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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.