Lucas Duda, Small Donkey

Lucas Duda looks like a power hitter. He attempts to smile for his ESPN photo, but halfway through realizes how disingenuous it feels, and settles on an awkward smirk that more closely resembles a grimace than a friendly greeting. His beard is unkempt and unpretentious, different from many of the perfectly groomed and calculated ones around the league, as if to say, "what am I supposed to do…it grows." He is tired of abiding by bad Big Lebowski puns, and enjoys taking his frustration out on incoming baseballs. With his 6’4," 254 pound frame, the large lefty steps aggressively close to home plate, daring you to beat him inside while positioning himself perfectly for mistakes on the outer half. Mistakes like last night’s straight 91 mph fastball away at the letters from Jake Peavy. Which was gently deposited into Citi Field's second deck.

Of course, that is a romanticized notion of what Lucas Duda, power hitter, should be. To say that he has performed like one throughout his entire baseball career would be an overstatement. But so far in 2013, he is looking like a reasonable facsimile of another scruffy bearded, lefty slugger: Big Donkey Adam Dunn.

Duda’s 2013 slash line: .239 - .391 - .522; .391 wOBA

Dunn over his age 27-28 seasons: .248 - .375 - .521; .380 wOBA

Dunn’s career line: .238 - .368 - .496; .370 wOBA

High BABIPs are often the poster child stat for unsustainable starts, but is not a factor here considering Duda’s .239 batting average (.283 BABIP, as it turns out). Still, we’re still dealing with a miniscule 115 PA sample. His 18.3% walk rate is good for fourth in the league, in line with far more established hitters Joey Votto, Lance Berkman, David Wright, and Prince Fielder. For his minor league career, he never had a walk rate above 14.6% in a single season, and his career major league rate (including 2013) sits at 11.0%. Extremely good, but regression from Votto-like levels is unavoidable.

Imposing physical presence aside, Lucas’ current .283 ISO is the clear outlier compared to .185 for his minor league career, and .165 in the majors before 2013. It’s May 9th- we have a long way to go before those rates stabilize.

But there are reasons to believe the improvements are at least partially real.

For all that’s been written about Dunn’s new detrimentally aggressive approach, Duda has decided he doesn’t particularly like to swing anymore. His overall Swing % is second lowest in the league at 33.5%, barely above the notoriously passive A.J. Ellis at 33.3%. And this has been a trend in the works for Duda over the past few years:

Swing % O-Swing %
2011 44.0% 29.8%
2012 39.3% 25.3%
2013 33.5% 18.4%

His 18.4% O-Swing ranks as fifth best among qualified hitters. Even with a 25.3% O-Swing in 2012 (very good, but not elite), Duda still posted a strong 11.1% walk rate. And that was while he was barely a threat at the plate, "slugging" like a middle infielder at .389. Now that he's raised his selectivity to Heltonian levels and hitting the ball hard, it's not a complete shock that the walk rate is off the charts.

The more dubious aspect here is clearly the power output. But with his new batted ball profile, he’s on the right path.

Fly Ball %
2011 43.4%
2012 42.3%
2013 51.7%

Power hitters obviously are at their best when getting lift on the ball, and Duda is doing so in spades, at fourth among qualified batters at 51.7%. Thus, his 22.6% HR/FB rate is high, but not exceptionally so. Dunn’s career rate is 22.0%; Fielder’s is 20.1 %; Josh Willingham greeted Target Field last year with a 21.2% rate. Fellow Met Ike Davis was just below at 21.1 %.

So a 20-22% mark for a single season is not out of question… with the obvious caveat being those men listed above are some of the strongest hitters in baseball.

It remains to be seen if Duda’s flash of power is a real skill improvement, or just a temporary hot streak. Lucas is also striking out at a career high pace at 27.8%, taking a page out of Big Donkey’s three true outcomes book. But if he is striking out more as a direct result of swinger harder and attempting to pull more balls (five of his seven home runs are to right field), that’s a welcome tradeoff.

And it seems as though he's already starting to command that respect from pitchers. He's seeing pitches in the zone at just a 40.0% rate, good for fourth lowest in the league, just higher than known hacker Carlos Gonzalez. Of the 30 batters seeing the lowest Zone %, only Duda and Berkman have O-Swing %’s under 20%, with Votto, Willingham, and Nick Swisher being just above. Generally, the list of full of aggressive but dangerous hitters, with Pablo Sandoval at the top.

The question will be what he does with those pitches in the zone. He's shown enough at the major league level to indicate that he has more power than a Justin Smoak, and better bat speed than a Kila Ka'aihue. Whether he can match the productivity of a Dunn or Willingham over an extended period of time remains to be seen. But I don't think asking that question is absurd, and that’s a far cry from last year. If Lucas can come anything close to a (young) Big Donkey at the plate, Mets fans and pitchers can accept his atrocious range in left with a little more understanding.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

This is my first post on Beyond the Box Score, after my first overall post on Fake Teams yesterday. Any feedback is much appreciated. My angle is definitely more on fantasy baseball and specific players than saber overall, but I am interested in Duda as a Mets fan. Provided these are seen as half-decent, I will try to keep the articles flowing (as long as I can keep avoiding doing my assigned work at my day job).

Twitter: @AndrewShen_SF

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