A lot has been made about how injuries to two infielders has made it more likely for Pete Alonso and J.D. Davis to make the club. But it seems that not many people are talking about another direct beneficiary and that’s Juan Lagares. Now, Lagares is sure to be on the Opening Day roster. But it seemed like Jeff McNeil would be taking away playing time from him. But if McNeil is moved back to the infield, that would mean more starts for Lagares, too.
This time last year, the big news surrounding Lagares was that he spent the offseason with a new batting coach, one known for introducing hitters to the launch angle and hitting more balls in the air. My take was that was a much-needed thing for Lagares. Previously, Lagares was an excellent defender but one who offered next to nothing offensively. He didn’t hit for power, he didn’t run much and he walked even less than he ran. His whole offensive profile was dependent on the hits falling in. If he carried a high BABIP, he was an acceptable offensive player for his position.
His best offensive season when he played at least 100 games occurred in 2014, when he posted a .341 BABIP and produced a .703 OPS. That year the average center fielder recorded a .719 OPS. For a fun comparison, old pal Daniel Murphy notched a .341 BABIP in 2017 and that year he put up a .928 OPS. When the hits fall in to the degree that they did for Lagares in 2014 and Murphy in 2017, your offensive production needs to be better than “if he stands on his tiptoes we can call it league average for his position.”
From afar, it seemed like Lagares was stuck in his mind between two offensive profiles. On one hand, he frequently tried to bunt for hits, even if 99.5% of the time the attempted bunt went foul. On the other hand, he made sufficiently hard contact on his balls in play and despite being a groundball hitter, he had produced a .141 ISO in 2016.
The decision to sell out for power seemed like an excellent choice for Lagares.
The early results were mixed. In Spring Training last year, Lagares had just one extra-base hit in 50 ABs. But his GB/FB ratio improved from 1.76 in the regular season in 2017 to 1.40 in Spring Training action in 2018. The hope was that if someone who makes the solid contact that Lagares does, if you hit the fly balls, the XBH will follow. But that’s not what happened last year during the regular season.
Lagares was limited to just 64 PA last year before coming down with a season-ending injury. But in that time span, he hit even more balls on the ground (56%) compared to what he did (50.8%) in 2017. The result was a whopping 2.55 GB/FB rate. As you probably expect from that, his ISO was a paltry .051, which was the 11th-worst mark among the 254 non-pitchers in the NL in 2018 to amass at least 50 PA.
Yet the hits were falling in. Lagares had a .392 BABIP – the sixth-best mark among our 254 NL hitters – which led to a shiny .339 AVG. And there are still enough people who look no further than AVG in their evaluation of hitters to lament the early loss of Lagares. You never want to see a player get hurt. But Lagares’ early injury last year helped pave the way for full-time duty for Brandon Nimmo, who responded with a .150 OPS+. Despite a 76-point advantage in AVG, Lagares posted a 118 OPS+ last year, 32 points worse than Nimmo.
At the start of this just-passed offseason, most Mets fans considered Michael Conforto and Nimmo to be locks as starters for the 2019 club, hopefully in the outfield corners. A.J. Pollock was their hope to be the new center fielder, with Lagares being the fallback option. The Mets didn’t sign Pollock, but they did import numerous infielders, with McNeil being shifted to the outfield.
Currently, Lagares is tied for the third-most ABs (MLB.com’s stats list ABs rather than PA) on the team in Grapefruit League play. While they’ve only played a handful of games, the early results are not promising. Lagares is just 1-14, a single if you were curious, and he sports a 5.50 GB/FB mark. Now, it does not take long for GB% to stabilize, but we’re still well shy of the 80 balls in play that FanGraphs indicates is the stabilization point for this metric.
But if you count the 34 balls in play for 2018 Spring Training, the 51 from last year’s regular season and the 14 from this year, you get 99, which is above our stabilization point. And the results are not good.
Maybe the fly balls will start coming the remainder of his time in Grapefruit League play. Perhaps what he did in 2018 shouldn’t be added to what he’s doing now. But if he continues to hit grounders at anything remotely like his current pace, we’ll have to conclude that his dalliance with the launch angle approach as a failure.