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How Excited Should We Be About Lucas Duda?

Lucas Duda (via <a href="">paul.hadsall</a>)
Lucas Duda (via paul.hadsall)

We've seen Fernando Martinez tickle our upside bones by slugging .540 as a 20-year-old in Triple-A, but his recent stylings have left something to be desired, and he's no longer showing enough plate discipline to really be considered as strong of an option as he was before. His combined 2010 walk rate is 5.9% and strikeout rate is 24.8%, or a one-to-four BB/K ratio that puts him on par with Carlos Gomez in Milwaukee. Not good. Call it the perils of giving him too much credit to a player for being young, but Martinez needs to do some work to recover his former glory.

But this post is about Lucas Duda, who is currently tearing up Triple-A Buffalo to the tune of .330/.402/.661. Has he passed Fernando on the prospect list? Should he be the next call-up when the team finally realizes that Jeff Francoeur is almost an automatic out these days?

One of the reasons Lucas Duda has surprised most prospect hounds is that he was such a bland player in school. At USC, Duda only started two of his three years and only hit 11 home runs in 454 at-bats. He never slugged .500, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio (65-88) was his best aspect. Those sort of numbers don't even always lead to seventh-round picks and $85k bonuses, but that's what Duda got for his time and efforts.

At first blush, Duda's .299/.398/.462 debut is okay, but doesn't look incredible for a 21-year-old in the New York Penn League, where he was of average age and coming from a strong collegiate program. On the other hand, the fact that he could basically repeat his .280/.378/.462 in a professional league in his first attempt might have been a clue.

If it was a clue, it was obscured by his 2008 at St. Lucie in the Florida State League. His .263/.358/.398 probably threw most people off the scent. What further contemplation reveals is that the FSL is a tough league. In fact, in this article about the FSL this year, Bryan Smith says on Fangraphs that, in terms of "runs and BaseRuns alike, the FSL is the hardest league in professional baseball for hitters." While the league overall is still a tough one for hitters, we can't give Duda too much of an adjustment because St. Lucie was one of the more offense-friendly parks in the league. In any case, .256/.324/.374 was the average line in the league, so at least Duda was above- average.

He still didn't look like a viable first baseman or corner outfielder. Not with that slugging percentage. Even in a semi-breakout in his first go-through in Binghamton (.279/.381/.426), he didn't look like a major league option at the corners. Binghamton had park factors above one in most offensive categories in 2007 (1.02 R, 1.02 H, 1.04 2B, 1.00 HR), but the 2009 Eastern League was in the bottom third of run environments. And he was above average as usual, as the league average line was .261/.332/.395. Once again, though, above average does not equal a corner outfielder.

Then we come to 2010. He repeated at Binghamton and pretty much blew the doors off his previous projections with a .289/.409/.509 line that suddenly looked like the major leagues was a possibility. At 24, he was right at league average that year (24.3), and it certainly doesn't look like a fluke since he's continued to rake at Triple-A Buffalo (.330/.402/.661). A guy that hit three home runs in a full year at USC has 23 home runs this year.

Still, we are left with a player that had 1,121 at-bats of sub-par power and now 389 at-bats of breakout power with a capital P. Sample-size concerns come in to play in general, and also specifically. Russell Carlton once famously showed that isolated power didn't stabilize until 550 plate appearances in single season, so Duda hasn't even reached that threshold yet this year. It's one of the last things to become reliable, and Duda is still about a hundred plate appearances short of the benchmark.

The scouting community seems to remain skeptical. Here's a question from Jim Callis in an August 25 chat:

Frank (NYC): What do you think Lucas Duda's chances of hitting in the bigs are? He has absolutely crushed AAA this year. I know he's not a glove guy like Nieuwenhuis is, but reports say he isn't a train wreck in LF. Isn't it worth seeing if he can be an upgrade over Franceour in the order while playing LF for the rest of the season with Pagan in RF.

Jim Callis: I'm not sure he's going to be a regular on a good club, but I concur that the Mets should give him an audition and find out.

And scouting reports from trusted sources are light. Bryan Smith offered the following when contacted:

He was a guy at USC that people always assumed would hit for more than he did -- he's massive, you know -- but it wasn't there. I don't know if the Mets re-worked his swing or approach or whatever, but it's clearly been a change in philosophy. While I don't have a ton of trust in the MinorLeagueSplits numbers, I trust enough the groundball percentages for hitters, and he's seen a drop in each season. But even still, I'm sure his HR/FB numbers are unsustainable, and there are a lot of examples in history of minor league hitters going on power binges, and confusing us about their true talent level. I like Duda, because he's going to walk a lot, and he's consistently made hard contact in the minors, but I'm just not ready to call him a 30 HR guy.

One of the main problems mentioned about Duda beyond the reliability of his power is is his poor platoon split. He's only hit for a .622 OPS against lefties in 422 lifetime at-bats in the minor leagues. Even in his lights-out 2010 campaign, he's only had a .764 OPS against lefties. But yet again, the sample size is an issue because splits are supposed to be regressed to 1000 plate appearances for major-league left-handed hitters. It looks like a real flaw, even if he could still develop the ability to hit lefties.

You know what, though? We currently have an outfielder under team control for 2011 that is okay against lefties. Perhaps it's Duda, and not Martinez, that should platoon in right field with him. Just don't pencil him to continue his current line at the major league level.