These are dark times for Allen Craig owners.
It’s not just that those of us who drafted him realize he’s having a bad season — that fact became shriekingly apparent months ago — it’s that there aren’t a lot of signs that he’ll turn things around, and worse, such word is spreading throughout the fantasysphere, eroding his trade value.
Red flags? It’s getting hard to count them all. Craig carried a woeful .244/.293/.355 slash line into the all-star break. He’s on pace for just 11 home runs. Even his ability to hit with runners in scoring position, the calling card for which he became such a useful fantasy option, has collapsed to an icky .258 average.
There’s no shortage of explanations: Jeff Sullivan picked apart Craig’s issues with inside fastballs earlier this month, but to sum up, his groundball rate has soared, his fly ball rate has continued to plummet and his walk/strikeout rates are ticking in the wrong directions.
Understand, many of us Craig owners went into this year with the best of intentions, not asking him to carry the water as a bopper at first base but rather as a guy whose first base/outfield eligibility made him a useful fantasy problem-solver. I, myself, drafted him in the fourth round of my keeper H2H league to use as a swingman either to back up Eric Hosmer at first, fortify my, ahem, can’t-miss outfield of Ryan Braun, Yasiel Puig and Wil Myers or anchor my DH spot. Coming off three seasons in which he averaged a 141 wRC+, Craig — despite a troubling drop-off in home runs between 2012-13 — seemed like a perfect “flex” player — so my plan went.
OK, so you already knew Craig has been terrible. But this article isn’t really about him. It’s about why Lucas Duda is quietly having a great season and deserves more love in fantasy filling the role, in a sense, that Craig was supposed to be filling.
On May 26, the Mets, frustrated in the midst of what clearly was becoming the franchise’s sixth straight losing season, fired hitting coach Dave Hudgens, replacing him with Lamar Johnson. You can’t fire an entire team, so the baseball cliché goes, so you settle for cosmetic solutions in the hopes of demonstrating to your disillusioned fanbase that yes, measures are being taken to right the ship.
I can’t speak to whether Johnson possesses magical abilities, but the team has played .500 ball since he was tapped as hitting coach, averaging slightly more runs a game. And whether it’s been Johnson’s tutelage or just the way the moon and the stars have been aligned, Duda has become a different player.
What’s changed? He’s been much more successful hitting offspeed pitches, and almost everything about his approach at the plate has turned around for the better. He’s swinging less often at pitches outside the strike zone while making better contact on the pitches he can hit. In doing so, Duda has seen his line drive rate spike, while also seeing an increase in fly balls, to the point where he now leads qualified National League hitters in fly ball percentage. That’s great to see, because as Duda, 28, has gotten older, his batted ball distance has steadily increased each season.
I pause here to provide recent video evidence of what I’m talking about:
There’s more good news. Over the winter, I complained noted that Duda hit a pitiful .145 with runners in scoring position last year, with 13 of his 15 home runs coming with the bases empty. That is simply no longer the story; although Duda is not the RBI machine that Craig was over the past two seasons, he’s nearly doubled his batting average with runners in scoring position, delivering a .994 OPS with five home runs. That’s critical production for someone who’s settled in as the Mets’ cleanup hitter, while Craig is beginning to tumble down in the Cardinals’ run-starved lineup.
Fantasy-wise, perhaps the biggest concern facing Duda is playing time. Ike Davis is out of the equation, but the team continues to sit Duda and his lifetime .216 average against lefties. But Kole Calhoun owners will tell you that’s not the end of the world, and manager Terry Collins has spoken about giving Duda more at-bats against southpaws to boost his confidence. Besides, now that Oscar Taveras is in St. Louis, it’s no longer guaranteed that Craig will see more playing time than Duda anyway.
Which brings us to our central question: Is it worth dropping Craig for Duda, given that the Mets’ first baseman has the same first base/outfield eligibility in most formats? Obviously, that’s a tough call that can only be made on a case-by-case, bench-space-by-bench-space basis; surely there are still owners out there who would offer something for Craig’s name, and perhaps he’s just a mechanical tweak or a trade away from becoming fantasy relevant again. Craig enthusiasts, if they’re still out there, might point to Steamer and ZiPS having similar projections for both players the rest of the way, and argue, not without merit, that a best-case scenario for Duda can’t match pre-2014 Craig-like production.
But as the weeks go on, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Craig isn’t going to match pre-2014 Craig, either, and we’re approaching the stretch run in the fantasy season. Duda remains widely available in all three major formats — he’s unowned in a whopping 75 percent of Yahoo leagues — and if you drafted the Cardinals’ would-be slugger as much for his versatility as his power, Duda might be the best available candidate to replace that role on your team.
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