At some point in August, it became pretty clear that the Braves were definitely going to take part in the postseason chase, all the way down to the wire. While their playoff odds crested 50% as early as July 2 (and only for one day, at that), they crossed the 60% threshold on August 14, and were sitting pretty at 76% by August 28. The bench had been somewhat of a weakness all season: while non-contenders don’t need good benches, the Braves had morphed into a contender, but without the position player depth befitting their new station. So, they went onto the trade market: the Adam Duvall thing didn’t quite work out for a righty bench bat, but undeterred, the Braves traded cash to the Kansas City Royals for the services of Lucas “Brian McCann’s clone” Duda.
Duda had signed in the 2017-2018 offseason with the Royals on a one-year, $3.5 million pact, and was having a blah season in the Kansas City blues. He missed a month with plantar fasciitis and had overall hobbled to an umpressive 94 wRC+ with just 13 homers in 345 PAs. Duda has never been a noteworthy first baseman defensively, and a below-average batting line combined with first base defense is fairly ugly from a value perspective — before he was sent packing by the Royals, he had amassed -0.1 fWAR. Eep.
But, the Braves didn’t acquire Duda to field. Or to get regular PAs. They acquired him to stand in the batter’s box once a game and hit baseballs from the left-side, hopefully with some oomph. Duda’s xwOBA was just .327 before he was dealt, but against righties, it was a gladdening .353. Not great, but comfortable. (For those of you keeping score at home, Duda’s inability to hit lefties at all with a wOBA of .234 and an xwOBA of .266 is what was dragging down his line.) And, hit against righties is exactly what Duda did.
In his month with the Braves, the lefty slugger got 22 PAs. In those PAs, he collected a single, two doubles, a homer, four walks, and struck out seven times. Zero of those PAs came against a lefty pitcher. Good job, Braves! (His wOBA as a Brave was .371; his xwOBA was .373. It worked out.) Duda’s 132 wRC+ in those 22 PAs salvaged his season line back to nearly average (97 wRC+) and pulled his fWAR out of the negatives, into a basically-blank slate of 0.0. Duda also got three PAs in the NLDS, making three outs in the process (groundout, strikeout, flyout).
Bottom line, what did he do in 2018? He was a replacement-level producer overall (because the Royals wouldn’t shield him from facing lefties), but he did his job in September with the Braves, providing high-quality pinch-hitter duties against opposing righty hurlers.
Will Duda be on the roster next year? If he wants to stick around for a cool million to hit once a game and that’s about it, sure. If he wants more money or more playing time, nah. However, he might have to settle for not much more than that anyway, given how poorly his 2018 season went and the fact that he doesn’t do anything other than hit righties. (Duda has a career 79 wRC+ against lefties and a career 131 wRC+ against righties. He’s 32 and has a career 1.4 fWAR/600, with as many negative fWAR seasons in his career as seasons with 1.5 or more fWAR.)
What is he going to do next year? Likely be a very poor starter for someone, or perhaps a mediocre bench player if he has to take the field. If a team is committed to using him just as a righty-bashing pinch-hitter they might get more out of him, but most teams don’t prefer to commit themselves to that type of roster inflexibility. Duda probably would have had a much meatier role on yesterdecade’s teams, but the game has changed.
Highlight of 2018: Duda’s big hits in the division-clinching series were, frankly, awesome. It was just how the Braves drew it up — acquiring a pinch-hitter for cheap, and having him come through when it counted.
In the first game of their showdown with the Phillies, Dansby Swanson hit a leadoff double in the seventh in a tie game. Duda then roped a Tommy Hunter fastball to give the Braves a lead and bring them one step (and two games) closer to clinching the division.
(The Braves would bust the game open after that, but that was the big blow.)
The very next day, Duda had another big hit, this time against Pat Neshek. Again in the seventh, Dansby Swanson drew a walk after Ozzie Albies had hit a two-run homer to pull the Braves within a run. Duda then sprayed a very weak grounder through the left side, allowing Swanson to get to third as the tying run. While the Braves were initially thwarted from scoring (thanks but no thanks, unproductive weak groundout from Ronald Acuña Jr.), they did manage to eventually score another three runs in the frame and put themselves on the division crown’s doorstep. (That inning ended up featuring five Braves runs in total.)
Lowlight of 2018: I wish there was great video of this, but there isn’t. On October 8, the Braves had four more outs to try to erase a four-run deficit. If they did, they’d get to play on. If they didn’t, they’d be eliminated from the postseason. With two outs, Ender Inciarte and Charlie Culberson both reached base against Kent Maeda. Lucas Duda came up to the plate, for what would be his last Atlanta Braves plate appearance of 2018.
Maeda’s first three pitches were balls. He then fired in the most generic strike possible. On 3-1, he threw another fastball over the plate, but tailing away from Duda. Duda connected and absolutely demolished the pitch into the right-field stands. Unfortunately, the stands he launched the ball into were in foul territory. Even if he had kept it fair, the game wouldn’t have been tied, and the Braves would still need another run. But it was a glimmer of hope nonetheless.
But only a glimmer. A foul is just a foul.
Maeda’s next pitch was exactly the same. Duda didn’t yank this one foul, though perhaps he should have. Instead, he hit the most routine fly ball ever: the ball had (when rounded to zero decimal places), a 0% hit probability. The zone chart for these pitches is below. The foul ball was green, the fly ball was the purple right behind it.
“Game of inches” doesn’t even come close to describing it. Game of micrometers, maybe. It was the same pitch in the same location at the same speed. One was almost a homer, one curtailed the Braves’ last good scoring chance of the year.