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.