Is Lucas Duda the Mets’ first baseman of the future?

Sam Page, Contributor

Sunday’s big hit aside, Ike Davis has been putrid, just a season after being mediocre. And whatever his problem (generously assuming there is just a single problem), Mets fans and management need to imagine a world without him.

Could the solution to the Mets’ first base problem come in the form of one hulking, hilariously miscast left fielder? Terry Collins finally seems amiable to the idea of Lucas Duda returning to his natural position.

A feeling of reticence surrounds the potential move, though. Given his own offensive track record, Duda’s only hope at sticking long-term with the Mets seems to be continuing his transition into a sort of passable outfielder. And Duda as a stop-gap only creates an even bigger hole in an outfield that currently boasts Rick Ankiel as its second best player.

But if Ike Davis ends up passing the first baseman’s mitt to Lucas Duda, I think the move represents a bigger change in each player’s career trajectory and hasten the inevitable realization that Duda is the Mets’ first baseman of the future.

Let’s dispatch the most obvious objection to this idea: Duda just isn’t that good. Duda has a .778 OPS for his career, which is just a shade over Davis’ career number (.761). Duda will never field as well as Davis and he runs the bases like a penguin.

But whereas Ike Davis might be in the throes of a legitimate collapse, Duda has shown improvement. Before Sunday’s game, Duda’s slash line was just .228/.351/.448. In spite of a career high walk rake and ISO (isolated power), Duda’s batting average has dragged his overall line down all season.

Lucas Duda 2 polaroidHis inability to hit for average, though, looks more like an aberration than a repeat of last year’s poor .239. Duda’s BABIP, typically an indicator of  batting average luck this early in the season, has been below his career mark of .300 all year. Corrected for even luck, his pre-Sunday slash line goes from .228/.351./.448 to .255/.374/.482. In that light, Duda’s .242/.360/.483 line after Sunday’s 3-for-4 with a double and a homer, looks less like a statistical peak after a great game than inevitable correction — with potentially more room for improvement.

The idea that Duda could hit for average and maintain his new, more patient approach seems contrary to the idea — promoted by many — that Duda is turning into (a poor man’s) Adam Dunn. Actually, Duda and Dunn are opposites in very important respects. Dunn’s contact troubles are a byproduct of the approach that makes him successful. He strikes out so often because of his willingness to swing for the fences.

Duda is more of a strike-out-looking kind of guy. His approach centers on drawing a walk, rather than hitting a homer. That’s why Duda swings at a way-below-average number of pitches in the strike zone, versus Dunn’s above average rate. Dunn swings at more first pitches and he swings and misses at a much higher rate.

Dunn probably couldn’t make more contact without radically altering his approach and undermining his power. But Duda need only make the small adjustment of swinging at more pitches that would be called strikes anyway. Keith Hernandez often harps on this aspect of Duda’s game — he works into so many favorable counts, only to watch a 2-0 or 2-1 fastball go right down the middle.

It probably doesn’t help that Lucas Duda looks a little bit like Adam Dunn. Despite his hulking stature, Lucas Duda is not a homer-or-nothing hitter. He never even hit for that many home run power in the minors, until his breakout season at age 24 in AAA. I suspect Duda’s appearance also hurts his case for the “first baseman of the future.” Ike Davis, first round pick and top prospect, “looks like a baseball player.” Lucas Duda looks like the mandolinist/back-up singer in a four-piece pop-folk group.

There’s even — dare I invoke a dirty word — a “Moneyball” aspect to Duda’s long-term claim to first base. Ike Davis is a player of raw power and athleticism, for whom many had said the walks and polish would follow. Duda is a testament to the efficacy of taking a player with a good eye and telling him not to swing. The Mets have built Duda’s game from the approach out.

Duda and Davis hardly even seem to be playing the same game, when at the plate. While Ike stays one step behind, Duda has inverted the game within the game, challenging the pitcher to make their pitch. And as pitchers increasingly rise to that challenge, it becomes incumbent on Duda to swing at more pitches in his wheelhouse. Whether he makes that adjustment — or over adjusts and regresses — remains to be seen, but the Mets “left fielder” has at the least put himself in a position to succeed. (There’s also the question of whether his BABIP is down for a reason other than luck, but that’s another post.)

If he can sustain this season’s production, Duda could be a Jayson Werth-type hitter at first, a nice asset in this post-steroid era — not a stop gap. We all hope Ike Davis improves, but the consolation prize here is a guy who — by most statistics — would already be a top five first baseman in the National League.