To kick off our fantasy baseball preview, Michael Beller will profile certain players who may not fit as a breakout, sleeper or bust (all of which we'll discuss in our preview), but who will still make a major impact in fantasy baseball this season.
Eleven players hit at least 30 home runs last year, and if someone told you who those hitters would be before the season started, you wouldn’t bat an eye. From stars like Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout, to projected breakouts such as Jose Abreu and Anthony Rizzo, there were few surprises ultimately on the list. I say few, though, because a handful of players made noticeable strides in the power department that perhaps no one was predicting a year ago at this time. Of those guys, none was more surprising than Lucas Duda. His two previous seasons, as well as minor league numbers, however, presaged his surge.
Duda logged significant time every year since 2011 and was clearly trending in the right direction. Below are his pertinent power stats for each of the three seasons before his 30-homer campaign.
2011: 347 plate appearances, 10 home runs, 30.1 ABs/HR, .189 isolated slugging percentage, 9.3-percent HR/FB ratio
2012: 459 PAs, 15 HRs, 26.7 ABs/HR, .150 ISO, 12.5-percent HR/FB ratio
2013: 384 PAs, 15 HRs, 21.2 ABs/HR, .192 ISO, 14.3-percent HR/FB ratio
The most important number here is Duda’s ever-increasing HR/FB ratio. Fangraphs considers 12.5 percent above average, and Duda hit that threshold in 2012 and '13. Last year, 43 players had at least a 12.5-percent HR/FB ratio and 500 plate appearances. Twenty-five of them hit at least 25 homers. Any hitter who consistently reaches that ratio of homers to fly balls and has a regular spot in a lineup is a strong bet to hit somewhere in the neighborhood of 25-to-30 home runs, especially if their pop translates into long home runs. That’s where the final piece of the equation comes in for Duda.
There was another number I wanted to include above, but the listing was already becoming unwieldy. Duda wasn’t hitting any cheapies. His average true home run distance in 2011 was 413.2 feet. The next year it was 407.5 feet, and in 2013 his average homer traveled 407.6 feet. On top of that, Citi Field wasn’t doing him any favors. In 2011, it played at four percent below average for home runs by left-handed hitters. Every year since, it has been 1 percent below average.
Duda was 25 years old in 2011, which places a player right on the cusp of his theoretical prime. It should come as little surprise that as he moved into his late-20s, the power he always showed in the minors -- he had 27 homers and a .295 ISO in 455 plate appearances at Triple-A between 2010 and '11 -- started to manifest itself in the majors. As he headed into his age-28 season, it was possible that all Duda needed was a chance to play every day.
The Mets front office granted Duda that opportunity when it shipped Ike Davis to Pittsburgh in April, opening up first base. Duda played 156 games and logged 596 plate appearances last year, setting career highs across the board. He hit 30 home runs, and posted a .228 ISO and 16-percent HR/FB ratio. Duda left the yard once in about every 17 at-bats, and his average true home run distance was 403.6 feet. His inclusion in 2014’s 30-homer club wasn’t an out-of-the-blue tale, but the culmination of a player slowly grinding his way to an everyday gig.
Duda will once again be a threat to hit 30-plus homers this season, but that alone doesn’t make him an automatic starting first baseman in traditional fantasy leagues. Batting average has always been an issue for Duda; he headed into 2014 with a career .246 batting average and a .296 BABIP, and last year, he increased the batting average slightly, compiling a .253/.349/.481 slash line. His BABIP was down to .283 and, like a lot of left-handed power hitters, he was hurt by the shift (teams shifted against Duda in 77 percent of his plate appearances). His batting average on grounders and short liners in those appearances was .202. Duda’s going to see plenty of shifts again this year, and it’s certainly possible his batting average doesn’t climb above .250. Luckily, Duda’s a patient hitter with a career 11.4-percent walk rate. His value doesn’t take any hit in OBP or OPS leagues. In batting average leagues, you may have to offset him with high-average guys in earlier rounds.
Duda’s current average draft position is 132.59, which places him 14th among first basemen, just behind Chris Carter, another first-time member of the 30-homer club last year. Remember, just 11 players left the yard 30 times last year. Getting a guy with the capability to do so in the 11th round of a 12-team league could be a major coup for any fantasy owner.