The Mets are making strides towards opening day. Spring Training has begun, and players are down in Port Saint Lucie working out. In less than a week, Spring Training games begin. With the start of Spring Training comes conjecture. The media follow everyone on the team, asking questions in hopes of creating interesting stories. A couple of days ago Terry Collins told the press that four guys are competing for outfield spots: Juan Lagares, Chris Young, Curtis Granderson, and Eric Young, Jr.
It’s reasonable that both Granderson and Young will be getting starting jobs. The Mets are paying both outfielders too much money for them to be sitting the bench. The real question is the third outfielder’s spot, which comes down to either Young, Jr. or Juan Lagares.
Lagares and Young, Jr. present an interesting dichotomy. Lagares’s value is mainly derived from his glove, as last year he proved to be one of the best defenders in the league. Lagares has good range and a killer arm. Young, Jr. is one of the league’s best base runners as he led the National League in steals last year with 46. The one thing that both of the outfielders have in common is that they’re mediocre with the bat in their hands.
You can make an argument, and say that Young, Jr. is a better hitter than Juan Lagares. However, he’s only marginally better — and considering that both are pretty bad — it’s not saying very much. However, Lagares’s defensive performance far outweighs the speed that Young provides. Lagares last year was a +3 WAR player mostly because of his defense. In context, Ryan Zimmerman, Eric Hosmer, and Daniel Murphy were all in the range of +3 WAR players.
Lagares’s defense provides more value than Young, Jr.’s speed. Even if you don’t believe in the fWAR model, it should be enough of an indication — since Lagares was worth a full two wins more than Young, Jr. — that Lagares is better. We can assume that this is all Spring Training conjecture, and that the team is just trying to give journalists a story. Then again, deciding who gets to play everyday isn’t Sandy Alderson’s decision; it’s Collins’ decision. Collins may give into the pressure of putting Young, Jr. at the top of the lineup.
This is an example of where stolen bases are overvalued. Last year, Young, Jr. stole bases successfully at about an 80% clip, which is the threshold at which you would be willing to give a player the green light to steal when he gets on base. However, it’s not that Young, Jr. isn’t stealing successfully enough, it’s that the steals themselves are really not that valuable. In an article from 2007, Nate Silver — formerly of Baseball Prospectus and now the editor and chief of fivethirtyeight.com — described how he valued Jose Reyes’s steals: “I think that stolen bases themselves are overrated. Based on some standard formulas, the value of Reyes’ stolen base attempts this year — net of the times he’s been caught stealing — is probably on the order of 7-8 runs. That isn’t trivial, but it means that all of Reyes’ stolen base attempts this year are roughly equal to 5 home runs.”
It’s important to keep in mind that Reyes had 78 steals in 2007, compared to the 46 steals that Young, Jr. had in 2013. Young, Jr. steals bases pretty well, but those steals really don’t bring that much extra value to the table. At least Reyes had other tools he could rely on, such as his ability to hit well, wield a decent glove, and get on base. Eric Young, Jr. is a one dimensional player; he can run the bases well, but he can’t do anything else well.
Lagares will provide more value than Young, Jr. if he can play every day. They’re both one- dimensional players, it just so happens that the one area in which Lagares excels is much more valuable than the area in which Young, Jr. excels. They will both provide the Mets good value next year. Young, Jr. will be the best fourth outfielder in the game and a really good weapon off the bench. Lagares will be one of the better defensive outfielders in baseball. Lets just hope talk of Young, Jr. getting a starting job in the outfield is conjecture.