Is Lucas Duda A Star Now?

It almost seems funny now, but for the entirety of spring training and into the first few weeks of the season, the Mets were unable to resolve the issue that had been hanging over their head for more than a year: Ike Davis or Lucas Duda? Davis had hit 32 homers in 2012 and had certainly had his moments otherwise, but was never able to produce consistently around an injured ankle and a bout with Valley Fever, and had generally been awful in 2013. Duda had shown he could consistently be something more than a league-average hitter, but he’d never had 500 plate appearances and was such a bad defensive outfielder when forced out there that he was no longer an option anywhere but first base. Both are lefties, and neither can hit lefty pitching, ruling out a platoon. One had to go.

Duda started seven of the first 15 games at first, plus another at designated hitter. Davis started five. Josh Satin, a righty swinger who has long since been dispatched to Triple-A, started three more. On April 18, the Mets finally made a call and dealt Davis to Pittsburgh for minor leaguers Zach Thornton and Blake Taylor. Since then, Davis has been a replacement player — literally, 0.0 WAR — in part-time play for Pittsburgh, and he’s about to lose playing time to the Pedro Alvarez experiment.

The job, then as now, belonged to Duda. You might say that the Mets chose wisely.

* * *

Duda hit two homers on Sunday in Los Angeles, and while there’s more to life than homers, that meant that this was a real graphic that SNY could run with a straight face:

Only Chris Carter has hit more in baseball since July 1, but we’re not going to put undue importance on one counting stat over two months. We might, however, take notice of how Duda stacks up against the NL’s two elite healthy under-30 first baseman this year, with apologies to the injured Paul Goldschmidt:

Name Team PA HR AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Anthony Rizzo Cubs 564 29 0.278 0.376 0.510 0.385 145
Freddie Freeman Braves 581 17 0.292 0.387 0.480 0.381 145
Lucas Duda Mets 468 26 0.260 0.355 0.507 0.373 143

The guys over at RotoGraphs have been talking up Duda a bit this season, but he hasn’t quite made his way over to the main pages yet, and maybe that’s unfair, because his performance has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise painful Mets offensive season, and it doesn’t take a lot of effort to look at this and realize he’s hitting in a way that’s very comparable to two of the best young first basemen in baseball. It’s important to remember here that wOBA isn’t park-adjusted, which is why Duda trails if you’re looking at that metric; wRC+, however, is, and that’s a big deal considering the cavernous home field that the Mets have constructed for themselves. Duda hasn’t played as often, and that matters, but he’ll be near 500 plate appearances by the end of August, and that’s not a tiny sample size.

Of course: We know that it’s foolish to simply look at single-season stats to date and presume that’s the new normal. You can clearly look at an age-28 breakout and realize how rare it is to have a first great season at that age, and think that it’s a fluke of limited sample size. Fortunately, we don’t have to. We can look at the last calendar year, for example, and sort by wRC+. Mike Trout, unsurprisingly, is on top, followed by Giancarlo Stanton and Andrew McCutchen. Duda’s not at the top, of course, or in the top 10. But he’s also probably a lot closer than you would have expected, I’m guessing, because his 136 gets him into the top 20, better than to Rizzo, David Ortiz and Matt Carpenter. Over the last two years? On the back side of the top 30, surrounded by names like Evan Longoria, Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Gomez.

After all, a .281 BABIP doesn’t indicate any sort of luck-based productivity, and this isn’t a Dee Gordon-esque completely out of nowhere tale. Duda had a similar season in a little over 300 plate appearances in 2011, and he had basically the same OBP in 2013. It’s not as though he’d never had any kind of track record of success, it’s just that between the Mets’ inability to find him a home — in addition to switching between first and the outfield corners, he’d spent at least 25 games in the minors each year prior to 2014 — an oblique injury that cost him six weeks of 2013, and slugging numbers over the last two years that befit a man that wasn’t listed at 6’4″, 225, he clearly hadn’t convinced the team he was to be trusted with the every day job.

This year, that’s changed, and as we always like to see with unexpected success, there’s something tangible to point to:

Johnson and assistant hitting coach Luis Natera drove him to refine his swing. Each drill had a purpose. Asking him to swing one-handed to stay on top of the ball. Tossing baseballs from straight on to condition Duda to hit them to the opposite field. Flipping him baseballs all over the plate so he could let his swing dictate their path, instead of angling for one outcome.

That’s hitting coach Lamar Johnson, hired by the team on May 27, and Duda’s spray charts tell the tale:

duda_hr

On the left, his homers from the previous two seasons. On the right (not including Sunday’s pair), his longballs from this year alone, which shows a much more even distribution.

It’s also not just where the homers are going, of course, but how they’re getting there. Duda has increased his HR/FB by about two percent a year, and he’s hit more flyballs in 2013-14 than he did in 2011-12, which would naturally lead to more homers. But, thanks to our pal Jeff Zimmerman and his baseballheatmaps.com, we can see that Duda has made huge leaps on each of the last two seasons in average fly ball distance, to the point that he’s now within baseball’s top 30:

Year Rank Distance (feet)
2011 179 278.04
2012 186 276.76
2013 122 284.58
2014 29 296.97

That kind of power was on display on Sunday, when his first homer of the day also counted as the longest by any Mets player this season:

duda_hr_2014-08-24

In the NJ.com article linked above, there’s also mention made of Duda being “overly patient” — not that a career 11.4% walk rate is a problem — and looking to get more aggressive this year. It’s hard to think of a better definition for “patient” than “doesn’t swing at pitches in the strike zone,” and in 2013, very few watched more strikes go by. Again, the numbers show that he’s succeeded. His swing percentage is up a bit, but his Z-Swing% (that’s swing percentage at balls in the zone) has jumped from 53.9 to 60.2. His Z-Contact%, up from 81.5 to 87.0. This is all headed in the right direction for a hitter.

As we’ve seen hitters become more and more patient, we often wonder if they’re helping the pitcher out by letting hittable pitches go by in search of the perfect pitch, only to find themselves swinging at a lousy pitch in a bad count, leading to a miss or weak contact. Duda has been swinging at, and making contact with, more strikes, and he’s been hitting them with more power. No matter how much weight you choose to put (or not) on the confidence given to a hitter that saw his team choose him and ship his competitor off, the simple fact is that the change in approach seems like a clear upgrade for a hitter who was already quietly producing.

To go back to the original premise: Is Duda a star? Well, probably not, because there’s enough holes here that he’ll be limited to being a good player, not a great one. He still can’t hit lefty pitching, to start, with a mere 38 wRC+ this year and 73 for his career. His defensive value is limited, though much better at first than it was when he was a disaster in the outfield corners, and he’s in something of an awkward place between “has a 123 wRC+ in 1,750 plate appearances” and “needs to prove it over a full season,” because even now he’s 100 plate appearances behind Rizzo and Freeman, which limits him somewhat.

At 29 in February, there’s a limit to how much more Duda can be expected to offer. But, as a Super 2 making just $1.6m this year who can’t be eligible for free agency until 2018, he doesn’t really need to. As the Mets head off into the winter hoping that they’ve finally turned the corner from rebuilding into contention, they know they’ll need to find a left fielder, and they’ll need to sort out shortstop. They’ll probably need to find a righty platoon bench first baseman in the Scott Van Slyke mold, too, unless you think Eric Campbell can be that player. But what they won’t need to do is find an everyday first baseman, a tall — if not impossible — task in an upcoming market where the best available names are probably 35 and older. Six months ago, they had nothing but questions at first base, and were merely hoping for competency. Now, and potentially for the next few seasons, they may have found an answer.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times site, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


54 Responses to “Is Lucas Duda A Star Now?”

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  1. tz says:

    Duda’s season reminds me a lot of Matt Stairs breakout in his late 20′s.

    The Mets should pencil him in for the next 2-4 years as a cheap source of power at 1B. He might just be the best 1B value not named Goldschmidt.

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  2. Daniel says:

    Wow, a Duda/Van Slyke platoon would be tremendous. Mets should look into that.

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    • Hey Mad Dog says:

      Maybe the Rockies can add Van Slyke to the Niese for Tulo and Gonzalez trade. You know, like a three way.

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    • Senor_Met says:

      I was saying the exact same thing just the other day. Duda has a 168 wRC+ against righties and Van Slyke has a 191 against lefties. Not to mention that he could play corner outfield as well, and he’s almost certainly going to be expendable considering the Dodgers have about 30 outfielders.

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  3. LaLoosh says:

    Duda was 225 when he was 17 maybe. 245 or 250 is a lot closer to reality. The Dude has real power and he’s hit with a vengeance since the team let hitting coach Dave Hudgens go back in late May (.941 OPS, 402 wOBA and 163 RC+ since 5/27). The team’s approach under Hudgens had clearly stifled him. Hitters need to swing the bat and now we are seeing what Duda can do.

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  4. Tim says:

    He’s such a liability against lefties that I’d hesitate to call him a “star,” but he’s tremendously useful. You’re going to want to PH for him in big spots vs tough lefty relievers.

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  5. Weston Taylor says:

    Can Josh Willingham play first? The Mets should find out.

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  6. Steven says:

    Who plays first base for the Mets? DUDA! DUDA!

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  7. LongTimeFan says:

    The Mets are steadily doing away with the platoon, and he’s responding, improving against lefties and using more of the field. They’re trying to get him back using the whole field like he did earlier in the majors and minors.

    His success shouldn’t come as a surprise – he’s always had it in him, hit 27 homers combined in minors and majors in 2010, drrove in 100. He just needed to be aggressive at the plate rather than letting hittable pitches morph into called strikes and lots of negative counts.

    Also needed to settle into his natural position – first base – removing the constant worries and struggles of playing the outfield for which he isn’t suited.

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  8. Brian says:

    Great article, well-written, well-researched, thoughtful. But I’ve just got to say that I hate when people begin with a premise like “Is X a Star?”.

    Framing it that way (and almost always ending up with a “no” as the answer) always creates such a false dichotomy.

    What is a star? What does it mean to be a star? And not for nothing — why ISN’T Duda a star? He’s on pace for 32 HR, and he wasn’t starting every day until May 1.

    Not picking on you, MP, just saying that I don’t like looking at the question like this. There shouldn’t be reservations, e.g., he’s great, BUT. He’s great. Let us Mets fans have this one good thing without qualification.

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  9. stevenam says:

    I don’t know what the metrics say, but watching Duda play, his defense is at worst solid. He has good hands fielding ground balls and receiving throws, has good footwork around the bag and stretches well and instinctively, and has a strong and accurate arm, both in relays and starting the 3-6-3. His range is not stellar, but he cleanly fields what he reaches. His instincts moving to his right are his biggest liability defensively, but with time and some coaching, that should improve.
    Offensively, he has obvious power, hits with runners on base, and gets on base at a respectable clip. He did the same throughout his minor league career.
    I don’t care if you call him a star or not, the list of 1b I’d take over him, in fantasy or real baseball, is short.

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    • Senor_Met says:

      He actually has a 3.3 UZR/150. Obviously it’s only been in 960 innings, but I agree that watching him play, he’s improved tremendously just since the beginning of this season. One of the biggest things he’s gotten better at is picking balls. If you go back to last night’s game and watch Eric Campbell’s diving stop, the ball skipped in the dirt about a foot and half in front of Duda. Four months ago, that’s a ball that goes past him, but he picked it cleanly.

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  10. Zen Madman says:

    Nice piece. When does “Is Juan Lagares a Star Now?” come out? He’s leading MLB in Def this year and over the past two seasons despite having less playing time than Simmons and Machado.

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  11. Rallyk says:

    Thanks for the article!

    I actually think I’d prefer a counting stat in the comparison with Rizzo and Freeman. Duda has about half as many PA’s against lefties – around 80 fewer, since he was platooned for awhile. Using a rate stat like wRC+ makes them look more equal than they should be.

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  12. Bat says:

    I think that before we go and anoint Lucas Duda a star we should remember the not-too-distant past: Ike Davis’ 2010 rookie year WAR of 3.1 was still very similar to Duda’s 2014 WAR (2.9 as of today) and he was touted at that juncture as a rising star.

    My point: I think “star” requires sustained excellence and not a good 500 ABs or so.

    And I’m a Mets fan.

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    • Andrew says:

      Well in terms of offense, it’s not just 500 good at bats. He’s been a 123 wRC+ guy over 1,750 MLB ABs. That’s generally good enough on an annual basis to be a top ~50 offensive player. He’s been better than that of late, but it’s not like he hasn’t been good with the bat for a while now.

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    • LaLoosh says:

      oh sure, I think they were talking star of the past 2.5 months or so… ;-)

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  13. loopenark says:

    Duda is an extremely hard worker. He has grown in leaps and bounds both at the plate and at first base. Forget platoons. He should play every day. He’ll figure out lefties just like he seems to be figuring out everything else now that they’ve finally given him the position. Have faith. He’s a very talented athlete. This is a great story unfolding. Lock it in – 30 plus homeruns at first base for the next several years.

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      Well, 1700+ PA in the bigs say that he’s not going to suddenly “figure out” lefties, unfortunately.

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      • BurleighGrimes says:

        I happen agree with you Mike, but this comment is confusing b/c his at-bats have largely *not* been against lefties (i.e., does 1600 PAs against righties tell us anything about how Duda hits lefties?).

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        • BurleighGrimes says:

          I guess the answer is yes in a way, because the Mets clearly don’t think Duda can hit lefties well enough to leave him in against them that often. And their lack of faith is warranted by his terrible numbers. My comment is probably an unnecessary nit pick, but I couldn’t help myself…

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        • Zen Madman says:

          I’d say that 432 PA against LHP tells us that the Mets don’t see him as a guy who can hit lefties. The funny thing is that they said his potential to hit lefties was on of the reasons they chose him over Davis, yet they haven’t played him v LHP. Hmm…

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        • stevenam says:

          The Mets couldn’t decide between Ike Davis and Duda. What do they know? Let him get some ab’s against leftys and we’ll all find out.

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      • loopenark says:

        Mike: Maybe not overnight, but I think he can. He has only 380 AB against lefties in his entire career and they were sporadic. The most AB he ever had in a season against lefties was 2012 when he had 134 and hit .239. Not great but he only hit .240 against righties that year. A player that is coming on this strongly suggests to me that he is maturing as a player and gaining great confidence. He’s a hard working, top flight athlete. He’s 3rd in the NL in taters! Why shouldn’t I think that he can greatly improve this part of his game? Players struggle but good players overcome. He’s a good player

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  14. BurleighGrimes says:

    Question –

    Obviously, most players have a platoon split. So how well would someone like Duda have to hit in order not to be considered a platoon bat? Like, obviously Lucas Duda a guy who needs to be platooned — his career wRC+ against righties is a tremendous 139, but against lefties he is at 73. But where would a 130-140 wRC+-against-righties have to be in order *not* to be considered a platoon bat? 100 or so? 90?

    Is it better to be straightforwardly a above-average-but-not-star (say, 110-120 wRC+) hitter against both hands of pitcher than a 150 wRC+ against righties but bad against lefties? Is this position dependent? Etc.?

    I guess my question is partially about roster flexibility / platoons / how we account for the drain on roster flexibility that a platoon creates, and how that relates to understanding platoon splits in useful / good but flawed players.

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  15. Mike13 says:

    That doesn’t seem right

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  16. Macky Sasser's throwing arm says:

    No, he is not a star. At least that’s what ZIPS says, which projects him to hit .248 the rest of the way with a mere 4 homers.

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