Anyone remember the Hawaiian Winter League?
If you’ve never heard of it before, you’re not alone. Perhaps the reason lies in the fact it only featured four teams and lasted just three seasons (2006-2008).
I guess that makes Lucas Duda one of the lucky few, and one of the more ironic players to ever participate in the former circuit.
The Los Angeles, California native played there as a 21-year-old immediately after his selection in the seventh round of the 2007 June amateur draft by the Mets. He slashed .340/.390/.660 with two doubles, three home runs and 13 RBIs in 15 games for the Waikiki Beach Boys.
You can’t make this stuff up…
When the Honolulu surf died down, Duda was shipped roughly 4,250 miles east to play in Coney Island with the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets’ affiliate member of the (A-short season) New York-Penn League.
He may as well have been sent to another planet, considering he relocated from what honeymooners dub paradise on Earth to a very different kind of beach; this one just off Surf Avenue, featuring mermaid parades, the nation’s premiere hot dog eating contest, the most intimidating wooden roller coaster on the East Coast, authentic staged freak shows, and similarly amusing locals roaming the boardwalk.
And for the last 15 years, Coney Island has featured a minor league baseball team as well.
By the way, this all takes place in my backyard, so it is to laugh! But sometimes in hindsight, with regard to these young Mets prospects, it is to sigh.
I sat through a majority of Duda’s 67 games played in 2007, and admit that in between bites of my Nathan’s hot dog and sips of my Brooklyn Lager, I may have hurled a snarky remark or two in his direction, cleverly disguised as tough love, of course.
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The joke was on me, though. Duda quickly turned himself into a crowd favorite, playing a lead role in the Cyclones’ league-leading 49 wins. He slashed .299/.398/.462 over the course of 234 at-bats, with four home runs and 32 RBIs. His 20 doubles ranked third in the league, his OBP ranked 12th, and he finished among the top 15 in slugging.
By 2010, Duda was playing for the AAA Buffalo Bisons. Through that point in his minor league career, he had gone a combined 457 for 1,595 for a .286 average, 122 doubles, 50 home runs, and 253 RBIs.
Then at 24 years of age, Duda finally debuted on Sept. 1, 2010, against the Atlanta Braves. He spent the next few seasons shuttling back and forth between Las Vegas and Queens, until finally being handed the first base job upon the April 2014 trade sending Ike Davis to Pittsburgh. In turn, Duda slashed an acceptable .253/.349/.481 that season and registered personal highs with 30 home runs and 92 RBIs.
Last season, however, wasn’t exactly the reaffirming performance many fans anticipated. Injury compounded an otherwise all-or-nothing performance. Chronic inconsistency best characterized a .244/.352/.486 slash, with 27 home runs and a reduced 73 RBIs.
After hitting just two home runs throughout April, late-May featured Duda’s initial outburst of the season with six home runs over a seven game span. He then hit just one home run in June. In mid-July, he hit home runs in consecutive days, then really caught fire later that month and sustained it through August 2nd with nine home runs over an eight game stretch, including three multi-home run games. He did not record another home run through August 21, after which he was placed on the disabled list through Sept. 7th. His final outburst of the regular season came Sept. 24-26, when he belted five home runs over a three game span.
Now entering his seventh year with the Mets, it’s a bit curious how little attention has been paid to Duda’s performance this season. In fact, he’s been existing under the radar since Spring Training. I’m usually one to dismiss preseason results, but because the Big Lebowski’s reputation for being wildly streaky obviously precedes him, Duda’s Grapefruit League performance left much to be desired. In 17 games, he went 11 for 46 (.239/.300/.336) with just one double, one home run, and three RBIs while managing just four walks and fanning ten times.
Now, here we are one-fifth of the way through the 2016 regular season.
Duda has been at-bat 107 times through 30 games played. For the season thus far, he’s slashing .240/.296/.481 with seven home runs and 18 RBIs.
About those home runs – once again, they came in bunches. From April 18 through 20, Duda hit three home runs in three consecutive games, then hit another four games later. This month, he homered on May 2, then hit a pair two games later.
On Sunday, the Mets gained a series split with a 4-3 victory over the Padres, though Duda went just 2-for-15 at the plate during the four-game set. That said, the Mets (19-11) snatched first place of the N.L. East away from the Washington Nationals, seemingly despite Duda … again.
In the seasons prior to the arrival of Yoenis Cespedes, ownership’s prohibitive finances were partly to blame for fielding third-tier offensive capabilities, as were recurring injuries to David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud, etc. As a middle of the order hitter, that in turn placed much of the offensive onus in recent years on Duda.
Fairly or not, criticisms levied against him through the seasons never fell too far from the truth. After all, he established a career minor league slash of .283/.380/.461, he was entering his prime years as an athlete, and more importantly he was able to sway Sandy Alderson into retaining him over Ike Davis by demonstrating better plate discipline.
Duda then went on to demonstrate 30/90 ability at the major league level. And indeed, no MLB park can contain Duda’s power potential. So, yes, while he was burdened with a heavy load, that should not undermine Duda establishing his own standard and creating his own expectations, then falling short.
He is now 30 years old, and with the addition of Yoenis Cespedes, those standards have in fact been lowered for Duda. Instead of being looked to as the main source of power, he is now the complementary slugger, serving as lineup protection in the fifth spot.
Suffice to say, the results continue to be mixed at best. For large swaths of the season, he still trends towards being an inconsequential player. Or, said another way, he’s like the surf – if it’s not up, it seems his bat stays buried in the sand.
Therefore, this Mets fan from Brooklyn can’t help but wonder whether he’s out there California dreaming.