Early in the year both Ike Davis and Juan Lagares were rotten offensive players. However, right now both are productive members of the Mets. Both are young, homegrown guys who have shown extended stretches of being excellent defensive players. However, these three things are blinding people to the shape of their offensive production and the likelihood that they can produce their current numbers going forward.
Let’s start with the positive. Since his recall from the minors, Davis has a .286/.450/.429 mark for an .879 OPS in his last 100 PA. Meanwhile, since June 20th, Lagares checks in with a .313/.355/.477 slash line for an .832 OPS in his last 139 PA. Since first base and center field were sinkholes in the lineup previously, the Mets have had a drastic turnaround in production from these two spots the past six weeks or so of the season.
But, as the investment people are fond of saying, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. In both finance and baseball we want to see strong fundamentals. We have seen time and time again how a roughly 100-something stretch of PA can influence the public into thinking a player has arrived or turned a corner – only to have reality rear its ugly head.
In 2010, Rod Barajas had an .858 OPS with 9 HR in his first 99 PA with the Mets. The rest of the year he had a .677 OPS in 240 PA and in the next two seasons, Barajas had a .670 OPS over 698 PA.
In 2011, we saw Justin Turner post a 90-PA stretch where he had a .349/.400/.494 line with 21 RBIs in 25 games. The rest of the year he posted a .648 OPS in 388 PA and over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Turner has a .682 OPS in 313 PA.
In 2012, Kirk Nieuwenhuis began his Mets career with an .821 OPS over 114 PA. In his next 200 PA that season, Nieuwenhuis had a .618 OPS and in 108 PA this season he has a .615 OPS.
One of the easiest things to do in determining if a player is having a hot streak or is on the verge of a real breakthrough is to check his BABIP in his hot streaks. We expect when a player is playing well that his BABIP will be elevated. But, is it elevated at a reasonable level? If a true-talent .300 BABIP hitter is enjoying a hot stretch where he’s posting a .325 mark in the category – that’s reasonable. But if that same hitter is posting a .400 BABIP, that should be sending warning signs off in all directions.
Last year during his hot stretch, Nieuwenhuis had a .439 BABIP. There simply was no way he was going to continue to keep up that pace. Similarly, Turner had a .389 BABIP in his 2011 hot streak.
So, we need to check in and see how Davis and Lagares are doing in their current streaks.
Since being recalled from the minors, Davis has a .382 BABIP after Thursday’s game. For his career in the majors, Davis has a .287 BABIP, a pretty substantial difference. We can talk all we want about how since his demotion, Ike is drawing more walks and has a better approach at the plate. No one is arguing against that idea. However, there’s simply no way that can explain 95 points of BABIP.
Let’s run some numbers. Let’s be kind to Davis and say that his new approach is responsible for 34 points in BABIP, giving him the same .321 mark he enjoyed in his rookie season of 2010 instead of his .287 lifetime mark. At his current rate of production since his recall, over 600 PA, Davis would have a .242/.417/.385 line for an .802 OPS with a .321 BABIP. If he would regress to his career average BABIP, he would post a .219/.398./361 line for a .759 OPS with a .288 BABIP
And that’s with a career-best 23.0 BB% , nearly twice his career average of 11.7%, and a 21.0 K% (career mark of 24.1%) The walks will drop off and – we hope – the over the fence power will return. No one knows where those numbers will stabilize. What we do know is that if we keep the current levels of non-BABIP production combined with his career average BABIP, he loses 120 points of OPS over 600 PA. And that’s if the BABIP hit only resulted in the loss of singles.
Now let’s look at Lagares. While Davis is still in the midst of his BABIP spike, Lagares has already cooled off from his peak in the category. From June 20th to July 30th, Lagares had a .438 BABIP over a 105-PA stretch and had a .905 OPS in the streak. But in his last eight games, Lagares is 7-for-32, has a .219/.265/.344 slash line for a .609 OPS and has a .269 BABIP in that stretch.
It’s been such a roller coaster ride for Lagares here in his rookie season that no one has any idea of what his BABIP “should” be or what his true talent level actually is. No one thinks a .438 mark is in play. Some may feel that his overall line of .344 is close to what we might expect. And the cynics might point out that he had a .262 BABIP before his 105-PA hot streak and a .269 mark since it ended. Those two spans have 124 PA.
What we do know is that overall for the season Lagares has a .703 OPS with a .344 BABIP. That’s slightly below-average production for his position and the numbers will only look worse if he turns out not to have a BABIP in the top quantile.
Right now Davis and Lagares are posting star-level numbers and we should not overlook or dismiss this production. But the evidence points to this being more of a hot streak than that of sustainable, new expected performance levels. A reasonable hypothesis would be that once you factor in their defense, it’s likely the Mets have two league-average performers at first base and center field.
There’s nothing wrong with league-average performers, as long as you recognize them for what they are and not consider them to be core players. This type of production is necessary to receive, especially if you can get it at cost-controlled prices. League-average production from a center fielder making the MLB minimum is a wonderful thing to have. The same production from a first baseman making $7 million a year is another story entirely.
The Mets have options at first base. Lucas Duda, Wilmer Flores and Josh Satin could likely provide a reasonable facsimile of Davis and if used properly could even perform better at a fraction of the cost. Perhaps Matt Den Dekker could achieve similar results as Lagares but since they would both be making the minimum, there’s no reason to force that issue. Meanwhile, it’s not impossible that both players will be starters for the club in 2014.
Regardless of how Sandy Alderson builds next year’s team, he needs to recognize that what Davis and Lagares have done recently is not what we should expect going forward. It’s bad enough when fans confuse a hot streak with a player’s true talent level. We need our general manager not to make the same mistake.