Lucas Duda is not a good defensive outfielder. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to call his past performance ‘bad’. His best case scenario in left field next year is probably somewhere between ‘mediocre’ and ‘meh’. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t be a positive contributor for the Mets. In fact, he has at least a decent chance of contributing positively. His poor 2012 seems to have some convinced that Duda is destined for mediocrity. There’s one sign though that frames a pretty convincing argument that Duda should rebound in 2013:
His plate discipline
Here’s a trivia question you can float around next time you’re at the bar: In 2012, which Met had the best unintentional walk rate? Hint: It wasn’t David Wright. In fact, he was third. Lucas Duda collected 51 bases on balls in 2012. None were intentional. That 11.1% rate was the best on the Mets (Ike Davis just edged out Wright for second, 9.98% to 9.93%). Going a step further, it was the 6th-best rate in the National League among players with at least 450 plate appearances (Davis and Wright were 14th and 15th, respectively). The significance of this? That it’s normal. In 2011 / 12, Lucas collected a walk in 10.4% of his plate major league plate appearances. As a minor leaguer, his walk rate was 12.0% below AA. In 664 plate appearances for AA Binghamton, that rate was 13.6%, and in 562 plate appearances at AAA Buffalo it was 11.4%. The fact that Duda was able to keep up his exceptional walk rate despite his struggles suggests that his strikeout issues were, perhaps, aberrant. In the upper minors (AA / AAA), Duda has an 18.2% strikeout rate. While not great, it’s fairly reasonable for someone who identifies as a ‘power hitter’. In 2011, the rate was only 16.4%, but it jumped to 26.1% in 2012. Conjecturally speaking (I am not a scout, after all), there’s a pretty decent explanation to this: Duda was trying too hard to hit home runs. The chart below breaks down Duda’s batted ball profile (all percentages relative to number of batted balls):
*BIP% – percentage of at bats ending with a ball in play
A few things stick out here: Duda’s batted ball profile remained remarkably similar in all but one area: his extra base hit rate. He experienced a slight uptick in ground balls (3.14%), but that isn’t of much note. The big change came in his extra base hits. His home run rate jumped 31.5% in 2012, which is by all counts a good thing for someone with his power potential (fun fact: Duda’s average home run in 2012 was hit only 5.5 feet shorter than Giancarlo Stanton‘s). What’s somewhat more concerning, though, is that he hit 45.2% fewer doubles and triples (relative to his batted ball numbers) which led to an overall 22.7% decrease in extra-base hits.
Given that everything else stayed so similarly (his line drive rate was virtually identical, changing by only 0.035%), it would seem that his doubles rate and his strikeout rate are linked. Which again, conjecturally speaking, logically follows the trying too hard for the home run argument. Looking at his pitch profile:
we see that he was getting a similar amount of pitches in the strike zone. Given that his walk rate was significantly higher in 2012 (11.1%) than in 2011 (9.5%), it lends that he wasn’t swinging as much at pitches outside the strike zone (which, incidentally, is true). Looking at his swinging profile, we see that Duda swung much less often overall in 2012:
This chart contains a nugget of good news, and one of bad news: The good news is that Duda swung at fewer pitches outside the zone (O-Swing% on the chart). The bad news is that he swung at fewer pitches inside the strike zone (Z-Swing%). Combine that with the fact that Duda saw fewer fastballs in 2012 (from 35.5% of pitches to 30.1%), it means that Duda’s selectivity (at times hesitance would be the better word) at the plate began to hurt him. When he wasn’t ahead of the count, he suffered (as shown in the chart below, comparing his OPS to his batting situation):
Though the numbers are lower across the board, it’s the bottom of that chart that spells Duda’s offensive issues in 2012. He swung at fewer pitches in the strike zone. When he was ahead, this led to more walks. When he was behind, this led to more strikeouts than in the past.
When a young player has a rough season, the ‘why’ becomes just as important as the ‘what’. When multiple factors in his performance regress, it can be foresight of future struggles. In Duda’s case, however, it seems that only one variable changed, which is an encouraging sign for the future. Hypothetically, if Duda had only struck out in 20% of his at bats (all else holding), he would’ve hit roughly .271/.357/.456. Were his extra base hit rate to bounce back, that .813 OPS would be even higher.
And that’s the rub. Duda needs to be slightly more aggressive in fastball counts and, to an extent, with pitches in the strike zone in general. Before spring training starts, hitting coach Dave Hudgens should work with Duda to understand that trying to find the home run seems to be to his detriment. He doesn’t need to hit 30 home runs to be successful, especially with a high walk rate and if he just worries about making solid contact with pitches in the strike zone (by being more aggressive in hitter’s counts, and earlier in at bats), and lets the power come naturally (as he ostensibly did in 2011), he could be a highly-productive middle-of-the-order hitter for the Mets in 2013. And if that happens, most of us wouldn’t worry about the defense.