Perhaps the best thing that happened for the Mets in 2013 was the arrival of Juan Lagares.
While it took an injury to Matt den Dekker, an unbelievably quick hook with Collin Cowgill and fall flat on their face efforts from Rick Ankiel, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Jordany Valdespin – the Mets ultimately turned to Lagares and he proved to be a defensive wizard. Mostly on the strength of his Gold Glove Award level defense, Lagares posted a 2.9 fWAR in 121 games.
Lagares, a converted shortstop, plays center field with an attacking style. When you think of great defensive center fielders, you think of guys being able to take away blasts in the power alleys or making grabs at the fence. Lagares can certainly do both of those things. But where he really stands out is with his ability to charge the ball and come up firing.
Several times this year, Lagares charged a ball so hard that he ended up just about 15 feet behind second base when he unleashed throws to the plate. Many marvel at his arm and with 15 outfield assists in 903 innings it’s hard to argue with that praise. However, his confidence and skill in charging in on balls hit in front of him is an underappreciated aspect of his game.
Meanwhile, the less said about his offensive game the better. Despite a .310 BABIP, Lagares finished with a .633 OPS. According to Baseball-Reference, the average NL center fielder posted a .723 OPS in 2013. His offense was so bad that FanGraphs rated it as being worth (-11.5) for the year.
Lagares enjoyed a tremendous hot streak in the middle of the year where he posted a .905 OPS over 105 PA, thanks to a .438 BABIP. However, over his final 226 PA, Lagares recorded a .214/.259/.300 line. While his hot streak in the middle was helped by good fortune, his closing stretch was hindered by a .269 BABIP.
Yet with an overall BABIP mark of .310 – it’s hard to say that Lagares was unlucky in 2013. The xBABIP calculator from FanGraphs spits out a .313 BABIP based on his batted ball profile or essentially what he delivered this past season. So, this is who he is as a hitter.
But his defense was so good that he was still a very valuable player. If given the choice to take Lagares’ 2013 production (2.9 fWAR) over a full season in 2014 – I would sign on the dotted line with no questions asked and be very happy.
The issue for Mets fans is if management will be so willing to accept offensive production so poor from an everyday player. It’s easy for us to look at WAR and conclude that Lagares was an asset in 2013. But recent history does not show major league managers very willing to punt offense in the outfield. There are numerous offensively-challenged catchers and middle infielders out there but for whatever reason, managers demand more offense from their fly chasers, even center fielders.
Since 1990, there are 609 seasons where a player recorded at least half of his games in center while amassing at least 400 PA. Lagares’ 2013 OPS of .633 ranks 586th on this list, which puts him in the bottom five percent among CFers of the past 24 years.
But that’s just looking at one season. What if someone consistently hit at this level? Would managers continue to play them full time? In the same time period, still requiring 50% of games in CF but now looking at cumulative seasons and requiring a minimum of 1500 PA and an OPS of .650 and lower, there are only two players – Willy Taveras and Darren Lewis.
Taveras played seven seasons in the majors and five of those he topped 400 PA in a year. He had a lifetime .647 OPS. Taveras also had 195 SB in his career, including a league-leading 68 in 2008. He was a good defensive outfielder but not in the same class as what Lagares offered in 2013. His last year of full-time play was 2009, where he saw his steals drop from 68 to 25. He logged 37 PA in the majors in 2010 but that’s the last we’ve seen of him in MLB. He played in Triple-A in 2013
In his rookie year of 2005, Taveras had a .666 OPS but thanks to strong baserunning and defense he posted a 2.3 fWAR. The following year he had a .671 OPS but a better defensive year led to a 3.3 fWAR. He never posted a fWAR above 0.9 for the rest of his career, as first his defense and then his hitting fell off.
Lewis played 13 years in the majors and had a stretch of six times in seven seasons logging full-time play. I had Red Sox season tickets in 1999 and Lewis was the finest outfielder I had ever seen in person. But that 1999 season was the last time Lewis logged starter innings, as he posted a .620 OPS. In the seven-year span where he logged the most playing time, Lewis had a .653 OPS.
Like Taveras, Lewis also stole a bunch of bases. While he never had a league-leading total, he tallied 247 SB in his career. But other parts of his baserunning did not measure up and his year-to-year defensive performance fluctuated wildly. Lewis never topped a 1.6 fWAR in his career.
So, we see the only players as offensively-challenged as Lagares to log significant playing time in the recent past were also proficient base stealers. They also had good defensive reputations, if not always the defensive numbers to back those up.
But what if Lagares improves offensively? Let’s take a look to the past to see examples of players who started out poorly at the plate but were able to turn things around. Establishing our query as rookies age 23 to 25, 50% of the time in CF, a minimum of 400 PA and an OPS of .675 or less, we have 13 players to match these parameters since 1990. They are:
By far, the biggest success story of this group is Crisp, who went from a .655 OPS in 2003 to a .790 mark the following season. Since 2004, Crisp has a .750 OPS in 4,864 PA. So, how did he do it? Crisp had better luck with his BABIP and improved his BB% but the biggest gains came thanks to improved power. After posting an ISO of .087 in his rookie year, Crisp notched a .149 mark in 2004.
Crisp also mixed in strong defensive play and posted a 3.9 fWAR in 2004, after recording a 0.6 fWAR his rookie season. He was even better the following year, with a 5.1 fWAR. While he’s never matched that mark again, Crisp has turned in several strong seasons and has amassed 29.3 fWAR in his career, including a 3.9 mark this year with the A’s.
The other success story is Bourn, who the Mets at least gave lip service to being interested in during last offseason. After posting a .588 OPS in his rookie year, Bourn notched a .738 mark the following season. In the five years since his rough debut, Bourn has a .717 OPS in 3,283 PA.
Bourn had a .290 BABIP the year he posted a .588 OPS. In the five succeeding seasons, he’s never been below .329 and three times he’s been at .349 or above. He’s also been a prolific base stealer and has also been a very good defender most of the time. The two times his defense took a tumble were the years where he switched teams, so it will be interesting to see if Bourn’s defensive numbers improve in his second season with the Indians.
Meanwhile, Revere has also displayed better hitting but his defense and basrunning numbers have taken a tumble. Bernard and Becker each had short stints where they were overall average players. We already discussed Taveras and the others, as I’m sure you guessed, never developed into good hitters.
Judging by recent history, Lagares’ best chance at offensive improvement is to either up his BABIP by 30 points or up his ISO 30%. The better bet seems to focus on power. Better strike zone judgment would go a long way towards helping him offensively. Perhaps the same coaches who convinced Ike Davis to stop chasing pitches in the dirt could do likewise with Lagares.
But if Lagares had a 2.9 fWAR with a .633 OPS and you said you would be very happy if he delivered another 2.9 fWAR, why worry about what he does offensively?
There are two answers to that question. The first is that despite conventional wisdom, defense does indeed go into slumps. Just because Lagares put up a great defensive year in 2013 does not mean that we can assume he will do the same every year going forward.
Since we have UZR numbers starting in 2002, there have been 264 seasons of a CF logging 800 innings and only four players have posted marks of +15.0 in at least two years and only Andruw Jones did it in consecutive seasons.
Franklin Gutierrez had the best defensive season for a CF in the UZR era when he posted a 31.0 mark in 2009. The following year he had a 5.9 mark in 152 games played. Crisp had a 25.0 mark in 2007 and has not posted a figure better than 6.9 since and three times has been in negative numbers. Mike Cameron had a 19.2 mark in 2003 and never beat a 12.1 mark the rest of his career.
Lagares’ 21.5 UZR is the ninth-best mark ever for a center fielder. It just seems optimistic to expect that he will continue to post defensive seasons this good going forward.
And even if he did, he still has to have a manager willing to put up with his offense.
Earlier we saw that only two center fielders – Taveras and Lewis – since 1990 had amassed at least 2,000 PA with an OPS beneath .650 and those two checked in at .647 and .645, respectively. It’s safe to say that this is the floor that managers will tolerate offensively and it’s likely they only did with these two because they were 30+ SB guys.
If we use the same parameters but up our OPS limit to .680 – we get Otis Nixon. Besides being one of the ugliest players in modern times, Nixon’s other claim to fame was being an outstanding base stealer. Nixon had 11 straight seasons in which he swiped at least 37 bases.
Since 1990, managers have spoken loud and clear in that they will only give playing time to poor offensive center fielders if they play good defense and swipe a ton of bases. Even if we up our OPS ceiling to .700 – we still only get seven players and all of them stole 30 bases in a season.
If we turn this around and look at CFers in this time frame to amass 2,000 PA the person with the lowest OPS among those that were not big stolen base threats – those who never reached 20 SB in a year – is Colby Rasmus, who has a .753 lifetime OPS. Lagares stole six bases in nine attempts in 2013.
Lagares was extremely productive in 2013 but nearly all of his value came from the defensive side of things. His offense was abysmal and his overall baserunning contributed just 0.5 runs to his ledger. But this is a bottom-line business and it should make no difference from where the value comes. However, there’s a huge difference between what should be and what is when it comes to MLB.
Since 1990, we’ve seen MLB managers hesitant to give full-time status to a center fielder with a below-average OPS. When managers did do that, they unanimously favored guys who could rack up stolen bases.
If the past quarter century is a decent guide, Lagares will have to up his offensive production or become a demon on the basepaths to maintain his status as a starting player for more than a year or so. Since he’s never stolen more than 25 bases in a season in the minors, it seems unlikely that he will go the Taveras-Nixon route.
So, the best bet for Lagares to remain a starter is for him to improve his OPS. Since 2013’s OPS was so poor with a .310 BABIP, it seems the best way is for him to make stronger contact, much like Crisp did. Now the question is if Dave Hudgens and his approach can help Lagares develop in this way.
The idea is to take pitches until you get one you can drive. This pitch could come on the first pitch of the AB or it may never come at all. It will be interesting to see if Lagares can lay off pitches he cannot hit for any power. Earlier this month, ESPN’s Mark Simon talked about Lagares’ propensity to chase pitches. Here’s what he had to say:
In other words, Lagares often took when he should have swung and swung when he should have taken.
Much of this stemmed from Lagares’ inability to handle a good slider from a right-handed pitcher. Lagares made 58 outs and had eight hits and two walks against that pitch.
Lagares needs to do with sliders what he does with fielding fly balls — catch up to them.
The bottom line is that Lagares is a fascinating player. His defense is incredible and he helped change games with his strong play in the field. The flip side of that is that his offense was terrible. Outside of an unsustainable 105-PA hot streak, his offense was abysmal. We’ve seen brief hot streaks from other players recently – 2012 Nieuwenhuis, 2011 Justin Turner, 2010 Rod Barajas – that made them appear better than what they were. And we’ve seen those players fail to match their hot stretches over extended playing time.
Can Lagares and the Mets coaches build on that hot streak and create a stronger offensive player? Can Lagares live up to the comparisons to Jones and develop into a center fielder who delivers consistently great defensive performance? And if Lagares continues to be a great defensive player and a rotten offensive player, will Terry Collins buck tradition and continue to utilize him as a starter?
David Wright is the best position player on the Mets. But Lagares is by far the most interesting. His overall play made him a strong contributor to the 2013 Mets. With those contributions coming on defense – generally considered the hardest to accurately quantify – will everyone accept him as a good player if he hits like a backup shortstop and is no better than average on the basepaths?
One of the great things about baseball is that it still finds ways to amaze people. Lagares came up with a reputation as a guy who could play center in a pinch but was better suited for a corner spot. Yet it’s turned out that not only is his defense good, it’s spectacular. In 2013 it was enough to make him a borderline star, despite rotten offensive numbers. Let’s see how Lagares surprises us in 2014.