Rookie outfielder Juan Lagares has been a pleasant surprise for the New York Mets here in 2013, as Terry Collins' outfield roulette seems to land on "Lagares, center field" more often than not these days.
The 24-year-old Lagares went relatively under the radar as he rose up the Mets' minor league system the past couple of years. He was a shortstop in his teenage years in A-ball, before moving to the outfield and steadily emerging as a legitimate plus defender in center.
Since Lagares made his MLB debut, he's shown Mets fans that his defense in the spacious Citi Field outfield is for real, and it's probably been good enough to warrant an everyday spot in the lineup for the short-term, at the very least.
I like statistical breakdowns, but trying to delve into Juan Lagares's potential staying power is a little difficult due to the dreaded small sample size. It often takes years, multiple seasons, for defensive metrics to normalize, so anything we look at in regards to his defense is far from 100% reliable.
Nevertheless, within the context of a shade under 300 defensive innings as an MLB outfielder (through 7/3/13), let's look at how Lagares's defense has graded out so far in this small sample that, again, might mean very little going forward.
On the surface, Fangraphs has graded out Lagares with a +4.1 fielding grade, and Baseball-Reference gives him a dWAR of 0.9 so far. So at the very least, in a limited sample size, he has been firmly above average at a premium defensive position.
Total Defensive Runs Saved runs above average, aka Defensive Runs Saved, a metric from the Fielding Bible that can be found on Fangraphs has measured Lagares's defensive at +8 DRS in just 294.1 innings, which is pretty darn impressive compared to other center fielders who have played a lot more innings out there so far.
Not bad for a rookie who didn't even play center exclusively in the minors, even after converting to the outfield fulltime. I like DRS more than UZR and UZR/150, but we can look at these figures also. I must stress, again, how little predictability and reliability an under-300 inning sample size offers us, however.
There's Juan Lagares, tenth in UZR among those with at least 250 innings in center. And if we look at UZR/150...
There he is again, just outside the top five.
While it's way too early to say, "wow, Juan Lagares is one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball," it might not be too early to say "wow, Juan Lagares is a heck of a defensive center fielder" and "I'm glad we have Juan Lagares patrolling center."
The question is, can Lagares's defense make him valuable enough to be a long-term starting center fielder? How valuable is valuable enough to keep a good gloved center fielder in the lineup when his bat is not, and may not ever be, above average?
Right now, through his first 131 MLB plate appearances, Lagares has been a .230/.248/.349 (.597 OPS) hitter. That's a 67 OPS+, .255 wOBA and 61 rWRC+. That's not good. In fact, it's well below average. But for a 24-year-old just getting his feet wet in the big leagues, it's not entirely surprising.
Lagares did show some competency with the bat in the minors, so perhaps he's not a total lost cause. But his plate discipline is putrid, and really always has been. Drawing a walk is like pulling teeth for him, and until he shows that he won't get himself out, pitchers will continue to let him get himself out, over and over again.
At the end of the day, it's fair to say there's no wrong way to be a productive baseball player, provided you're producing at an above-replacement level or higher. Right now, it's hard to say whether Lagares will ever be more than slightly above replacement level, even if his defense is as good as the small sample has indicated.
For the remainder of the 2013 season, I'd like to see Lagares playing center field nearly every day, because his defense certainly passes the eye test and he is likely the best option defensively in the spacious Citi Field outfield.
However, he needs to do a heck of lot more with the bat to warrant being penciled in as the center fielder of the future. Nevertheless, he's a nice asset to have for the time being. His stat line isn't pretty, and probably never will be, but if he can keep playing a strong center field, perhaps it doesn't have to be.