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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Lucas Duda Flaps His Wings

Few are the long-running sitcoms that haven’t trotted out the trope in which Thanksgiving (or perhaps some other festive gathering, but usually Thanksgiving) is imperiled because there are too many guests and not enough seats at the table or, for that matter, not enough food for all the guests squeezing their way to the table.

The Mets took their stab at this old chestnut eight months ago when they started the 2014 season with a scene at first base where there was room for only one first baseman yet they issued cordial invitations to three potential occupants.

Hilarity could have ensued. It usually has where the Mets are concerned. Instead, the situation resolved itself well in advance of the season’s first commercial break. And as the prime time schedule is constructed for 2015, we find an unlikely bedrock anchoring first base. Lucas Duda is slated to play there with no more than sporadic pre-emption.

The spirit of Mel Allen isn’t the only one asking, “How about that?”

On Black Friday, right around the time of year the Mets have been known to sort through their flurry of first base transactions (Rico Brogna, traded on November 27, 1996; Carlos Delgado, traded for on November 24, 2005), the Mets neither made a list nor checked it twice where the initial sack is concerned. Doorbusters? Lucas is their fencebuster. And he plays first.

Who knew?

In 2014, The Dudafly Effect emerged as our Nikon Camera Player of the Year — the award bestowed upon the entity or concept that best symbolizes, illustrates or transcends the year in Metsdom. Once Lucas started to soar, first base was no longer a cocoon of troubling uncertainties. And if Lucas Duda can take flight and stay aloft, who’s to say an entire team can’t follow?

Duda, emerging from the shadows. (Getty Images)

Duda, emerging from the shadows.

Duda’s Met-amorphosis, in which a previously miscast outfielder who could never quite hack it for an entire major league season turned into one of the better first basemen in the National League, presaged a series of events that might not have otherwise occurred. Just consider what happened once Lucas flapped his wings.

If the Mets hadn’t settled on the possibility that Duda would settle in at first, then it’s likely Ike Davis would have stayed and thus remained more question than answer. Ike, once upon a not so long ago time, was the Mets’ first baseman of the future, except he stubbornly refused to effectively fill the role of first baseman of the present. For those of us who invested middle-of-the-order and staple-of-the-infield hopes and dreams at the sight of Ike and all he seemed to represent when he debuted so promisingly in 2010, every year after 2010, until his trade to Pittsburgh in 2014, was a little more painful than the one before it. Right up to his final truncated season as a Met, when the 27-year-old Davis’s potential was no longer sustainable versus his disappointing reality, it was hard to believe Ike hadn’t reverted to being the pre-Valley Fever Ike we wanted him to be.

Sometimes, it was uttered out of desperation as much as sound judgment, that sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make. That was the best reason to hang on to Ike, who had shown more than flashes of brilliance at his best. Yet on April 18, the Mets let go of the possibilities inherent in a turnaround that might never come and traded the indisputably likable Ike Davis to the Pirates for minor league pitchers Zack Thornton and Blake Taylor. Whether it’s the best trade the Mets could have made won’t be known until primary acquisition Taylor, 19, matures and pitches a lot and matures and pitches some more.

High on hindsight, we know it wasn’t much of a trade for Pittsburgh. They won a Wild Card in 2013 without Ike Davis, they won another in 2014 with Ike Davis. Ike’s .721 OPS in 397 plate appearances was hardly the determining factor in the keeping the streak alive. Less than two months after they served as Madison Bumgarner’s first postseason victim (in a game Ike watched from the PNC bench), the Bucs shipped him to Oakland…for international slot money…which on the surface sounds as silly as NBC allegedly giving Disney the rights to Oswald the Rabbit to secure the services of Al Michaels, but that was the deal the Pirates made.

Ike, a lefthanded hitter like Lucas, was the Mets’ starting first baseman on Opening Day 2014. And in their sixth game. And their ninth, eleventh and fifteenth; he was traded just before Game 16. The indisputably likable Josh Satin, meanwhile, started the second, tenth and twelfth games of the year at first; the 19th, 26th, 28th and 34th, too. Satin was part of the Three Men On First concept — you can’t call it a plan — that hovered over Port St. Lucie and drifted northward. The first three games of 2014 (all losses to Washington) featured a different starting Met first baseman, a pattern that was repeated during a West Coast swing between April 12 and 14.

Such indecision. But maybe Josh’s righthanded bat, which looked so lively and acted so selectively for a spell in 2013, was worthy of an extended audition. Maybe it could work its way into a regular rotation. Maybe Satin, who’d sipped cups of Metropolitan coffee in 2011 and 2012, could stick around for a full pot.

Alas, there was no stick to Josh Satin, 29, who batted .107 through May 9 and was thereafter stationed at Las Vegas. He returned in September, only to go hitless nine times as a pinch-hitter, watch his average sink to .086, have a fracture discovered in his right hand and find himself outrighted off the Mets’ roster after the World Series. Right around the moment Davis was learning he was an Oakland Athletic, Satin was signing with the Cincinnati Reds, where he’ll compete to back up Joey Votto.

If there’d been no Duda at first, maybe Satin would have stuck around. Had there been no injuries to Votto in 2014, maybe Satin wouldn’t have appealed to Cincy. But y’know, there was a Votto for 62 games this past season and when you look at the percentages, the four-time All-Star first baseman’s on-base and slugging numbers didn’t really outdo Duda’s. Hardly anybody among National League first basemen outdid Lucas in the realm of Adjusted OPS+, the stat that aims to take into account what a player’s home ballpark means to his production. Indexed in those terms Anthony Rizzo was the top first baseman in the senior circuit with an Adjusted OPS+ of 151, third overall among plate-appearance qualifiers in the N.L., behind only outfielders Andrew McCutchen (168) and Giancarlo Stanton (160). Indexed second among first basemen and seventh throughout the league was living, breathing nightmare Freddie Freeman at 138.

And exactly one tick behind Freeman was Duda at 137, eighth-best among all National Leaguers with at least 502 plate appearances and third-best among first base qualifiers. Not in this particular picture: Votto; Ryan Howard; Adam LaRoche; Adrian Gonzalez; Justin Morneau; Brandon Belt; Paul Goldschmidt; and any other famous first baseman you’d care to name. Lucas Duda started 136 games at first base, played 146 games there, took part in 153 games out of 162. He came to the plate 596 times and not only rustled up an impressive sabermetric marker but accumulated the kinds of numbers that have always looked sweet emanating from a first baseman who batted cleanup in nearly half of his team’s games:

• 30 home runs, third-most in the National League during a notoriously power-starved season

• 92 runs batted in, tied for fifth in the National League

• a slugging percentage against righthanded pitchers (.543) that granted you the patience to endure the .180 batting average versus lefties

• an OPS of 1.145 in the 64 PAs when there were two outs and runners in scoring position, which wasn’t a figure that necessarily got a lot of play, but provides statistical evidence to back up the most important production on Lucas Duda’s 2014 ledger.

Duda produced a feeling that, once you knew he was the starting first baseman and you got used to the idea that it was a temporary or default or honorary designation, he was going to come through. And he made good on that feeling. Maybe not always, but enough.

There was a pair of homers to deliver the Mets their first win (thus averting those haunting 0-162 thoughts) on April 4 against the Reds.

There was a 3-for-3 night versus the Braves on July 8 just as the Mets began to rise now and then to their sporadic occasions.

There was the eight-game stretch in late July when the Mets indicated their traditional second-half swoon might not be so severe. Helping lift the club toward a happier ending was Lucas, batting .310, driving in eleven runs and homering five times, including full-on difference-makers at Milwaukee on a Friday night and a Sunday afternoon.

There were offensive outbursts in Oakland and L.A. in August that yielded three and then five RBIs in respective Mets wins, the latter seeing Duda alertly throwing home to turn an around-the-horn double play into a 5-4-3-2 triple play.

And, as if to validate the Mets’ entire campaign as one lined with genuine progress, there was the rousing final weekend at home against Houston: on Saturday night, September 27, a walkoff homer down the right field line, off a lefty — and amid the distracted shrieks of Austin Mahone’s army of tweenyboppers; and on Sunday afternoon, September 28, a three-run job that landed Lucas his 30th home run and catapulted him past the 90-RBI barrier. As the Closing Day crowd chanted “Doo-DAH!” the man of the moment took a phantom car wash through the dugout (his playful teammates went hiding) and then a sincere curtain call.

It was the first time a Mets first baseman had reached those particular powerful milestones since…well, since 2012. A scant two years earlier, Ike Davis clobbered a 32nd homer and racked up a 90th ribby in Game 162. Somehow, though, Ike’s 32 and 90 never felt as real as Lucas’s 30 and 92. Ike struggled continually in 2012 but hit a bunch of home runs in between nagging bouts of futility. Lucas’s production felt born of perseverance and suggested a player who had broken through and broken out.

The totals were about more than the joyful tyranny of round numbers where Duda was concerned. Ike never seemed fully over whatever plagued him in 2012, so it wasn’t all that surprising that 2013 represented a continuation of his woes (minus the redemptive second-half power surge). Lucas, who first reached the big leagues in September 2010 yet never avoided a return trip to Triple-A until 2014, is inked in for 2015 in a way few Mets are, in that way where you go through the lineup in your head in winter and say, “OK, Duda at first…”

One less doubt, one less question, one more spot at which you nod serenely before wondering what will happen elsewhere on the diamond. When the relative certainties begin to dwarf the lingering mysteries, you can step back and convince yourself that things might be better than you’re used to. After the end of the 1983 season, in the wake of the seventh consecutive extremely sub-.500 record, a Mets fan could take stock of the pieces that were suddenly fitting into place.

Strawberry in right. Wilson in center. Foster, having rebounded from a disastrous 1982, in left. Brooks at third. Youngsters who might or might not be long-term propositions at short and second. No known catcher. But Hernandez at first.

The conclusion thirty-one offseasons ago: if they have that much, even before we get to the pitching, how bad could the Mets be?

Duda became such a staple of Terry Collins’s lineup card at first base that it’s hard to remember that in the first shaky phase of major league career, when his bat was admired but his glove was feared, he was exiled to the outfield. Auditioned in left field in 2010. Carlos Beltran’s successor in right field in 2011. Allowed to roam freely there for 81 games in 2012 (not removed for defensive purposes in the ninth inning of June 1 of that year as only the first no-hitter in Mets history hung in the balance). Shifted to left again for the first chunk of 2013. He’d played more first than outfield coming up through the minors. Then it was decided, given that Davis had put in his claim on first, to get him comfortable in the outfield.

He tried, but it never took.

For four seasons, it kept not taking.

The problem wasn’t that Lucas didn’t use two hands.

It was that he used his two hands. When the TSA ruled it was permissible to bring a baseball bat on board commercial flights, they still wouldn’t allow Lucas Duda’s glove. It was considered too lethal.

You pondered replacements, but Kirk Nieuwenhuis was going to have to heal, Matt den Dekker was going to have to hit…and Lucas Duda was going to have stand somewhere safely for the portions of the game when they took the stick out of his hand.

Then came Eric Young, Jr., who may not have been an ongoing solution in left field when he sped into town in June of 2013, but between his arrival and Marlon Byrd’s renaissance in right, Lucas was squeezed out of the outfield. Those developments, along with Ike’s endless implosion, might have been the best things that ever happened to Duda’s career trajectory. The Mets were forced to play their most viable first base candidate at first base.

And that took.

At first base, Duda’s glove is competent if not classic. At the plate, he’s not quite a classic on-base machine, but he knows how to work a count. He has hit some very long home runs in his time, though he’s not really a classic slugger. Yet his is a classic success story. He kept not making it until he made it. He made it far enough to finish Top Five in two power categories. He made it far enough to earn three points in MVP balloting (“today on the ABC Afterschool Special, ‘A Vote For Lucas’”). He made it far enough to earn a trip to the Far East on MLB’s All-Star tour of Japan. Lucas wasn’t technically an All-Star in 2014, but he played enough like one so he wasn’t stopped at customs.

Some ballplayers are clearly ballplayers. One glance tells you Juan Lagares was born to track deep flies and usher them to their leathery demise. Curtis Granderson in a business suit espousing the attributes of salmon is a ballplayer, despite playing ball at a subpar level in his first go-around as a Met. Some ballplayers you can see the ballplayer within even as you realize it’s going to requite a little waiting for that ballplayer to come out and excel. In his earliest ups, Wilmer Flores looked like he was in the middle of his own dream where he’s suddenly batting with the bases loaded and he may or may not be properly clad. Later, though, you could squint and make out shades of Kevin Mitchell or Jeff Kent, hitters who found places on the field to make themselves worth the defensive angst. If neither of his shoulders is barking, you can picture David Wright literally hopping off a train in the middle of nowhere with his bat, rolling up his sleeves and putting on a show for the folks in the sticks (and then signing so many autographs that he has to literally hop back on the train when it starts to pull out without him).

Lucas Duda looks like an igloo with legs. He’s the guy working in the back of the garage who shrugs when you ask when your car will be ready. There’s a hint of impishness (consider the Closing Day car wash, which was not just baseball-funny but truly funny) that indicates he possesses a personality, but he generally conceals it. He’s certainly not an anti-personality à la Kevin McReynolds, but he’s perfectly willing to personify the is-what-it-is ethos.

He doesn’t reply in interesting fashion to the stream of queries he elicits when he has a big game. Ike did. Not everybody does. You want color? As Joe Franklin would have advised, go to Martin Paint. You want a first baseman who can hit? You’ve got one. And whatever it is the first baseman who can hit has got, when it was left to blossom, it metamorphosed beautifully from perceived impediment to actual asset in 2014 and it doesn’t seem off base to count on it continuing in that direction in 2015. He outlasted Davis. He outlasted Satin. He still doesn’t hit lefties, but the Mets, instead of conducting their offseason as if it was Small Business Saturday, signed accomplished righty batsman Michael Cuddyer to mostly play right field but also take the odd start against southpaws at first.

The Mets are building around soon-to-be 29-year-old Lucas Duda instead of figuring out what to do to him. They’ve got d’Arnaud catching, Lagares in center, Murphy at second if they don’t trade him, Wright coming back from injury at third but still being Wright, Granderson reactivating his ballplaying self probably in left, Cuddyer mostly in right, maybe Flores for real at short.

Plus Duda at first, pasting righthanders, gobbling up more grounders than not, dependably digging low throws from the dirt and inspiring confidence every time he metaphorically flaps his wings.

There are lingering Met mysteries, to be sure, but the relative certainties are beginning to decisively outnumber them. Start piling up the things you’re pretty sure about — such as Duda — and you commence to transforming from a perennially lousy 74-88 to an encouragingly so-so 79-83. Keep piling them up, and your lately so-so squad seems destined to transform further into something undeniably good.

Which begs a simple question: if they have that much, even before we get to the pitching, how bad could the Mets be?

FAITH AND FEAR’S PREVIOUS NIKON CAMERA PLAYERS OF THE YEAR

2005: The WFAN broadcast team of Gary Cohen and Howie Rose
2006: Shea Stadium
2007: Uncertainty
2008: The 162-Game Schedule
2009: Two Hands
2010: Realization
2011: Commitment
2012: No-Hitter Nomenclature
2013: Harvey Days

Image courtesy of Getty Images.

6 comments to Lucas Duda Flaps His Wings

  • Art Pesner

    …before we get to the pitching. Is it April yet?

  • Dave

    There are a number of “if’s” that have to work out in the Mets’ favor in order to compete in 2015, and one of them is definitely Lucas showing that 2014 was a breakout year and not a career year. But I’m optimistic.

    And bonus points for giving a shout out to Joe Franklin.

  • Lou from Brazil

    I think of game 162 when he crushed that homer and after the aforementioned solemn car wash, came out to tip his helmet to the fans. Among them of course his folks, which really put the exclamation point on his 2014 campaign. It’s hard for me to say this considering his stature, but Lucas actually looks like a ‘slick’ fielder at first. Not a Gold Glove caliber defender but I recall several games where he made some great plays over there. He turned double plays on a couple of occasions where I just couldn’t believe the big guy actually ran back to first to cover after diving for a ball and making a throw to second. Doo-DAH!!!

  • Kevin from Flushing

    I look forward to the Nikon post every year, and this is another example why. Great read. Solid choice in an otherwise can’t-put-your-finger-on year, very good insight.

    When I think of Lucas in 2014, I think of sitting in a hotel room in Germany, listening to Howie call the 30th home run on my At-Bat app and creating a fandom moment I won’t soon forget. But not far behind that memory is Duda scooping the ball out of the dirt to complete the game-ending double play against the Yankees. I remember feeling hope in Lucas after that game, whereas in the past with other Mets I might say, “we’re lucky he didn’t blow it.” He also swung at the first pitch from Cishek to start that awesome April walkoff vs the Marlins with a hit, so by my reckoning he was an integral part in the 3 biggest feel-good wins of the season.

    (oh, and I’m sure you meant Brooks at third, not center).

  • Lenny65

    Dude’s been a strange Met, hasn’t he? We never really embraced him until 2014 and with good cause, I might add. It kind of caught me off-guard when the Mets made the correct choice regarding Lucas vs. Ike. Granted, Ike did make the call much much easier than it might have been, but still. I assumed Duda would continue to be Duda and Ike would find his stroke again with the Yankees or something. And Lucas proved me wrong. The Dude won us over right when we needed a HR hitter most.

  • […] of the site Greg Prince of Faith and Fear in Flushing has a rather lengthy piece on Lucas Duda‘s breakout season, naming him the Nikon Camera Player […]