When did Lucas Duda turn into a singles hitter?

Lucas Duda. (mlb.com)
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When the New York Mets installed Lucas Duda as the team's regular right fielder, he had had played just 67 games at the position as a professional. His lack of experience there was compounded by his slow movements and lack of apparent outfield instincts. Whether he could play the demanding defensive position, or be relegated, once and for all, to a career of first base and designated hitter, was very much in doubt.

A quarter of the way through the season, those questions remain. Duda simply hasn't been very good in the field. But he's probably been good enough to sustain a starting role for a truly excellent bat, particularly for a Mets team without a lot of alternative long-term options.

This, despite the fact that Duda's bat hasn't been quite what the Mets were hoping it would be. And even the crucial base hit he provided last night, a ground-ball single which gave the Mets the lead in a 3-2 victory over the Pirates, was symptomatic of why: Lucas Duda, the powerful slugger, has become a hitter who doesn't go deep all that often.

Consider Duda's overall stats first. Duda is hitting .264, and reaching base at a .346 clip. Both are down some from his 2011 levels, but well within the expectations for Duda from various projection systems.

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It is his slugging percentage that has suffered mightily. He slugged .482 last year, and projections called for him to maintain a level of at least .420-.430. But he's slugging just .386 so far, which is entirely too low for a player whose hold on a regular job is dependent on his power.

To put Duda's overall production in perspective, his O.P.S.+ is 108, which places him 16th of 28 among regular right fielders this season.

Slightly below average production would be fine if his defense could make up some of the deficit, but it hasn't. By any measure, he's been appallingly bad out there. To cite just one example, Ultimate Zone Rating has him worth 39.5 runs over 150 games.

Duda's offensive production could improve dramatically if he simply went back to hitting the ball in the air more often. He's hit nearly 10 percent fewer fly balls so far this season. Those fly balls have been roughly evenly distributed between ground balls and line drives. Neither outcome, needless to say, leads to more home runs.

Standard caveat applies here: it is a relatively small sample. But Duda's history includes a number of minor league seasons with similarly low slugging production. In Single-A St. Lucie back in 2008, his slugging percentage was .398. In Double-A Binghamton in 2009, it was only .428. He only really entered the prospect discussions in 2010, when he slugged .569 for Triple-A Buffalo. He improved on that in 2011, slugging .597 in Buffalo and forcing his way back up to New York.

That kind of power output is reason enough for the homer-starved Mets to be patient with Duda. But he'll need to do more than hit singles to justify the mess he's making out in the field.