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.”