If what's past truly is prologue, then Lucas Duda's professional career would have reached a tragic end years ago.
Instead, the Mets' 2007 seventh-round pick has made incremental improvements each season since leaving the Southern California campus. Duda powered his way from Double-A Binghamton to Buffalo this season, reaching the cusp of the big leagues and helping to erase memories of a disappointing college career.
Few players have equaled Duda's exploits since the 24-year-old played his first International League game on June 14.
In his first 49 games with the Bisons, Duda batted .321/.391/.663 with 15 home runs and 14 doubles. No IL batter had a higher slugging percentage or more extra-base hits (31) in that span.
Duda modestly insists that he's using the same approach this year that he did in his first three minor league seasons. Only the results have changed. While taking it one level at a time with high Class A St. Lucie in 2008 and then Binghamton in '09, he averaged 28 doubles and 10 homers per year.
The sweet-swinging lefthanded batter has taken that production to another level this season. Duda zoomed past 30 doubles by the end of July, and on Aug. 10 he already had slammed 21 home runs, nearly doubling his career high.
"I think this year it's been a case of those doubles starting to translate into home runs," Duda said. "I have more confidence in my swing now. And as you get older, you find that swing.
"I've got a long way to go obviously, but I like the way I'm going in the sense of my swing."
The Mets couldn't agree more. One club official thinks that Duda's power spike is the result of him learning which pitches he can handle and which ones he can drive. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he's always had double-plus raw power, but now he's starting to incorporate loft and backspin on the ball.
"He's a strong kid, especially in his wrists and hands," Buffalo manager Ken Oberkfell said. "I've seen tremendous bat speed and a lot of power. But he doesn't hit the long, towering home runs—his are line drives.
"It's just that his line drives are still going up when they leave the yard."
What Might Not Have Been
His 2007 draft scouting report says it all: "Duda, highly regarded out of high school, remained a dud as a college hitter, batting a career .275."
What that report doesn't mention is that Duda missed a month during his freshman season at Southern Cal in 2005. While playing first base, he broke his left (glove) wrist in a collision with a baserunner on a bunt up the line.
"After that, it was tough to get to the inside pitch," he said, "So that's when my opposite-field hitting approach came into to play. I just wasn't able to pull the inside pitch. I didn't have the quickness inside."
So while Duda hit just 11 home runs and slugged .410 in a three-year college career, spanning 454 at-bats, he did discover the benefits of hitting to the opposite field and of knowing the strike zone. He had nearly as many walks (58) as strikeouts (70) during his sophomore and junior years with the Trojans, which contributed to a .385 on-base percentage.
Duda has applied those lessons in his breakout 2010 campaign, during which he's drawn 49 walks against 63 strikeouts while batting a cumulative .304/.401/.588 through 345 at-bats.
Not only did a handful of opposing IL managers nominate Duda as the top power hitter in our annual Best Tools survey (he finished runner-up to Carlos Santana), but they also praised his strike-zone judgment and knack for consistent, hard contact.
"He doesn't get cheated up there," Columbus manager Mike Sarbaugh said. "But at the same time, he's got a good swing, and he covers the plate."
For a developing slugger, Duda has shown restraint with strikeouts, fanning in a league-average 20 percent of his Triple-A at-bats. That breaks down as 16 percent against righthanded pitchers and nearly 26 versus lefties, which is in line with the major league average of 25 percent for left-on-left matchups.
"He's got decent pitch recognition," Gwinnett manager Dave Brundage said. "You definitely have to execute your pitches and limit mistakes.
"He wants to get those arms extended and hit some home runs. But he utilizes his power to both sides of the field. That's rare with the younger guys."
Duda had hit 14 of his 15 Triple-A blasts to his pull side, either right or right-center field. Only one homer cleared the wall in center. So like most hitters, he settles for singles and doubles when hitting the ball the other way.
Duda signed quickly after being drafted in 2007 and reported to short-season Brooklyn. He hit .299 with power and patience, notably hitting more doubles (20) in 67 games than he did in his college career.
He also hit four home runs—or four more than Ike Davis hit in his '08 pro debut with the Cyclones.
"My success there was a mixture of both my wrist feeling better and professional instruction," Duda said.
He continued to rip in Hawaii Winter Baseball that fall, batting .340/.390/.660 in 53 at-bats, while facing advanced competition for the first time. "Facing High-A and Double-A guys over there, I noticed a difference between pitching right away," Duda said. "I got better there, and it helped me out in the process."
That development process included jumps to the Florida State and Eastern leagues for the next two seasons, and while Duda hit a cumulative .271/.368/.411 in that time, his biggest adjustment came on the defensive side of things.
In 2009, he shifted from first base to left field, playing 41 games there for Binghamton. The Mets sent him to the Arizona Fall League to further his studies, but that concluded early when in just his second game, Duda slipped on the warning track and sustained a deep bruise to the scaphoid bone of his right wrist as he braced for the fall.
The transition to left has been a challenge, but Oberkfell thinks Duda is an average defender in the making. Scouts concur, grading him as playable, though with a below-average arm.
"He's learning, and he works hard at it," Oberkfell said. "He doesn't have great speed, so he does what he can do. He's more natural at first base, but he's become adequate in the outfield."
Duda must make the most of his new home because Davis appears locked in as the Mets' first baseman of the foreseeable future.
"A lot of the veteran guys here in Buffalo have helped me out," Duda said. "Guys like (Jorge) Padilla and (Jesus) Feliciano have helped me on getting reads and listening to the bat. I'm getting better, but I still have a long way to go."
Maybe just not as far as he thinks.