We all know about the old idiom about how you can't judge a book by its cover.
Often times, it's not fair to the proverbial book that its cover looks the way it does. Especially if that proverbial book is a baseball player, and his cover makes a lot of people think he should be something he's not.
When it comes to Lucas Duda, I see a serious case of a book being judged by its cover. For some reason, we're thinking that a 6'4, 255-lb ballplayer should be a ferocious slugger, who swings aggressively, and drives in a ton of runs.
Yet, Duda isn't a ferocious slugger, who swings aggressively, and drives in a ton of runs. As we've seen throughout the 2013 season, Duda hasn't hit all that well with runners in scoring position. He doesn't have a lot of RBIs. He only has one home run with a runner on base all season long. All of that is fair criticism.
But what's not fair is to dismiss all of the good things that Duda does do offensively, just because they don't fit the image of Duda that many people seem to want him to be.
In my opinion, Duda's approach at the plate, for the most part, is sound. He does a reasonably good job of controlling the strike zone, and laying off pitches he knows he can't hit. Let's look at some numbers, (courtesy of Fangraphs.com, as of June 20.)
Duda has done a nice job of laying off pitches out of the strike zone, as only 14 players in all of baseball have swung at fewer pitches out of the zone all season.
That's resulted in a walk rate of 13.4%, among the best in baseball.
Yes, it's not very sexy when Duda draws a walk, but when you look at some of the players he's in good company with on the o-swing% and walk% lists, it reinforces to me that there's nothing wrong with Duda's patient approach.
A lot of the criticism gotten this year is about his sporadic power, and the timing of his 11 home runs. Yes, all but one of them have come with the bases empty. It's fair to say that Duda does need to improve with men on base. Looking into the numbers, there are some interesting patterns developing.
When Duda bats with the bases empty this season, he is an extremely productive player. .260/.345/.573 line, outstanding .313 ISO, and a wRC+ of 156. If "Lucas Duda with the bases empty" were a full season line, he'd be an undisputed All-Star with a top 10 wRC+ in all of baseball.
However, when men are on base/in scoring position, the OPS, ISO and wRC+ plummet. But the walk rate actually goes up. Could it be that pitchers are wary of how productive Duda has been with the bases empty and perhaps pitch more carefully to him? There aren't plate discipline splits as far as I know, so we have to take the numbers at face value for now. But...
The batted ball splits may shine some more light on his struggles. Most notably how, even though his line drive rate is actually higher in these spots, the ground ball rate is higher too, and that could be the root of the problem because...
The ground balls have killed Duda this year, to the tune of a .220 BABIP and a .480 OPS on ground balls, numbers which aren't terribly surprising for a slow-footed runner. When Duda hits the ball on the ground, bad things happen. Yet on fly balls this season, he's got a 1.010 OPS and .513 ISO, despite a .121 BABIP.
So getting back to the original premise of the article from 500 words ago or so: how can the New York Mets optimize Lucas Duda's value?
Bat him second.
That's it. It really is that simple.
Bat Lucas Duda second because that's what he is, a top-of-the-order bat stuck in a middle-of-the-order bat's body. The book's been judged by its cover so often, many of us miss the quality of the contents of the book right in front of us.
If Duda's got an outstanding walk rate, and he scores more runs than he drives in, why not simply bat him second in the batting order for a while and see if that can help get the most out of his overall production?
It's far from a perfect solution, but I think it could be beneficial both to the team and to the player to give him a shot in a spot that probably suits his skill-set better. Perhaps it could positively impact the mental side of his game as well, but who knows?
Sure, Duda's got some pop (his ISO is actually 30th best in MLB overall), and maybe if he were not being pigeon-holed into a role that doesn't quite fit him, (YOU ARE A GIANT SLUGGER, BAT CLEANUP AND PLAY LEFT FIELD) he would be more successful.
Lucas Duda, simply put, is a first baseman who hits at the top of the batting order. That's what he's always been. And that's not a bad thing at all. But by trying to make him something he's not, it's only undermined everything that he does so well.