How good is Lucas Duda as a hitter?

Tonight will be Game 7 of the World Series. It’s been a very entertaining matchup and people are already talking about it being one of the best Fall Classics in recent years. But I’m actually looking forward to the series being over so teams can get started on building their 2012 teams. For the Mets, one of the huge questions for 2012 surrounds Lucas Duda.

Not many people seem to know what to make of Duda. My take is that with a bat in his hand, Duda is a star, with room still to improve. Most people think I’m crazy. But before you dismiss this out of hand, consider this: There were 265 players that amassed 300 PA in the majors last year. In that group, Duda ranked 34th in OPS with an .852 mark.

It’s hard for a lot of people to take Duda seriously because A) height aside, he doesn’t look like an athlete and B) he was not highly touted coming up through the minor leagues.

For a moment, let’s compare Duda with Mike Stanton. Now, clearly Stanton is a better prospect in every way imaginable, but hear me out. Stanton has a cut body that looks like it came from Mt. Olympus. Stanton was a 2nd-round pick who immediately jumped onto top prospect lists after he hit 39 HR in his first full professional season. Even Peter Gammons was talking about him after his season in Low-A.

When we think of top prospects, we think of someone like Stanton. We think of someone highly regarded, highly successful in the minors and a guy who comes on and produces immediately in the majors. Stanton ripped 22 HR and had a 118 OPS+ in his rookie season. At age 20. This is what we want, and often times expect, from our young stars.

Now compare that to Duda. He was a 7th-round pick in the same draft as Stanton. An inch shorter and 20 pounds heavier, Duda looks more like a slow-pitch softball player than an NFL tight end. In his first three seasons in the minors, Duda never hit .300, never hit more than 11 HR and never made Baseball America’s Top 10 prospect list for the Mets, much less a BA Top 100 prospect list for all of baseball.

And then Duda broke out in 2010. He raked at two minor league levels and made his major league debut. But unlike Stanton, who also debuted in 2010, Duda struggled mightily in the majors. His overall line for the Mets that year was .202/.261/.417 which translated to an 82 OPS+. Duda was done in by a miserable start. In his first 13 games, he was 1-33. Over his final 16 games, Duda had a .314/.345/.647 line. For what it’s worth, in that tiny 55 PA sample, Duda had a .993 OPS.

In 2011, while Stanton logged 601 PA in the majors and a 141 OPS+, Duda yo-yoed back and forth between the majors and minors. He got off to another dreadful start with the Mets. But when he came up for good on June 10th, Duda posted a .306/.381/.505 line in 324 PA. Over that stretch, when he essentially played every day, Duda had an .886 OPS in the majors last year. Stanton had an .893 OPS last season.

Stanton is younger, he’s more athletic, he’s more established – he’s better than Duda in just about every meaningful way. But, with a bat in their hands, the difference in OPS between the two of them was not very large when they were every day players last year.

My colleague Dave Cameron of FanGraphs has a series where he ranks the top 50 most valuable properties in MLB. This focuses on youth, contract status and production. Cameron writes:

“[T]he goal of the list is to measure the league-wide demand for a player’s services if that player was made available in the trade market.”

Stanton ranked 16th on Cameron’s list last year, produced at the All-Star break. Here’s what he wrote in part on the Marlins’ young star:

“His prodigious power and athleticism help him overcome the raw aspects of his approach at the plate. As he gets older and learns to control the strike zone a bit more, Stanton has the potential to be one of the game’s best hitters. Given his current usefulness and his upside beyond what he is now, the line would be out the door to acquire Stanton’s services for the next five years.”

Not surprisingly, Duda did not make the list. I asked Cameron recently if he was making this list now if Duda would be under consideration for the Top 50. Here’s his reply:

“No, probably not. While he certainly had a nice rookie year, he’s still a pretty unathletic 25-year-old whose value is completely tied to how well he hits. To be a star as that kind of player, he’d have to be one of the very best hitters in baseball, and I don’t know anyone who projects him at that level.”

So, let’s compare Duda to someone more in line with his age and athletic physique. I’m going to give you two lines, but I’m not going to identify the other player, or even which one is Duda. Instead, I want you to pick the one that’s better.

Player A – 348 PA, .288/.356/.567 Age 25, weight 240 pounds
Player B – 324 PA, .306/.381/.505 Age 25, weight 255 pounds

You’d probably pick Player A, whose power seemingly outweighs (p.i.) Player B’s OBP advantage. Player A is Ryan Howard in 2005 while player B is Duda over his final 324 PA last year.

But let’s examine the numbers a little more carefully than with the blunt tool of OPS. It’s generally accepted that OBP should be valued at about 1.7 compared to SLG. If we carry that out in the above example, Howard has this weighted OPS of 1.162 and Duda has this weighted OPS of 1.153 – Howard is still ahead but the advantage, to use another weight-inspired term, is slim.

And that’s before taking run environment into account. The National League in 2005 scored 4.45 runs per game and had a .744 OPS. In 2011, those numbers were 4.13 and .710, respectively. Once we factor in the hitting conditions of the times, it’s really a toss-up if Howard or Duda produced the better hitting lines in our comparison.

Howard won the Rookie of the Year award in 2005 and in the following year he was the NL MVP, when he posted a fWAR of 6.2 for the season. His numbers would have been even better if he didn’t post a -4.3 UZR in 1,412.0 innings in 2006.

And there’s the rub for Duda. He had a -11.6 UZR in 364.1 innings as an outfielder. In 323.1 innings at first base, he had a -0.2 UZR. He would be an acceptable fielder at first base but he’s a disaster in the outfield. There’s no way to disguise this. If Duda ends up playing the outfield, his value as a player takes a major hit. And that’s without wading into the psychological territory of wondering if his fielding woes would impact his hitting.

Purely as a hitter, Duda put up numbers over 324 plate appearances last year that stack up on a percentage basis with what Mike Stanton did in 2011 and what Ryan Howard did in 2005. And that’s why I think Duda is a star with the bat in his hands.

There are certainly reasons to be skeptical. Duda has neither the pedigree nor track record that Stanton and Howard possess. He’s not come close to matching the over the fence power of either of those two players. And his outfield defense is atrocious.

But when he steps into the batter’s box, Duda has put up some eye-opening numbers. Now we have to see if Duda can overcome the adjustments that pitchers make against him this year. We have to see if he can produce over a full season. And we have to see if he can cut it in the outfield.

But there are definitely reasons to be excited, too. And the proposed new outfield dimensions at Citi Field could help improve his power numbers. Duda could be the best hitter on the 2012 Mets. That is if they don’t trade him for help in other areas.

15 comments for “How good is Lucas Duda as a hitter?

  1. Shawn Hicks
    October 28, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Lets not forgete park factors, Howard got to hit in a very hitter friendly park while Duda well Citi is what it is, It will be very interesting to see what he does with the new dimensions.

    Saz

  2. Sam
    October 28, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    The Mets ought to trade Duda to an American League team so he can be a designated hitter. The rub here is that Duda didn’t have a full season to show the league he could rake consistently. Give him until Trade Deadline 2012 and maybe the Mets could spin him for a valuable asset at another position.

  3. John A.
    October 28, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Duda reminds me of Jeremy Burnitz or Geoff Jenkins from those Brewers teams. 30HR potential, not much else, but capable of 2-3 above average years.

    • John
      October 29, 2011 at 11:54 am

      Duda is a much better hitter for average than either of those guys.

  4. Nelson
    October 28, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    First year success is no great measure. Smells like Benny Agbayani to me.

  5. NCMetFan
    October 28, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Not sure why some think Duda is just a power bat. He routinely put together solid at bats, showing bat control and adapting to the count, hitting the other way when behind in counts and his eye clearly improved over the season. Collins commented that the improvement was due to increased confidence once Duda was believed he belongs at the major league level. Frankly, Duda was a better all around hitter than D Wright last year. Finding him a position will be the challenge. Having Duda and Murphy on the field (two guys without positions) will create a defensively vulnerable team; add Wright’s terrible/worsening defense at third base and SS, 1B, & CF need to be special defensively. Reyes & Davis fit the bill, assuming Jose is signed, and CF remains a big unknown. I like Duda as a corner outfielder with a late inning defensive replacement as a back-up. The Mets will need the offense in 2012. Bring back Endy, might as well since the Rangers aren’t using him as a defensive replacement for Cruz when the game is on the line and you’re winning in the ninth inning. Texas is World Champs if Endy was in RF for the bottom of the ninth last night.

  6. AJ
    October 28, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    Let’s not forget the intangibles – having a guy on your team with the nickname “Buffalo Head” has got to count for something.

  7. acerimusdux
    October 28, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    He’s not Mike Stanton, but I do like him as much as Gaby Sanchez or Logan Morrison.

    Thing is, it’s not like Duda came completely out of nowhere, he has had a pretty impressive minor league career with the bat. He always had bat speed, and power potential, but he had to sacrifice the power some as he adjusted to new levels of pitching. And he just steadily got better every year.

    avg obp slg age lvl
    .299 .398 .462 21 A-
    .263 .358 .398 22 A+
    .281 .380 .428 23 AA
    .304 .398 .569 24 AA/AAA
    .302 .414 .597 25 AAA

    The last line is his 157 minor league PA this year, small sample, but interesting that he still continued to improve on his very impressive numbers from last season. And he was pretty well regarded after that breakout in 2010, ranking 7th on BA’s Mets list coming into this year.

    Before that though, the decent bat just wasn’t enough to offset his defensive liabilities. Maybe he should have gotten a bit more attention for his improvement in 2009, but an .808 OPS for a 23 year old in AA just isn’t all that impressive.

    And while his ratios did improve some in 2009, and the walk rate was especially impressive, strikeouts while down quite a bit were still fringy for a prospect. I like to use (TB-H)/SO; Duda went from 0.50 (poor) at age 22 in 2008, to 0.64 (fringy, just OK) at age 23 in 2009, to 1.35 (stud) at age 24 in 2010. After 2009 though, he still didn’t look much better as a prospect than what a guy like Allan Dykstra (0.62 at age 24 in AA, also with very high walk rates) looks like right now.

    But I guess this is a lesson that some guys can continue to develop in upper levels after age 23.

  8. October 28, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    I’m a fan of Duda, but it clearly sounds like he just doesn’t have a home on this team – and that’s accounting for Murphy and Turner without a position. If he can prove 2011 wasn’t a fluke, I would trade him to an American League team or someone looking for a good hitting first baseman in exchange for prospects or pitching.

    The kid finally broke through the major league barrier, don’t hamper his career just because the team can’t use him right now.

  9. Ramon
    October 28, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    The Mets should resign Reyes
    Trade Wright for pitching and/or prospects
    Play Tejada at 2nd
    Play Murphy at 3rd
    Duda or Davis at 1st

  10. Metsense
    October 28, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    I’m a Duda fan but he is not an OF. Either him or Davis should be traded. If not then play Duda in left and sign a decent lefthanded hitting RF to platoon with Bay in RF. The Mets won’t get above .500 until they come to the realization that Bay is a platoon player and just because you pay him 16M does not miraculously change that. If you keep Duda in the OF at least give him the advantage of an easier LF, after all, Duda is more the future of the Mets than Bay.

  11. What?
    October 29, 2011 at 12:08 am

    Thank goodness most posters here are not making actual decisions for this team. Duda can rake and he will only get better. He has a natural swing that lends itself to contact and power. He can play the outfield pretty well and will only get better with experience. Davis is an outstanding hitter and the best defensive first baseman the Mets have even sniffed since Hernandez. And both of these players are lefty hitters who hit for contact with power. Trading either of them at this point, as the Mets are trying to build a winner is simply a bad idea. Slot Wright, who is a righty with power, between these two lefties and you have the makings of a formidable lineup. Trade Murphy for pitching if at all possible. He has no position on the Mets but is a solid hitter who would be a great DH for a AL team.

    • Brian Joura
      October 29, 2011 at 7:38 am

      Lucas Duda can catch balls that are hit to him but he has a noodle arm and range that Derek Jeter fans make fun of. And that adds up to a terrible defensive outfielder.

      • What?
        October 29, 2011 at 11:18 am

        Personally, I don’t agree. While he does not have a Dave Parker arm in the outfield he is not Johnny Damen, who has a noodle arm. His arm is average. He is also a better fielder than you describe as he has made some exceptional plays in RF this past season, which is why I don’t get why he has this rep. He is an average outfielder. To me, his bat overrides everything. This adds up to a keeper to me.

  12. John
    October 29, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    Duda looks like he will be a good to very good hitter who is an average (okay maybe a little below average) first baseman and a poor outfielder. There are a lot of guys out there like that. Or at least there used to be when the game looked the other way with PEDs. It’s just that the Mets never really had those types of guys.
    They are not a playoff team next year so I think you give him a shot in the outfield and hope that he proves he can hit consistently. Then if you develop a player who is better, trade to an AL team for a missing piece or a prospect.
    Or, if you think you want both Davis and Duda in the lineup you have to consider Davis in LF and Duda at 1B. Davis was okay in left in the minors although he is a plus defender at first. I don’t like it, because you hurt yourself defensively at 1B but it could work. Also you would have to wonder if Davis could play the outfield now after the ankle problem

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