Has Lucas Duda Earned The Starting Job?

By Rich Sparago

Going into the 2013 season, the Mets outfield was the source of derision by the media, concern by the fans, and humor by the team’s General Manager. The common theme was that left field was set, with Lucas Duda having the full-time job, while the other two spots would be an open competition. The Mets brought in some new candidates for center and right field (Byrd, Brown) to compete with some familiar faces (Nieuwenhuis, Baxter, Den Dekker, Valdespin). The logic of bestowing the left field job upon Duda has been questioned, and is being questioned even more now due to Duda’s up-and-down spring.

Sept 16, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; New York Mets right fielder Lucas Duda (21) during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The debate over Lucas Duda reminds me of a scene from Moneyball, where the “old school” scouts discuss the merits of “eye evaluation”, versus the newer, sabermetric approach. Neither approach is right or wrong, they’re simply different and value different things. To the sabermetrician, Duda seems somewhat acceptable, as his career OBP is .338, and his career OPS is .765. Sabermetricians view defense as less valuable, so Duda’s UZR (-12 in LF and -21 in RF) is an area that, though less than stellar in his game, they find tolerable. Ultimately, in sabermetrics, power is the driving force, and Duda’s value in that philosophy is that he can hit the ball a long way.

Then there’s the traditional scouting evaluation of Duda. If one observes Duda in action, Duda’s long swing and inability to adjust to pitches (by taking the ball the other way) are areas for concern. Also, scouts use the “five tool” system (power, average, defense, arm, and speed). In this method evaluation, Duda has shown to be at best a one-tool player (“at best” since he has only 29 big-league home runs, but the threat is there). In the “old school”, defense is considered important, and this is an area where Duda struggles the most. Finally, scouts would observe the lack of confidence that Duda exudes (though he denies it), and identify that as a red flag in his makeup.

So where does this leave the Mets’ projected opening-day left fielder? I’d like to simplify things somewhat. Let’s use a very basic calculation. Everyone agrees that Duda has been given (for the time being anyway) the starting job because of his power potential. As mentioned above, Duda has 29 career home runs in 786 career ABs. Using basic cross multiplication, over a 550 AB season, Duda’s track record shows that he would hit about 20 home runs. The simple question is, is this enough to keep him on the field? It’s a matter of opinion.

One final point on using statistics to evaluate players: Duda’s supporters say, “if you look at the 2-month period before early June and then project….” The problem is that you can’t do that. It does not create an accurate picture if you cherry-pick a period when a player was hot or cold, and use that to make projections. Baseball is a very “true” game. There’s a reason why the season is 162 games. The cream rises to the top over the long haul. Looking at a small sample can skew the numbers tremendously. What if the pitchers faced in that small time period were not the league’s best? Over the course of a full season, hitters will face good and bad pitching. They’ll face lefties and righties. That’s why you need to look at a complete body of work, and assess from there.

Back to the original theme of this post, should Duda have been given the starting left field job before spring training? I don’t think so. I think his body of work suggests that he should have to earn the job, just like the other outfielders in camp. Right now, on merit, the starting outfield would probably be Valdespin, Byrd, and Cowgill. Duda would have 2 more weeks to take his spot back. But should it have been his in the first place? What do you think?

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