Metrics say Lucas Duda hits hard; now all he needs is confidence
DENVER - Lucas Duda hit the longest homer at Citi Field this season, a majestic shot that sailed toward the faraway Shea Bridge.
Like most events that unfold on a baseball field, the home run was measured precisely, categorized and archived for future reference. The record shows that the pitch was a sinker that didn't sink, an 89-mph mistake that traveled 431 feet.
Yet even in this age of information, much of it remains shielded from public view. And in the case of Duda, this hidden data may provide the best explanation of why he's been given the chance to thrive as the Mets' first baseman.
"In some other measurements that we have, we felt that there was an edge there," general manager Sandy Alderson said.
For Duda, that edge involves his freakish knack for making hard contact.
According to metrics used internally by the Mets, the ball that Duda hit for his towering home run left the barrel of his bat at 109 mph. It's one of the fastest readings recorded this season.
Based on those same measures, Duda has ranked among the best in the game when it comes to the velocity of the ball off his bat, known as "exit speed."
That evidence proved compelling enough for the Mets to defy convention.
Ike Davis once hit 32 homers in a single season. And despite his recent struggles, some within the organization were hesitant to cut ties with him, a nod to his track record.
Duda, on the other hand, has never hit more than 15 homers in a season.
Yet it was Davis who was traded to the Pirates.
The challenge now facing the Mets is turning Duda's hidden edge into visible production -- more homers, more hits, more runs batted in. But they remain emboldened by their internal measures, which bolstered the belief that Duda possesses the physical tools to flourish.
Said hitting coach Dave Hudgens: "That's probably why he's still here."
Among the elite
In hope of gaining insights on which players make the best contact, the Mets record the velocity of every batted ball hit during a game. Similar readings have been available in the past, but advances in technology have allowed for more precision.
Exit speeds around 90 mph are considered well above average. Those in excess of 100 mph are excellent.
Duda's towering Citi Field homer on April 23 -- measured off the bat at 109 mph -- is not far off the season-best 114 mph generated when the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton blasted a homer against the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg.
"He's right up there with the elite guys as far as the ball coming off his bat," Hudgens said of Duda.
For the Mets, exit speed is a critical measure because well-struck balls are more likely to turn into hits.
Of course, that's not always the case, thanks to the inherently fluky nature of the game. For instance, catcher Travis d'Arnaud hit one of the hardest balls of the season. Recorded at well over 100 mph, it was a one-hopper right at the shortstop, who started a double play. But over time, things even out.
"The harder a ball is hit, the more likely it is to be hit on the line, [to go] for distance," Alderson said. "It's just a more granular measurement of the process rather than the result."
The Mets noticed the trend playing itself out last season, when Alderson said Duda finished "in the upper echelon" of big-league hitters.
According to the team's internal metrics, the number of Duda's batted balls above 100 mph was more than double the league average. It was enough to make him second among National League first basemen in exit speed, behind only the Reds' Joey Votto.
Of course, nobody is mistaking Duda for Votto, a perennial MVP contender. But the Mets believe Duda is capable of bridging that gap in production.
Putting it all together
Baseball is a results game. Duda himself projects that straightforward ethos. When he's in the batter's box, exit speed is hardly on his mind.
"I don't pay much attention to it," said Duda, who went 2-for-5 Saturday night and is hitting .262. "A hit's a hit, an out's an out."
Achieving more consistency remains his focus.
"I don't think it's about the miles per hour in which it comes off [the bat]," Duda said. "I think it's the consistency of which you barrel balls. I'd rather barrel 100 balls versus barreling 50 balls at a higher speed."
The Mets believe that level of consistency is within his reach.
Luck may play a role in turning batted balls into hits, but so does skill. It is in this realm that the likes of Votto separate themselves from the likes of Duda.
Votto is regarded as one of the dangerous hitters in baseball because he rarely misses a pitch to drive. Duda has long been criticized for being too passive because of his tendency to miss such opportunities.
Instead of altering Duda's patient approach, Hudgens has focused on improving his mechanics. At points last season, Duda found himself out of position to react in time, which added to the perception that he was too passive at the plate.
Said Hudgens: "The ball's by him sometimes as opposed to being ready to hit."
By trading Davis to the Pirates on April 18, the Mets made Duda the clear starter at first base for the first time in his career. And they hope increased playing time will accelerate his growth.
Still, the Mets believe that confidence lies at the center of whether Duda can take advantage of his opportunity.
Initially, manager Terry Collins hesitated to bat Duda in the cleanup spot because of concern that it might bring added pressure.
But Collins has indicated that he will see more time there. He also has resolved to start Duda against more lefthanders, as he did Saturday night against the Rockies.
It's all rooted in the belief that Duda will hit the ball hard, and that his hidden edge ultimately will become visible to all.
"That's where the untapped potential is, just in his confidence," Hudgens said. "Because physically, the ability's there."