Maggie Wiggin, Contributor
Lucas Duda is one of the more polarizing figures on the Mets right now.
On one hand, you have fans and analysts who look at his .247 batting average and his 27 RBI and they can’t wait to get him out of New York — either to another team or to the minors. On the other hand, there are many (spoiler alert: myself included) who see an .817 OPS (third on the team behind David Wright and recently-departed Marlon Byrd) and considerable power and feel he has much to offer the Mets going into next year.
The biggest strike against Duda has always been his defense. There’s no denying that he has been an atrocious outfielder — terrible instincts with no speed to make up for them. In 233 career games in the outfield, he has cost the team -43 defensive runs saved and has a UZR/150 of -34.3. This is mindbogglingly bad and I say with no reservation that Duda should never again step foot in the outfield.
In a radio interview on WFAN, Sandy Alderson indicated that first base is a position very much up in the air entering this winter.
“I actually think the injury with Ike Davis might make it easier for us to make a decision going into the off-season because it’s going to give Duda substantially more playing time in September,” Alderson said. “I’m not sure what Ike was going to do in September that might have changed the evaluation.”
First base, Duda’s natural position, is a different story…
“I’m much more comfortable at first, and that kind of takes my pressure off my defense,” Duda said Wednesday, according to the New York Times.
Duda is no Keith Hernandez, but his defensive metrics in a relatively small sample size are basically a wash. He has passed the eye test so far, with decent footwork that makes up for slightly below average range. His comfort at first is also reflected in his offensive output. His overall career .778 OPS is well below the impressive .898 OPS mark he has put up as a first baseman. There’s no question that his future, wherever he ends up, is at first. Is his bat good enough for first? Well, if he had enough plate appearances to qualify, he would rank 10th in the MLB in OPS. That’s pretty good for a player who’s not even arbitration-eligible yet.
The other common argument against Duda is that his production with runners in scoring position is poor. While this is true for this season, in a small sample size, it’s not the case when you look at the rest of his career. Last season, for example, he batted 35 points higher with RISP and slugged more than 60 points higher. RISP splits are notoriously fluky and most players see big swings from year to year. It’s quite possible, even probable, that we’ll see better numbers from him in the future.
Setting aside RISP batting, Duda has been a good situational hitter in his career. He makes a higher than average percentage of productive outs and scores an average number of baserunners in front of him. He also hits into double plays at half the league average rate. There are a lot of facets that go into contributing to runs and Duda is a net positive by most of them.
So, where does this leave the Mets and Duda going forward? With Ike Davis’ season-ending oblique injury, Duda is going to get the lion’s share of time at first which should give him ample opportunity to show what he can bring to the table. If he sustains this level of offense and hold his own on the field, he could be a cheap option for first base in 2014, who would cost no prospects and provide above-average offense for the position. With so many other holes to fill, it’s an appealing proposition.
Duda could also provide left-handed power off the bench, though his lack of positional flexibility makes him less suited for that role. Additionally, he may be a valuable trade chip, particularly to an AL team who could use him at first base or DH. He also has an option remaining, so he could be stashed in AAA next year for depth if he struggles down the stretch.
The forgotten man for much of this season, Duda is finally getting a shot to prove himself, in his most comfortable position, and I, for one, believe he is up to the task.