Monday afternoon MetsBlog had an “Ask the Booth” section where it invited readers to submit a question for the SNY announcers to read on the air and answer. Here was my submission:
Question: Why do the Mets keep Lucas Duda in the OF when he is terrible defensively there? If it’s to keep from hurting Ike Davis‘ feelings — hasn’t Davis done enough to hurt the Mets when he was in New York? He doesn’t need to continue to hurt us while he fails in Las Vegas, too.
So, imagine my surprise when I got home after 10 PM and see that the Mets game not only was not over, but it hadn’t even started. And to add to my satisfaction, Duda started the game at first base, with Daniel Murphy back at second.
Duda had a really good game, too. He went 4-for-4 with a double, just missing a HR when a ball he hit to right center hit against the wall, two-thirds of the way up. It was the third 4-hit game in Duda’s career in the majors, his first since 2011, which also came against the Braves.
This was Duda’s 46th game at first base in the majors. In 148 PA when getting to play his preferred position defensively, Duda has a .324/.393/.507 line. By comparison, he has a .745 OPS when he plays LF and a .761 OPS in RF. This could be a coincidence and/or a small sample size fluke. Or it could be that Duda, who has never been described as having unshakeable confidence, simply carries over his comfort level in the field to the batter’s box
Additionally, Duda made all the plays at first base, including some nice scoops. Plus, it’s likely the Mets’ defense improved by having Murphy back at second base. He made a really nice play on a ball hit into the 1B-2B-RF triangle, one where Marlon Byrd probably should have made the play but was nowhere near. Murphy also made several nice stops of hard-hit grounders.
Let’s dream for a second. Would Sandy Alderson consider Duda a member of the Mets’ core if he put up a .900 OPS the rest of the season while playing first base? Currently, there’s only three qualified first basemen in the majors with better than a .900 OPS – Chris Davis, Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt. If we go back to 2012, we see it’s even rarer air over a full season, as only two players – Edward Encarnacion and Prince Fielder – accomplished this feat.
In 2012, Encarnacion posted a 4.2 fWAR while Fielder checked in with a 4.9 mark. Encarnacion was hurt by being a lousy fielder (-7.6 UZR) while Fielder was hurt by being a slug on the basepaths (-6.7 BsR). In 363.2 innings at first base, Duda has a 0.0 UZR, meaning he has been average defensively. His baserunning is nothing to write home about, as both ZiPS and Steamer project him to finish at (-2.5) in BsR this year.
Still, it’s not hard to envision Duda posting a fWAR over 3.0 if he were to play a full season at his natural position. His rotten defense in the outfield has limited him to a 0.1 fWAR in 2013 and last year he was sub-replacement level, with a (-1.6) mark. In 2012 Duda had a (-22.5) UZR in the outfield, a mark held down only by the fact he did not play a full season. Extrapolated to 150 games, it was (-35.6). This year’s UZR/150 in the outfield projects to (-28.7).
Meanwhile, core player Ike Davis had a 1.0 fWAR in 2012 and had a (-1.1) mark this year before being mercifully sent to the minors. Speaking of the minors, Davis has a .192/.344/.269 line in 32 PA. And all of those have been accumulated in home games in Las Vegas.
It’s wonderful that Duda is finally getting a chance to play at first base. It’s too bad that Davis was allowed to stink there for as long as he did. And it’s too bad that Duda did not move there the minute Davis was finally sent out.
Somebody in the organization wanted Jordany Valdespin to get some consistent playing time. Terry Collins wrote his name in the lineup card for six straight games and Valdespin responded with a .130/.130/.130 line, which is beyond horrible. To make matters worse, that .130 OBP came as a leadoff hitter. Whatever your opinion of Valdespin is, one thing should be crystal clear – he should never be at the top of the order where on-base percentage is a key factor for success.
In last night’s lineup, Collins had Juan Lagares as the team’s leadoff hitter. Entering the night, Lagares had the second-worst OBP of any position player in the starting lineup, besting only Kirk Nieuwenhuis and that by just a few points. Like Valdespin, Lagares should not be batting at the top of the order. He responded to batting first by putting up an 0-for-4 night, with two strikeouts, which brought his OBP down to .213 for the season.
Lagares is getting an extended look now, too. His .507 OPS in 82 PA does not inspire a ton of hope. He had a brief hot stretch where he had eight hits in six games but that was done mostly on the strength of back-to-back multi-hit games, one of which came in the 20-inning game when he was 2-for-8. Since then, Lagares has three hits in his last 17 ABs.
No doubt that Lagares (and Valdespin) backers are defending their guy by shouting that these are not large enough samples to make definitive judgments. Perhaps they are not. But that’s the same argument that Davis backers used, an argument which allowed us to see an extra 109 PA of a .428 OPS from May 1st until he was finally sent down.
There’s not one magical point where we can say, “This sample is large enough!” It’s more art than science to determine when it’s time to pull the plug on an experiment. You have to look at a host of things, including historical trends, and use a bunch of different judgment calls to come up with your answer.
For me, Davis looked helpless at the plate and doing nothing except waiting for regression was not going to fix the problem. For me, Valdespin’s career OBP rates in the majors and minors indicate he’s no leadoff hitter. For me, Lagares has never produced without an ultra-high BABIP and it’s too hard for the overwhelmingly vast majority of players in MLB to do that over a full season.
Yet I am optimistic that Duda can be a big asset if placed at first base and left alone. Sure, I’d like to see him swing at fewer breaking balls at his ankles and certainly it would be nice if he hit better with runners on base. But even with these weaknesses, he still has an .802 OPS this year, which translates into a 126 OPS+.
That kind of hitter does not grow on trees, especially in the Mets organization. And we still have the hope that he can improve on that if he no longer has to be concerned about playing out of position in the outfield.
It was great to see Duda at first base. Late is always better than never and besides, we need to celebrate any victory that happens in 2013, despite what Bob Costas might say otherwise.