Like fellow starting infielders Neil Walker and David Wright, Duda missed a huge chunk of the 2016 season with a back injury, as a stress fracture forced him to the disabled list on May 20. Unlike Walker and Wright, Duda finished the season with some semblance of health, returning as a part-time first baseman and pinch hitter for the final two weeks of the regular season. He was left off the Wild Card game roster, both because he was not fully up to game speed and because dominating lefty Madison Bumgarner started the game for the Giants.
Before his injury, Duda was off to a slow start. He continued to hit home runs, launching seven in 145 plate appearances in April and May, but his ISO slipped to a career low .183 and his walk rate fell below 10% for the first time since 2011. This was likely due to a drastic change in his batted-ball mix, as Duda’s ground ball rate shot up by 10%, accompanied by an equivalent drop in his fly ball rate. For a power hitter, hitting fewer balls in the air is obviously a poor strategy. The gains he made against lefties in 2015 also disappeared, as he posted a paltry 21 wRC+ against southpaws. Overall, Duda posted a very disappointing 91 wRC+ in 172 plate appearances (still better than James Loney, but more on that later).
However, all of this data came in a very small sample and it’s likely that Duda’s back was bothering him long before he needed to go the disabled list. As such, worries that Duda could no longer contribute at an above-average offensive level are unfounded. The Mets clearly share this view, as they chose to tender Duda a 2017 contract at an estimated salary of $8-9 million in his final year before free agency.
Much to the chagrin of some Met fans (particularly those with green Twitter avatars), Duda’s prolonged absence opened the door for 366 putrid at-bats from James Loney. Worse than that, many Mets fans came to believe that Loney was a superior first baseman both offensively and defensively, prompting one of the most ludicrous and drawn-out baseball arguments of recent memory. But make no mistake, Lucas Duda is Good.
Thankfully (mercifully?), Duda should be healthy and slotted back into his starting spot at first base going into the 2017 season. Early forecasts from Fangraphs’ Steamer projections are bearish on Duda, pegging him for a 115 wRC+ mark in 2017. If his back is healthy there’s no reason not to expect more from Duda, who posted a wRC+ over 130 for two years before his injury-plagued 2016. Look for Duda to continue contributing in his typical unassuming way, playing mediocre defense at first base and contributing a 125-130 wRC+ as a strong bat in the middle of the Mets lineup.