Confident Duda plans on sticking in Majors
Having been demoted to the Minors in 2011, slugger wants to avoid a repeat
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- In the days following his demotion to the Minors last July, Lucas Duda sat in his Buffalo apartment and watched television, silent for long stretches. On the rare occasions when he spoke, Duda would mutter something random or self-effacing, sometimes wondering out loud what he was doing there, in that Buffalo apartment, without a Major League job.
He admits that he sulked a bit, too stubborn to use his initial days at Triple-A to his advantage. He admits that he felt sorry for himself.
"Being sent down is probably one of the lowest points that you can have," Duda said. "I think that you learn from that and you grow from that, hopefully, and learn what you did [wrong] and what you can do to stay. And hopefully, I did that."
Last season began with such promise for Duda, whose tape-measure batting practice homers transformed him into a Spring Training sideshow. With Carlos Beltran long since departed, Duda was supposed to be the answer in right field, so the Mets gave him as much rope as possible to improve. They were almost exclusively concerned with his defense.
As it turned out, confidence became a buzzword for Duda that spring, and it -- along with frustration, simple bad luck, or any combination therein -- may have played into what happened next. Beginning the season in a dreadful slump at the plate, Duda recovered slightly, then plummeted into the 9-for-65 funk that resulted in his demotion.
Even now, he cannot entirely grasp what led to his demise.
"I'm not sure I have an answer for you," Duda says. "I don't know. What do you think? What do you think I could have done better? Hit? Play defense better?"
Statistics say he could have done just about everything better. A quick history lesson: the Mets were always willing to tolerate Duda's below-average fielding due to the potential of his bat. In large part because his offense shined so brightly down the stretch in 2011, they handed him the right-field job that once belonged to Beltran. They figured he could bash a few homers, knock in a few runs, and that would be enough to offset the self-admitted fact that Duda is "not going to be a Gold Glover -- that's the nature of the beast."
They did not consider what might happen if Duda did not hit. They did not foresee the image of Duda lounging on a couch in July in Buffalo, self-pity settling upon his shoulders.
"You could definitely tell that he was down and not in a good place," his roommate at the time, Josh Satin, said. "I'm sure he thought that he would never play in the Minor Leagues again."
So Duda sulked for a few days, before snapping out of his trance and vowing to improve. Arriving in Louisville for a series with his new team, he spent roughly two hours in the batting cage one afternoon, but nonetheless posted a 3-for-25 line over his first six games. Only slowly did his results improve. Another 19 games resulted in a .310 batting average and three home runs, success enough for the Mets to call him back up ahead of schedule.
Though Duda's bat produced nothing special late in the season in Flushing, he arrived in Florida this spring feeling more confident. More talkative, certainly. And why not? Had his worst fears as a professional not already been realized? Had he not already rebounded? Had manager Terry Collins not already named him the Opening Day starter in left field, regardless of his struggles?
What more was there to fear?
There is the notion, of course, that Duda is simply not good enough to be an everyday big leaguer. A late-blooming prospect, Duda posted strong seasons in 2010 and '11, but otherwise has produced sparingly as a professional. The Mets founded their faith in him mostly because of his physical strength, Collins recently ranking Duda the league's second-strongest hitter behind Giancarlo Stanton.
"Duda's just an animal," outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis said. "If he could see himself through our eyes, he would be pretty amazed."
The animal is instead trying to see himself through the eyes of hitting coach Dave Hudgens, who aims to unlock the potential of his swing. Because Duda still experiences anxiety at the plate, Hudgens said, he fidgets and moves too much in the batter's box.
Hudgens recently showed his pupil film of some of the most successful left-handed sluggers of this century: Joey Votto and Adrian Gonzalez in recent seasons, Jason Giambi and Chase Utley in their primes. What they all had in common, Hudgens said, was a stillness at the plate.
"Mechanically, he's got the strength, the power, the size, the bat speed -- he's got as good a swing as any of those guys," Hudgens said. "Sometimes the pre-pitch movement and the anxiety level goes up, and it just takes away from the swing. One of the biggest things we've been working on is just trying to tone that all down a little bit."
For at least a few more months, Duda will have the opportunity to do that in the Majors. His rope may not be as long as it was last year, when the Mets granted him the significant benefit of an ever-growing doubt.
But for Duda, avoiding the Minors again is incentive enough.
"That first couple of days you're angry, saying, 'Why am I here?'" Duda said. "There's a clear-cut reason why you're here. You didn't play good enough to be in the big leagues. I realized that and got it through my head. I realized I wasn't playing well enough to stay there and tried to work to get back. And I did, and I think hopefully this year I'll stay there.
Duda considered and corrected.
"I will stay there. With confidence."