We’ve heard a lot lately about how much better Juan Lagares is playing since he’s gotten consistent playing time. He’s been playing so good, we’re told, that even when Brandon Nimmo and Jed Lowrie return that he should continue to get playing time. But has anybody actually looked to see if this is true? It’s great that the broadcasters love Lagares and sing his praises whenever they think he does anything remotely positive. But let’s take a look at things and see if reality matches the hype.
Jeff McNeil went on the IL on August 14. From that point on, Lagares has started all 13 games and has a .250/.308/.354 line in 53 PA. And this is his production with a .324 BABIP. In his MLB career, Lagares has a .314 BABIP, so the hits have been falling in at a slightly above-average rate for him. Are we excited about a .662 OPS?
Some will point out that’s not fair, as the day before Lagares had a four-hit game. If we include that day in this stretch, we get a .308/.357/.423 line in 57 PA. So we have a .780 OPS but with a .390 BABIP. If Lagares would give us a .780 OPS, we’d all be happy with that. But exactly how long do you think he’ll be able to have the hits fall in to that degree?
And you don’t want to go back and add in numbers any earlier than that. In the eight games before the four-hit affair, Lagares went 1-14.
When people go on about how well Lagares has played since getting regular playing time, what they mean is that he had 11 hits in a five-game stretch, thanks to the aforementioned four-hit game, teamed with a three-hit game, too. In the nine games since that mini hot streak ended, all starts, Lagares has a .515 OPS in 36 PA. In all 95 games he played this season before the four-hit game, Lagares had a .512 OPS.
Because of his defense, people want so much for Lagares to succeed offensively that they seemingly throw all logic out the window. Are we really supposed to think that a five-game stretch where everything went right outweighs what he’s done the other 104 games this season? Or what he’s done in over 2,000 PA in the majors? Walk over to the mirror and say this out loud – That’s crazy talk.
And let’s talk about his defense.
Nothing makes you appreciate Gary Cohen more than listening to his replacement do a couple of games in a row. Cohen is an excellent broadcaster. But just like fans have their favorite players and sometimes can’t discuss them logically, Cohen loses his mind over anything that Lagares does defensively. No one is suggesting that playing center field in the majors is easy. But each time Lagares runs to catch a ball, Cohen makes it sound like the equivalent of curing cancer.
Lagares made a nice running play on a ball last night and Cohen praised it to the heavens. Michael Conforto runs further to track a ball down that was hit way over his head and it doesn’t get anywhere near as much of a positive reaction. Was the ball that Lagares caught a more difficult play? It’s certainly possible that it was. But it wasn’t a slam dunk. If all you knew about Lagares on defense is what you heard from listening to Cohen call his plays, you’d think he was back to his 2013-14 defensive prime.
Fortunately, we have systems a little less biased than Cohen to determine Lagares’ defensive worth. Back in 2013, Lagares notched a 26 DRS in 819.2 innings, which is an incredible mark. The following season, in 945 innings, Lagares repeated that 26 DRS. He was outstanding in the field. UZR was not quite as bullish but still saw an excellent defensive player. In 2014, UZR game him an 8.6 value and in 2013 it was 16.7, which is really good.
Flash forward to 2019 and we see that DRS has Lagares at (-2) and UZR has him at (-3.6) in 600.2 innings. There’s just no way a rational person can think he’s anywhere near as good defensively as he was when he first arrived in the majors.
Taking this a step further, Inside Edge breaks down all balls hit to a fielder into six different categories, with a percentage of how likely the play is to be made. Here’s how Lagares rates in each of those:
Routine (90-100%) – 98.6
Likely (60-90%) – 77.8
Even (40-60%) – 100
Unlikely (10-40%) – 0
Remote (1-10%) – 0
Impossible (0%) – 0
There have been 26 balls hit to Lagares this season that fall in the last three categories and he hasn’t caught a single one. And the Even category, the one with that shiny 100% mark, has a total of three balls. So, of the 29 balls hit to Lagares that were at least somewhat difficult, he’s caught three. In less than half the playing time in center field as Lagares, Michael Conforto has had 21 balls hit to him that were at least somewhat difficult. And he caught two of them.
On the flip side, Conforto has made 50 of the 51 plays on balls rated Likely or Routine. Lagares has made the play on 148 of 152 of those same type of chances. Given their respective playing times, Lagares has had many more easy chances than Conforto. And he hasn’t done noticeably better on the harder plays.
If and when Nimmo returns, he should be playing center field whenever he’s healthy enough to go. The talk about Lagares’ resurgence here lately is a myth, one built on a five-game stretch that has already come and gone. He’s already returned to the same balsa-wood bat he’s been the overwhelming majority of this season. And despite Cohen’s hyperbole on any ball hit his way, his glove is nothing to write home about, either.
But Lagares can still come in as a defensive replacement if it makes people feel good. He has the best arm of any outfielder on the Mets. So he’s got that going for him.