Editor’s Note – With multiple people contributing to the blog, one of the pitfalls is when two guys write on the same topic. And this time we actually had three guys write about the same guy within a few days of each other. Dalton got his in first, so his take was already published. The other two are combined here. Mike K. won the coin toss so his piece comes first and Mike R. comes in second.
Without a doubt GM Sandy Alderson is moving on from veteran James Loney, who started his New York career with a bang and ended with a whimper in both facets of the game. And until the club solves their overloaded outfield conundrum, talk of shifting Jay Bruce or Michael Conforto into the infield won’t stop.
Of course all of this would be a moot point if New York had an entrenched first baseman. Lucas Duda has worn the mantle of starter through the 2014 season – after having suffered through several years of outfield experimentation. Duda’s overall game was solid in 2014, bashing 30 home runs, accumulating an .830 OPS and earning enough MVP votes to finish no. 22. He was even acceptable at first base by most defensive statistics.
That, however, is the catch. Duda is not a strong defensive player, and that’s the best that can be said for a professional ballplayer turning 31 early next month.
His numbers at first base have been merely adequate. Metrics frequently grade his range as the weakest part of his defensive game. Duda sports an 8.85 Range Factor per Game compared to a league factor 9.28 Range Factor per Game. His 0.4 UZR/150 through 403 games at first is the definition of average, but that includes a negative Range Runs Above Average in five of six seasons and a positive Error Runs Above Average in four of six seasons.
Duda’s 2016 campaign was shortened to 47 games with a bad back. His defensive numbers at first still fell well within the average category – a 1.1 UZR/150 and 8.54 RF/G compared to 9.05 league average RF/G. His RngR was negative and his ErrR was positive. He put up similar numbers through 135 games in 2015, including 129 at first base. Duda sported a –0.4 UZR/150 with more weak numbers in RngR and better numbers in ErrR. And once again, his RF/G fell below the league average: 8.91 to 9.30.
First base is often an offense-dominated position used to hide weaker defenders with powerful bats. Dalton Allison examined Duda’s work at the plate not long ago, but suffice it to say he’s a streaky slugger who relies on On-Base Percentage over Batting Average. There’s an argument to be had about the 30-year-old’s bat and how it plays into the future of the New York Mets’ lineup.
However, statistics surrounding Duda’s defensive game offer clues that he could be better served with an American League team capable of a first base-designated hitter split. Through his prime, Duda has been as middle-of-the-road fielder with shaky range. How long does it take before age robs enough range to keep him from making all but basic plays? Keeping his legs fresh and limiting his exposure in the field via the DH route can probably extend his career if his offensive game can stay alive.
First base options for the New York Mets
By: Mike Ryan
In the upcoming season the New York Mets will have a few different options to look at for first base. Lucas Duda holds the position despite missing the majority of last season due to a stress fracture in his back. James Loney filled in for Duda last season compiling a fairly decent season of 9 home runs 34 RBI while hitting .265. This season the Mets should be looking to get some more production out of the first base position.
Duda will get every opportunity to be the starting first baseman, as he should. When healthy Duda has been a very productive offensive player with 64 home runs 188 RBI in 235 games since taking over as the full time first baseman in 2014. While these are impressive stats, Duda has been a very streaky player and is a significant health risk. Perhaps in 2017 the team can look in a different direction.
Former 2013 first round draft pick (11th overall) Dominic Smith poses a very intriguing option for the Mets at first base. The young first baseman had a very productive season with 14 home runs 91 RBI while hitting .302 at Double A Binghamton. The big knock on Smith prior to this season was his lack of power, but he put those worries to rest with his production last season. Smith is also known as an above average defensive first baseman which places him favorably in comparison to Duda.
There are some concerns about putting Smith on the big league club, including his age and his ability to adjust to major league pitching. Entering his age 22 season and his fourth professional year he may need some more seasoning in the minors. Like all young hitters he may not be able to adjust to major league pitching right away though spring training could be a good gauge on his ability to do so.
Yet another interesting option for the Mets that could alleviate a log jam in another position on the team would be for Michael Conforto to play some first base for them in the upcoming season. Conforto had an off year last season but will be looking to rebound big time in 2017. Playing first base could help to increase his at bats and he is a good enough athlete to adjust to the position with few hang ups. It would give the Mets another way to get his bat into the lineup on a more frequent basis as well as giving Terry Collins more late inning options with defensive replacements.
A great deal of what the team decides to do in the upcoming season at first base of course depends upon the health of Duda. Recall that Duda did return from injury at the end of the season and did not put up great numbers though he may not have had enough plate appearances to get into a good rhythm. Management has seemed cool on the idea of playing Conforto at first base, though it seems like a good idea to at least try him there during spring training. Smith may start the season at Triple-A Las Vegas but any injury or prolonged slump from Duda may lead to a quick call up which could be very exciting development for the Mets.