Are Juan Lagares and Kirk Nieuwenhuis really good defensive outfielders?

Generally speaking, if we have a large enough sample, we can make pretty good judgments on a player based on his statistics. If you never saw them play, it would be easy to look at numbers and determine that Dave Kingman had great power, John Olerud had a great eye and Jose Reyes was a great runner. But there are plenty of times when the sample isn’t big enough or the numbers cannot be judged properly and scouts are more important.

Most of us have played in and/or watched thousands of baseball games and we think we know a thing or two about the game. My guess is that we could know – without numbers – that David Wright was a better hitter than Rey Ordonez just by watching them play a handful of games. But could you tell me who was a better hitter — Lee Mazzilli or Mookie Wilson? That judgment is a little harder to make, especially for those of us who do not get paid to scout players for a living.

In the minors, scouting plays a huge role, especially on defense. The scouting reports on both Juan Lagares and Kirk Nieuwenhuis coming up was pretty similar on the defensive side of things. Here’s what Kevin Goldstein said about Lagares last July:

“He’s far from perfect, but he’s improved both his physical conditioning and his defense this year, to the point where he still fits better in a corner but can at least hold his own in center. It’s hard to see him becoming an everyday guy with his skill set, but he does look like the kind of player who could have a career.”

And here’s Marc Hulet’s write-up on Nieuwenhuis prior to the 2012 season:

“The same concerns continue to follow him, though, as he ascends through the minor league system: He lacks the range to play center field everyday and he lacks the power profile expected from a corner outfielder.”

Neither Lagares nor Nieuwenhuis was considered a full-time player and neither won raves from scouts due to their defensive play in center field. Yet they come to the majors, hustle and make a few highlight-type plays and the arm chair scouts among us conclude that they are somehow plus defenders in center field and are worth playing – or at least keep around – because of their defensive skills.

Meanwhile, in 70 PA, Lagares has a .508 OPS and in 336 lifetime PA, Nieuwenhuis has a .663 OPS.

Niether Lagares nor Nieuwenhuis has logged enough time in the majors for an accurate view of their true talent level from the numbers they’ve produced. This is true of their offense and even more so with their defense, as typically defensive numbers take a longer period of time to stabilize. So, at least defensively, we have two choices. We can rely on what our eyes tell us after watching them in a brief period or we can rely on scouts.

Our eyes and our minds are really good at recalling a home run robbing catch or a diving stop. They are not so good at remembering (or even identifying in the first place) late jumps, poor routes and off-target throws. We could tell with our eyes that Carlos Beltran was a terrific defensive player and that Lucas Duda is a poor defensive outfielder.

But can you really tell with your eyes after 20-something games that Lagares is an average – much less elite – fielder? Has he really improved that much from what scouts were telling us last July? It’s certainly possible but discretion says that it would be a mistake to make that the default assumption.

With 160.1 innings in the majors, Lagares has a +7 DRS, which is great, and a 0.1 UZR, which is not. Both systems think his arm is good but UZR thinks his glove is shaky and his range is poor. So, which one is right? Beats me and I don’t think anyone else knows for sure, either.

At this point, I wouldn’t let Lagares’ defense keep him out of a starting job or keep him out of the majors. At the same token, it hardly seems enough to make it worthwhile to keep around a guy posting a .508 OPS, either. Is Lagares better than a .508 OPS? Yes, he probably is. Is he better than a .608 OPS? Again, probably but certainly the odds are less favorable. Is he better than a .708 OPS? That’s not a wager anyone should make.

Lagares deserves more playing time to see what he’s like on both sides of the ball. Currently, fWAR (-0.3) thinks he’s below replacement level. For many people who have been impressed with what Lagares has done in his brief time in the majors, that is an unfair evaluation. Neither side should feel confident in their POV with this little information available.

Meanwhile, with 647 innings in the outfield, Nieuwenhuis checks in with a (-2) DRS and a (-2.8) UZR. That’s roughly half a year’s worth of playing time, still not as much as we would like to make any definitive statements from numbers alone. However, the numbers back up the minor league scouting reports. Yet, with his hustle, Nieuwenhuis has somehow earned a reputation as a plus defensive player. This seems even wackier than the same label being applied to Lagares.

It would be one thing if it was just fans – longing for any production from homegrown outfielders – to overhype the abilities of Lagares and Nieuwenhuis. But we’ve heard glowing remarks about the duo’s defensive abilities from team officials, too. This is a little more worrisome. However, it should not be surprising from the group that insists on playing Duda in left field, even after a spot was open at first base. The Mets’ abilities to accurately read defense is certainly not a beacon of hope.

So, we’re left to watch our supposed defensive stalwarts and hope they can match the buzz. As the noted philosophers in Van Halen once remarked; “Only time will tell if we stand the test of time.”

Indeed.

10 comments for “Are Juan Lagares and Kirk Nieuwenhuis really good defensive outfielders?

  1. Name
    June 12, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    I don’t know about TC, but i took the 7 unearned runs as a sign from the baseball gods that they were not happy with our defensive alignment.

    • za
      June 12, 2013 at 3:56 pm

      Amen.

  2. Jerry Grote
    June 12, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    Lagares has 140 games in CF; 192 at SS, and that’s the position he started at in the minor leagues. To say he is an unfinished work would seem fair, and I think he’s shown the athleticism to play the position. Of course, some players never get the feeling for a jump on a ball … and it might be unfair to expect him to learn so late. His last four seasons in the minors read something like .414/.500+/.380/.550 … but they also show no plate awareness. We’ll see.

    Here’s what I keep coming back to … a 24 year old rookie throws a guy out at the plate. A week later, with the same situation at hand, he realizes he can’t make the glory play and in stead throws behind the play – catching the guy out at 3B by a mile. Neither play was a testimonial to arm strength. The throws were both accurate, but … well, I like what we might see in Lagares.

    Kirk OTOH is around 360 games into CF. If he isn’t a Tier 1 defender, he’s simply not getting there and its time to move on. He suffers from high splits and frankly, he’s not all that great just against RHP. To me he’s a completely wasted roster spot.

    It’s worthwhile reading that again: the guy has played 360+ games in CF. Last night … You’ve got a 2B playing first, and he makes an error. Later in the game, you put a CF in RF, and GUESS WHAT? another error.

    These are related events. Somebody stop the madness in Flushing.

    • Jerry Grote
      June 12, 2013 at 3:36 pm

      should have read “his last four seasons slugging read something like ..”

    • June 12, 2013 at 5:28 pm

      Where are you getting these numbers — .414/.500+/.380/.550 — from? Here’s what B-R has:

      2008 – .635 OPS
      2009 – .620 OPS
      2010 – .710 OPS
      2011 – .883 OPS
      2012 – .723 OPS

      Edit: Okay, I see your follow-up clarification. What you’re reporting are mostly partial season numbers. Here are his yearly SLG:

      2008 – .352
      2009 – .323
      2010 – .414
      2011 – .500
      2012 – .389

    • Chris F
      June 12, 2013 at 5:34 pm

      Im in full agreement there. I’ll tell ya, in the 10-1 win against the Nats the last out of the game was absolutely laced in the gap in right center, and with Carson on the hill, even with the big lead, us Mets fans shuttered. I saw pure double off the bat, but Lagares had a great jump and read to close in and get the ball. I know, we all see little glimpses, but like Jerry Grote says, we might see something better. I think Kirk is on-off theatrics in the field and a wasted roster spot. He’s a AAA guy.

  3. za
    June 12, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    I do think that Nieuwenhuis is a useful major league player, but he’s not a Major League starting CF. And I don’t think his bat plays well enough in the corners to start there either. Solid platoon/bench player who can provide defense in RF/LF. I feel similarly about Lagares not yet being a Major League caliber starter but am higher on him if only due to his lower K-rates and better (to the eye and statistically) defense in CF. I think he’s a guy with Carlos Gómez: The Early Years potential: below average offense that a 2nd tier team starts everyday because of his defense and baserunning, and if he can put up a .750 OPS, he could be a very useful starter in that 3.0 to 3.5 fWAR range.

  4. Metsense
    June 12, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    I like Lagares’ glove but his bat needs to come around. At 24, I would have kept him in AAA (only 78 AB) and let him get at least a half season before bringing him up if he merited it.
    Kirk, at the least, needs to show that he can have above NL average CF stats as a platoon player vs RHP. He did this in 2012 with a .740 OPS. Because of his poor splits I can’t see him more than a platoon CF or bench OF. He only looks like an average defender. This should be Kirk’s last year on the 40 man roster if he doesn’t perform.

  5. June 14, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Offensive stats give us a very complete picture. Defensive statistics come with a lot of noise and are, at best, incomplete. At worst, misleading and inaccurate. I personally don’t trust them.

    To my eye, neither Kirk nor Juan are above adequate. They look good only on a relative basis. It’s like people saying that Valdespin is fast. Yeah, okay, but he’s not really fast — it’s just that on this team he looks like lightning.

    I don’t believe that either Nieuwenhuis or Lagares are real. And I don’t care AT ALL what anybody does in Las Vegas. It can stay there.

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