Lucas Duda, Everyday Player

Over the last six months, Lucas Duda has probably heard a lot about last season’s .180 batting average against left-handers. A quick search reveals more than half a million hits for “Lucas Duda .180” and all the results in the first five pages were relevant. Fortunately for Duda, that unsightly .180 batting average in just 125 plate appearances is not relevant when it comes to evaluating him as a hitter. Duda had an excellent season in 2014 that saw him record 30 home runs and establish himself as one of the better hitters in the league, despite questions persisting about his ability to handle left-handed pitching. With two home runs yesterday off left-handed pitchers, Duda equaled his total from all of 2014 in one day. With four of his five home runs on the season coming off of southpaws complementing his power surge against righties from last season, Duda has helped cement his status as an everyday player and removed the prospect of a platoon from the equation.

After Duda’s poor results against left-handers last season, the New York Mets could have placed Duda in a platoon, benching him against lefties. Duda never had particularly good minor-league numbers against lefties, either, reinforcing the logic of such a move. After the signing of Michael Cuddyer, there was some talk of letting Cuddyer take plate appearances at first base against lefties and making Duda a straight platoon player. After the signing, Duda said all of the right things but maintained confidence that he could still hit lefties.

As far as the lefties go, I feel like in the past I’ve hit lefties a little bit better than I’ve shown…But if he has to spell me at first base versus lefties, whatever is good for the team, whatever is going to help us win, I’m all for. I’ll come off the bench or come in late in the game or whatever it is. Anything to help us win. That’s our main goal. We’ve got to accomplish it this year.

Making the decision about a left-handed hitter with good talent and solid overall hitting numbers is a tough one. Platoon statistics for hitters don’t stabilize until around 1,000 plate appearances, but waiting five to eight seasons to determine if a lefty like Duda will come around requires patience that is difficult when better options are immediately available. Since the beginning of 2011, there are 48 left-handed hitters, including Duda, with at least 500 plate appearances against lefties. The four best left-handed hitters facing lefties during that time have been Joey Votto, David Ortiz, Prince Fielder, and Curtis Granderson, each with a wRC+ of at least 120 over the last five years. Those players had varying degrees of success against lefties to start their careers.

Joey Votto was always good against lefties, with a 132 wRC+ in his first 619 plate appearances against lefties, and Prince Fielder was decent with a 105 wRC+ in his first three full seasons. Curtis Granderson did not fare as well, producing a poor wRC+ of 72 through his first 472 plate appearances. Even removing David Ortiz’s Minnesota Twins seasons and focusing solely on his Boston Red Sox career, David Ortiz had just an 81 wRC+ in 471 plate appearances during his first three years in Boston. Heading into this season, Lucas Duda has recorded a 75 wRC+ against left-handers in 469 plate appearances.

Focusing in on the .180 batting average, or even his overall batting line, from 2014 is too small of a sample, just as relying completely on his fast start in 2015 would be a mistake. So far in 2015, Carlos Gonzalez, Michael Morse, Mike Napoli, Chase Utley, and Melky Cabrera all have a sub-70 wRC+ in about the same number of plate appearances as Duda had last season against lefties. While those players might have some underlying issues causing their poor performance thus far, we would never look solely at their performance in 2015 and expect the same miserable production going forward.

After showing promise as a hitter in 2011, Duda slumped a bit during his sophomore season, but has posted better numbers in each of the last two seasons, leading Duda towards star territory last season. Since moving to first base, his WAR is no longer held down by his disastrous fielding, and over the last calendar year his 4.6 WAR is 26th among all qualified hitters. His 145 wRC+ ranks eleventh by that measure, and his 30 home runs place him tenth in that time. Among first basemen in the last year, he sits behind only Anthony Rizzo, Miguel Cabrera, and Jose Abreu and he ranks ahead of Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez, and Edwin Encarnacion.

His early-season power surge against left-handed hitters has also brought his career numbers against them to an acceptable level. Of the 48 left-handed hitters with at least 500 plate appearances against lefties since the beginning of 2011, Duda ranks right in the middle, as the table below illustrates.

Rank Name PA BB% K% OBP SLG wRC+
18 Bryce Harper 515 11.3 24.1 0.330 0.396 102
19 Brett Gardner 569 9.3 21.3 0.338 0.381 100
20 Brian McCann 624 4.3 18.1 0.293 0.436 100
21 Jon Jay 509 7.5 16.5 0.344 0.358 99
22 Jay Bruce 780 7.3 28.7 0.287 0.444 97
23 Ichiro Suzuki 708 4.1 8.8 0.327 0.373 95
24 Lucas Duda 500 8.8 30.6 0.315 0.360 94
25 Ben Revere 648 3.1 9.9 0.334 0.360 93
26 Nick Markakis 845 7.2 13.8 0.337 0.349 91
27 Chase Utley 693 9.7 14.3 0.315 0.362 90
28 Kyle Seager 806 5.5 19.1 0.289 0.381 89
29 Eric Hosmer 830 6.0 17.3 0.312 0.369 88
30 Carlos Gonzalez 663 5.9 23.8 0.311 0.433 86

His strikeout rate over 30% is still unsightly, but Duda’s numbers are actually better than many of his peers’ against left-handed pitching. Over the past few seasons, the highest collective seasonal mark for lefty-against-lefty matchups among non-pitchers has been the 90 wRC+ figure from 2010. Last season the wRC+ was 85; in 2013 it was 81; and it’s 90 in the early part of this season. He hasn’t made changes to his swing to better adjust to lefties, and his swing looks similar to the one Eno Sarris profiled at the beginning of 2013. Here it is on a walk-off home run last September.

He pulled that one down the right-field line, but in his two home runs yesterday, he used more of the middle of the field. Here’s the first one against Jaime Garcia.

Here’s the second one, against Randy Choate, who had given up just two home runs to left-handed hitters since the beginning of 2012 before yesterday, and has held lefties to a .187/.269/.268 line over the course of his career.

Both of yesterday’s home runs went towards the middle part of the ballpark, which could be random, although it is possible Duda has changed his approach slightly this season. In December, Duda mentioned perhaps being a little pull-happy against left-handers, and Keith Hernandez was getting some credit yesterday after spending some time with Duda in Spring Training. The numbers so far this season do lend some credibility to Duda’s pull-heavy theory, but we have very few plate appearances to go on. From 2011 to 2014 against left-handers, he pulled the ball 44% of the time. In a small number of plate appearances this season, he is pulling the ball 32% of the time, with most of the lost pulled balls heading toward the middle of the field.

Duda retained confidence in his ability to hit lefties, and a very poor 2014 against lefties was in stark contrast to his performance against righties, but early success this season is not due to a simple flip of a switch. Duda has had limited plate appearances in his career against lefties and it can take awhile for players to adjust to the difficulty of hitting without the platoon advantage against the best pitchers in the world. Joey Votto came to the majors ready to hit lefties, but it took awhile for Curtis Granderson and David Ortiz.

Fifty plate appearances with great results is not an indication that Duda is on his way to invincibility, but his career numbers do indicate that he might be competent against left-handed pitchers. This season will not be enough to make a determination on Duda’s ability to hit his way out of a platoon. He will need a few more years before we can be sure, but the Mets’ certainly looks smart in giving Duda the opportunity to be an everyday player. Fifty plate appearances do not mean much over the course of a career, but for Duda, changing perceptions in these 50 plate appearances after his 2014 season, even though it’s not sustainable, could mean the difference in Duda’s role for the rest of his career.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Brian P. Mangan
Member
Brian P. Mangan

Can we all just agree that this is Fangraphs and we know what a small sample size is?

This is a good article – but I felt awkward the last paragraph where the author needed to backtrack almost all of what he wrote because of the sample size.

We know it’s SSS, and we know you know it’s SSS, I wish we didn’t always have to devote column inches to caveats. This is a safe place.

Brian P. Mangan
Member
Brian P. Mangan

And again, just in case the sentiment was lost — great article. Thanks!

Roger
Guest
Roger

The problem is, without SSS there’s literally nothing here to discuss. The SSS is the question the post is about — what to do in response to it and how to draw conclusions despite it. I agree that the disclaimer often feels redundant, but here it’s not a tangential footnote, it’s the main subject under discussion.

Yirmiyahu
Member

SSS issues aside, I’m confused by the author’s references to Duda having “acceptable” or “competent” career numbers vs LHP’s.

A career .299 wOBA / 90 wRC+ is not acceptable for a 1Bman. That’s below replacement. And his career .322 BABIP vs LHP’s is 31 points higher than his BABIP vs opposite-handed pitchers.

Yirmiyahu
Member

Over his career, Duda has been worth -6 runs vs LHP’s, in 519 PA’s. If you look at his overall career numbers and remove the batting component (leaving baserunning/fielding/position/league adjustment/replacement runs), you’ll find he’s been worth -15.7 runs below replacement– or -4 runs per 519 PA’s. Add his batting runs vs LHP’s back in (-6 runs in 519 PA’s), and you’ve got a player who’s been worth 10 runs BELOW replacement vs lefties for his career.

Yirmiyahu
Member

Fair points. Thanks for the response.

I still definitely would not call a player around replacement level “competent”, even if that’s the only option a team has at that position.