Every team has one–a guy who seems to get too little appreciation from the fans at large. For whatever reason, there are players who’re wildly overlooked or the subject of unfair criticism from those who follow a team, especially on the local level. In recent years, they’re often people like Joe Mauer (“he should still be a catcher and MVP candidate!”) or Joey Votto (“stop walking and hit dingers!”). For the Mets, that player seems to be Lucas Duda.
For a couple of years early in his career, Duda toiled in the shadow of the team’s first baseman of the future: dear, departed Ike Davis. In 2010, Davis had a stellar debut, and before the injuries and dreaded Valley Fever slowed him down, he was the premium can’t-miss prospect to Duda’s low-ceiling potential. And from that moment on, it’s always seemed like Duda has been the Ed McMahon to Davis’s Johnny Carson. Now, flashing forward several years, The Dude is New York’s starter at first base, while Davis is toiling away in the Rangers’ system, behind Mitch Moreland, Joey Gallo, and probably Nomar Mazara on Texas’s left-handed first baseman depth chart. Life comes at you fast.
But the narrative about Lucas Duda being a poor player, or an average player, or a boring player? That needs to go away. Right now. Duda is a critical part of the defending National League champions, and one of the game’s better hitters. And I can prove it. In fact, I’d like to provide you with a handy way to use data and reason to argue that Duda’s one of the better players on this Mets team.
(Credit absolutely must be given to August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs, who did something this on Twitter for the criminally under-loved Carlos Santana last year. Santana and Duda share a few similarities, and both are clearly underrated and under appreciated parts of teams that are striving to break through as World Series teams this season.)
Lucas Duda is not a good hitter for a first baseman
LOL. No, Lucas Duda is not Miguel Cabrera. But he did post a .320 True Average last season, which is fifth among major league first basemen. The only four first-sackers who outproduced Duda on a rate basis were Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Cabrera, and Anthony Rizzo. If he were in the American League, he’d have been the second-best offensive first baseman in Junior Circuit.
Do you think that this was a career year, and that his 2016 performance will regress? Okay, that could be a fair argument. PECOTA pegs him for a .282 TAv for this upcoming season, which is not quite as good as his 2014 or 2015 performance. But even if that’s what he offers, that mark would have been good enough to place 22nd among first basemen last season, better than Albert Pujols and Carlos Santana.
This narrative could be due in part to Duda’s low RBI totals (just 73 in 2015). To that, I say … why are you here if you’re concerned about RBI? Seriously? Even with Duda not driving in 100 runs, the team was a perfectly effective offense, and a winning team. RBI have no bearing on the player’s individual abilities. But Duda does the thing we want from our big, brawny first basemen: he’s the team’s premier power threat (well, co-threat with Yoenis), and was top-30 in baseball in dingers with 27.
Duda is a good hitter for anyone, first baseman or otherwise.
Lucas Duda Walks Too Much
Lucas Duda’s career walk rate is 11.5 percent, and went up to 11.9 percent during the 2015 season. That was 24th in baseball. Do you know which players had a higher walk rate than Duda last year? The best hitters in baseball, more or less. A high walk rate is the sign of an excellent hitter, in most cases. Only Chris Iannetta and Mike Napoli were below-average hitters who had a higher walk percentage than Duda (minimum 300 PA), while most of the other players are the kinds of hitters every team dreams of–your Bryce Harpers, Mike Trouts, Miguel Cabreras.
Walking is great. Are you one of the people who loves Kris Bryant? Kris Bryant had an extremely similar hitting season to Duda, walk rate included. If you can’t make world-class contact, walking is the best way to not make outs. Let’s not make outs.
Lucas Duda is Too Streaky
Here’s the one argument that I think may hold water: Duda hit his home runs in bunches last season, and appears to be a “streaky” hitter. He had seven multi-homer games in 2015, meaning that more than half of his overall home run output came in four percent of the team’s games. His performance in June and July could only be described charitably as below-average. He tends to fill his seasons with huge variance between months, with some being epic and some being awful.
However, the argument that a player is “too” streaky is a silly one. No one minds that a hitter is super streaky when they’re putting the team on their back during a ridiculous run in April and May. Power hitters tend to be more volatile than the Jeter-esque contact hitters anyway, so if you want the bombs, you’ll have to live with some down stretches to go with the great ones. Deal with it.
Lucas Duda is a Bad Defender
Okay, okay. After the debacle that was “The Throw” in the World Series, it was publicized that the Royals wanted to challenge Duda, as he’s a poor defender at first base. Truthfully? Can’t bust this myth. BP’s Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) does NOT enjoy Duda’s 1B skills: he was 59th out of 61 first basemen last year, costing the Mets 8.0 runs with the leather.
However, if you look past FRAA, you can examine a few other defensive metrics that peg Duda a bit more favorably. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) has always seen Duda as an average defender at first, with nine runs saved at first over the past two seasons. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) also has him at about average in each of the last two seasons, as well as over his career. While Duda certainly isn’t a Paul Goldschmidt or Adrian Gonzalez at first base, it’s possible that he’s not a terrible defender at the three. He may be okay.
Lucas Duda is big and slow
Not quite. Duda’s a pretty savvy baserunner, and very quick for his size. In 2015, he was worth 1.0 Baserunning Runs (BRR), which is better than tiny terror Jose Altuve (-2.0 BRR), Starling Marte (-1.3 BRR), Desmond Jennings (-0.7 BRR), and 679 other major leaguers out of a possible 832. Even if he was slow–and even though that’s his career high in BRR–who cares if he is slow if he is a good baserunner?
(He is big, though.)
Lucas Duda should be platooned against left-handed pitchers
As a left-handed hitter, one should expect Duda to perform better against right-handed pitchers. But in 2015, he didn’t show too much of a split, posting a .311 TAv against southpaws compared to a .323 TAv against righties. Over his career, however, Duda carries a .271 TAv against lefties, which is better than league average overall, but not quite in line with his dominant seasonal batting line.
Meanwhile, the team’s primary (theoretical) platoon option for Duda is Wilmer Flores, who punished lefties to the tune of a .351 True Average last season. While that might make you want to platoon Duda at first, consider that the Mets probably wouldn’t have a decent middle-infield backup were Flores to sub in for Duda, that Flores is unlikely to hit quite that well again in 2016 (he’s projected for an overall .262 TAv), and that Duda is likely to benefit from playing in an everyday role rather than take the psychic hit of not being the daily option at first. Reps matter.
Lucas Duda is not confident enough
Well, if you move him into a platoon role, that could hurt a guy’s confidence. But this is more about a long-running narrative–started by Bob Ojeda years ago, if I recall correctly–that his lack of confidence transfers into a lack of ability, especially in clutch situations. So let’s look at Duda’s career splits at a high level briefly: he’s had fairly similar overall performance with the bases empty, runners on base, and runners in scoring position. Duda’s walk rate goes up in high leverage situations, but is still an above-average hitter in all leverage situations. He’s hit at an above-average level in every single month of the season over his career. He didn’t have a great postseason, but a .302 OBP doesn’t mean that much of a fall-apart … especially when facing staffs like the Dodgers’ and Cubs’ during the NL side of the playoffs.
Given all I’ve covered about his offensive prowess, projecting a lack of confidence on Duda–a professional athlete performing at the highest level in THE major media market–seems crazy-pants. And if he does have a confidence problem, which I doubt he does, it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Because he’s very good.
Lucas Duda is Boring
Photo Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports