Lucas Duda: Slumping or Regressing?

Lucas Duda at spring training 2015. He came into this season as the de facto offensive leader of a club built around pitching. So far, his bat has not lived up to his accomplishments in 2014. Why? Read below.  Photo: Stephen Guilbert
Lucas Duda has not followed up his breakout 2014 campaign as well as he would have liked. If he were on a team with plenty of offense to go around, his prolonged slump in these summer months could be weathered. However, the biggest offensive threat on the Mets has looked human in 2015 and his overall numbers have been dragged down from a June and July to forget.

The question is: Is Lucas Duda a star offensive player or is the current version of the first baseman what fans should expect going forward?

As you might expect given my previous posts, I am going to take a statistical approach to this question and try to find a theory that explains the data.

To begin, I see little point in comparing his statistics from last year to this year. Everything is down. His home run rate, average, OBP, SLG, wOBA, wRC+, BB% are all down while his BABIP is actually up a tick. His strikeout rate has climbed as well. Needless to say, he is having a worse season than last year across the board. No one can deny this. I want to know why. For that, we need to look at batted ball data and heat maps.

Batted ball data for Lucas Duda's career.
 This chart tells me:

1.) He has actually hit more line drives than last year. Line drives typically result in hits yet his average has fallen in 2015.
2.) More infield fly balls. That's not good.
3.) His HR/FB rate dropped precipitously. Part of this is luck and part can be attributed to getting under the ball too much. Considering his spike in IFFB%, my guess is he is just getting under the ball. Heat maps will tell us more about that.
4.) His soft contact and hard contact rates both went down while his medium contact rate went up. This is all about exit velocity and you want the Hard% contact as high as possible. I'm not looking too much into this. His changes does not tell us anything definitive.
5.) He is pulling the ball far far less and going the opposite way more. This might be a conscious thing to combat the shift and, if so, could be affecting his performance. He also may be getting pitched outside more frequently.
These are the pitches Duda has been thrown from year to year. 
There is not much to draw from here. Duda has been pitched the same way he was last year. A bit better velocity from the fastball, but velocity is rising across baseball and Duda is a great fastball hitter. I think we can rule out that his drop in production this year has anything to do with the pitch selection the opposition is throwing at him.
Value of the pitches Duda has hit or not hit. The higher the number, the more effective Duda has been against that type of pitch.
Lucas Duda likes his fastballs. Since we know that Duda is not facing any more of one type of pitch, I thought perhaps his performance against a certain type has dropped. Apart from every off speed pitch giving Duda a bit more trouble this year, I can't really pin it down to one culprit. He did very well against cutters last year and merely average this year but it is not enough for me to conclude it is the problem.
This tells us how Lucas Duda has done swinging (or laying off) pitches in or out of the strike zone. 
This data is still pretty good. He is not swinging at a ton of pitches out of the strike zone and his rate for swinging at pitching in the zone has actually increased by 4.1% in 2015. That's good. His contact has improved.
All of the above data is puzzling to me. Had I looked at just this data and you had asked me to tell you how that player was doing, I would say "About the same". Some things are up, some things down, but most of the data is remarkably similar...or the bad things have been neutralized by the things this batter has done better. That's what I see from these numbers.

Considering this is inconclusive, I will look at heatmaps to try to see if the "He's getting under way too much" theory has some traction. The reason I think it might not is that Duda is a very good fastball hitter but the best way to get hitters to pop up/fly out is by using a good fastball up in the zone. Let's take a look:

Lucas Duda's 2014 Heatmap

Lucas Duda's 2015 Heatmap
These two maps are just about as identical as you will ever see.

Well, there goes the theory that he's being pitched a different way or became vulnerable to pitches up in the zone.

Given the data we have, I think I can say, with some confidence, that Lucas Duda has had four problems in 2015:

1.) He is popping the ball up more and his hitting fewer outfield fly balls and, of those fly balls, fewer are going for home runs.
    a.) Strangely enough, HR/FB ratios are pretty predictable. Fans might look at lazy fly ball after fly ball and conclude that he's lost at the plate but based on the nature of batted balls--and being able to hit the ball high into the air with regularity--it actually does even out to a mean. Lucas Duda is well below his mean which indicates he has been unlucky when he has put the ball in the air.

2.) He is striking out more. Because of the 4th graph above titled "Plate discipline", I am not worried about this rate. It is still a small sample size and he isn't striking out drastically enough for me to get worried. However, you can attribute some of his problems in 2015 to the increase in K%.

3.) He is going the opposite way far more and pulling less. This, in my opinion, is the biggest fixable problem. I think Lucas Duda is trying to become an "all fields" hitter and it has made him less effective as an overall hitter. Yes, I want Duda to hit to all fields, especially on the ground. I get tired of teams shifting against him. However, he is a pull hitter and I can attribute his power drop solely to his drop in pulling the ball. Even though he is hitting more line drives, he is not hitting deep fly balls or deep line drives with the same regularity. This change in approach can be seen in the data. The question is: Does he adapt and become and all-fields power hitter? Or, does he go back to what made him so good in 2014? If he can do the former, he is a scary scary hitter. If he does the latter, he is still an MVP-quality bat. But one of the two has to happen.

4.) Lady luck. Duda is making more contact, hitting more line drives, laying off more pitches outside of the strike zone and yet every single one of his offensive metrics are down. That should not happen. Given what I know of sabermetrics, Lucas Duda should not be doing much, if any, worse than he did at the plate in 2014. If I were a betting man, I would put money on Lucas Duda having a second half far more like 2014 than what he has done so far in 2015.

In conclusion, may I also point out that Lucas Duda currently owns a 116 wRC+ and has played a solid first base (10th out of 24 qualified according to FanGraphs). 116 wRC+ means he has been 16% better than the major league average batter. That is second best on the Mets but it is down from 2014. Yes, Lucas Duda needs to be a bigger presence in the lineup but I would never look at 116 wRC+ and say it is "bad" or "disappointing", especially when that number has plummeted from over 150 back in the spring. No, Duda is probably not a 150 guy but he is not a 116 hitter either. Somewhere in the middle is a good bet and somewhere in the middle puts him right back up there with the league's best offensive players.

I attribute Lucas Duda's performance in 2015 as a result of bad luck and a not yet effective change in approach more than anything else. Given that, I am not worried about Lucas Duda in the slightest.

Find me on Twitter. Send me a question. @StephenJosiah13


Ernest Dove said...

What happened to the Duda who started swinging at those first pitch meatballs down middle of plate?
I know the Mets are the kings of this, but i remember when he briefly started doing it and mashed the ball.
Murph remains the only hitter on the 25man/40man roster who often swings at first pitch. And he also remains usually at top of BA on this team every year because of it.

Stephen Guilbert said...

I don't care alllll that much about batting average but I do think choosing pitches is important for Duda. In analyzing this data, it does seem like he is consciously trying to go the other way and it has resulting in more popups, more medium contact and less hard contact, and a major reduction in home run power.

If he can either learn the oppo approach when he's pitched away or simply go back to 2014 Duda, we have our slugger back.

Thomas Brennan said...

I like the analysis a lot, Stephen, and agree with Ernest.

I did a simpler article a few weeks back that Duda is awful when he has 2 strikes on him when his at bats end. He should pull more and take early strikes less, avoid 2 strikes as much as possible, and not just wait for overall luck to reverse.

Hit it over the wall and there are no hard luck problems. Strike out and it only helps the other team.

Ernest Dove said...

Or perhaps finally lay down a God damn bunt when they're giving him the hit, that'd be nice ;)

Stephen Guilbert said...

Thomas, I missed that one but would love to read it. I didn't include situational stats in this article nor did I mention that Duda also has absolutely no protection in this lineup. Both are worth mentioning. Good call.

Ernest, I know it's tough for a LHH to lay down a bunt down the third base line but there are professional hitters. They can learn how to bunt. He doesn't need to become Rickey Henderson with his bunting ability. Really all he needs to do is convert it half a dozen times over a few week span and no one will ever shift on him again. I think that's one thing the hitting coaches absolutely have to be working on.

Anonymous said...

When he was in a competition with Ike Davis, Duda wasn't great.

When he was given the job outright (after Davis was traded) Duda flourished.

Early this year, when the Mets were all hitting pretty well, Duda was terrific.

Then, with the injuries to Wright and D'Arnaud, the Mets stopped hitting--and so did Duda.

Do you see the pattern? It's pressure. That is what is affecting him as a hitter.
I actually never thought he was much of a clutch hitter, but early this year, he did indeed get a few clutch hits. But they came when the pressure was off because the team was doing so well.

Now that the team is desperate for a hitter; the pressure is intense and Duda is invisible.

There's also added pressure having to perform because he didn't sign a long-term contract when it was offered to him.

Stephen Guilbert said...

Anonymous, player psychology is certainly a real thing and we tend to ignore it because it's unquantifiable but it certainly exists. You very well may be right. However, he has also gotten very unlucky this year which is partially my conclusion above. If he were really pressing and trying to do too much (for whatever reason) I think we would see worse rates for his in-zone and out-of-zone swings and we don't. In fact, they've gotten better.

Thomas Brennan said...

Hey Stephen, my article was entitled Listening Skills and you can find it in the list on the right side of the page, as one of Mack's Mets July articles. It was less analytical, more spur of the moment than your fine analysis.

Stephen Guilbert said...

Nonsense. Just read it and it is eye-opening. It would fit in perfectly with this post and I should have considered that situational data when writing. Thanks for pointing me to it. It is certainly something to watch out for with Lucas. I looked at Curtis Granderson and Ruben Tejada for a comparison as they are also hitters whose patience I like but can be prone to the strikeout once two strikes are on. This year, Ruben is batting .151. Granderson is at .187 with two strikes on them. Not pretty, but it never is. Duda's mark is well below both.

Anonymous said...

One anecdotal thing that I've seen all year -- and I am not one to get into the micro stats here, so I could be wrong about this -- but Duda is not getting a lot of lift.

The season started with him ripping line drive doubles all over the place, and I kept thinking: These need to be big flies. Where's the lift? It's nice for him to rip singles and doubles through the teeth of the shift, but truly I want him to send it over the wall.

He pulls grounders into the shift, and that's always frustrating; I want more of the balls in the air. It's a tough thing to teach. I've seen it with young players and my thinking (which is limited here) is that they tend to lift off the ball at the last moment, just a slight pulling off of it in their desire to cause lift. The counter-intuitive thing is that to get balls in the air, you've got to stay down on it all the way through.

At the advanced level of Lucas Duda and MLB baseball, I have no idea how to help him get more lift on balls that he pulls.

James Preller

Mack's Mets © 2012