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Lucas Duda hoping to boost Mets’ offense in 2017

The Mets’ quiet slugger could make a loud impact in Flushing this year.

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MLB: Spring Training-Houston Astros at New York Mets Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Lucas Duda is the Mets’ starting first baseman and potentially the key to their season on offense. He has a bit of a reputation as a gentle giant due to his quiet demeanor and imposing size. When that existing reputation is coupled with Duda’s mostly-anonymous 2016 season—during which a back injury limited him to just 172 mediocre plate appearances—one could be forgiven for writing him off as an afterthought going into the 2017 season. Rest assured, though, the closer you look at Duda, the more it becomes apparent that he could have a huge impact on the Mets’ success this season.

Let’s get to the nitty gritty. Duda’s long absence in 2016 forced the Mets to turn to a revolving door of options at first base that included a way higher dosage of James Loney than any contending team should ever willfully take. I don’t need to tell you that the Mets were horrible at first base last season, but for sadistic purposes let’s take a quick look at some numbers. Per FanGraphs, the 2016 Mets got 0.1 WAR out of players who manned first base last season—and even that is overly generous as it includes Wilmer Flores’s 0.5 WAR, which he put up while rotating through each infield position. Yeah, the numbers kind of matched the eye test on that one.

All that should change, though, with a healthy Duda. While a solid defender at first base, Duda—who will be a free agent after this season—makes his money at the plate, and the Mets will certainly be counting on him to provide some left-handed thunder in the middle of the lineup to complement right-handed slugger Yoenis Cespedes. Put aside, for the moment, Duda’s injury-plagued 2016 and you’ll see the kind of offensive upside the Mets will be looking to get out of Duda based on the type of contributor he was in 2014 and 2015. During this stretch, which started with Duda having to beat out Ike Davis for the first base job in 2014, Duda instantly became one of the best offensive players on the Mets, which may not be surprising to many given that he belted 57 home runs combined in those two seasons. What many might be surprised to know, though, is that the Lucas Duda of 2014 and 2015 wasn’t just one of the Mets’ best offensive players; he was one of the best offensive players in all of MLB.

Let’s check out the numbers. Among qualified hitters from 2014 to 2015, Duda was the 17th-best offensive player in the league by wRC+. Duda’s 134 wRC+ mark during this time put him just behind some guy you may have heard of named David Ortiz and ahead of superstars like Robinson Cano, Manny Machado, and, oh yeah, Yoenis Cespedes. Surprised? I know I was at first, but when you start digging into the numbers, it all starts to make sense.

Consider, for example, the shiny new toy we have for conducting baseball analysis: Statcast. Looking only at exit velocity, and keep in mind that the public only has access to Statcast data from 2015 and 2016, we can get a first glimpse at why Duda has been such a potent offensive force when healthy. To put it frankly: he hits the snot out of the baseball. In 2015, among hitters who had 100 batted-ball-events for which Statcast took a measurement, Duda ranked 15th in terms of average exit velocity with a a mark of 93.0 mph. That’s really good.

For contrast, during his injury-plagued 2016 campaign, Duda put up an average exit velocity mark of 90.2 mph. It’s probably a fair guess that this significant decrease in exit velocity was, in all likelihood, due in large part to the injury that Duda struggled with last year. If Duda can get back to his previous hard-hitting form, then the Mets will be in business.

Offense, of course, cannot be determined based on exit velocity alone. There are many components and skills that come together to shape a player’s game. Duda’s offensive profile is built on his power, and between 2014 and 2015 he ran a .235 Isolated Power mark that was good for 15th in the majors, just behind Josh Donaldson. His willingness to take a walk has been on display with a walk rate of 11.7% for 2014 and 2015 that was 16th best in the league. He’ll never hit for a high average due to his elevated strikeout rates, lack of foot speed, and extreme focus on hitting fly balls—according to Fangraphs Duda hit the second-most fly balls in the big leagues on a rate basis from 2014 to 2015, putting a staggering 49.7% of his balls in play in the air—but the combination of high OBP and elite power make Duda, at his best, an undeniable offensive force.

The Mets will be hoping for that version of Lucas Duda, the one that put up consecutive 3 fWAR seasons in 2014 and 2015, to show up this year and provide stability both at first base and in the middle of the lineup, where it is imperative that Yoenis Cespedes gets some help. If that’s the Duda fans are treated to seeing in Flushing in 2017, then two things are decent bets to follow: there will be some meaningful games played this September, and Duda will be a very rich man this time next year.