said player, but rarely do you hear from the injured player’s perspective.
Instead of rehabbing in different places such as Tampa or Hudson Valley, Durbin detailed how beneficial staying with Somerset was during the rehab process. The word “lonely” popped up during the interview, and it harkened me back to another interview done with a Yankees prospect, and that’s now-free agent Andres Chaparro, who also delved into the struggles of injury.
Chaparro had spoken about the anxiety and anticipation of getting back onto the field, and Durbin spoke about how the rehab process requires the ramp-up to equal the time off of baseball activities. It’s a grueling process, but having great teammates and being a great teammate yourself can alleviate the mental toll that process takes. Part of his ability to stay laser-focused on that mentality stems from his background.
Drafted from a Division III school, Durbin discussed how that plays a role in his mentality on and off the field.
“What honestly helps me that I can fall back on is coming from a division three school. I’m playing with a lot of guys that went to bigger schools than me or got drafted out of high school. So I’m in my head behind the curb on that end. So I need to every single day come to the ballpark, I need to kind of have that edge to me to perform every single game, because I know these guys are coming from a little bit bigger schools than me. So I’ve always kind of had that edge to play with like my hair is on fire, and that’s probably not gonna change ever.”
That chip on his shoulder could be what gets Caleb Durbin onto the short list of Division III athletes to ascend to the Major Leagues, and it makes him the person he is. One thing is for certain: Durbin isn’t going to short-change himself. His aggressive style of play on the field that allows him to be a threat on the bases, his versatile glove that could get even outfield reps next season, and a bat that’s made massive strides should get him to Triple-A in 2024, the final hurdle before the show.
A final note revolves around the skill he feels people should know of more, and that’s his glove. Durbin began playing third base after being drafted, and as a natural shortstop, he’s an impeccable athlete. He’s all about versatility, and knowing that the odds have been stacked against him since being a 14th-round pick in 2021, Caleb Durbin is on a path to overcome them and become a contributor for the Yankees.
If you want to catch the full interview, check out the podcast on Fireside Yankees, where we discussed some prospects he believes need more hype and how he fell in love with the game.