Juan Lagares Will Hit Enough to Stick, So What Can Mets Fans Expect?

By: Brian Mangan

Mets center fielder Juan Lagares has been a revelation in the early going, posting a batting line of .303/.351/.515 in his first 33 at bats on the young season.

Although most fans still find it hard to believe that the organization ever considered “Eric Young Jr. or Juan Lagares?” to be a vaid choice, the truth is that Lagares did not have a guaranteed spot in the outfield coming out of spring training.  One can only hope that his hot start has bought him some slack with the organization.

The hesitance to name Lagares the starter in centerfield can be traced to one factor – his bat.  We’ll take a look here at what we can expect moving forward.

Like many fans, I was caught off-guard by Juan Lagares’s emergence last year.  A search for “Juan Lagares prospect” on google turns up a paltry 53,000 results.  A search for “Noah Syndergaard prospect” turns up 96,300 results, and “Wilmer Flores prospect” turns up 110,000.

This lack of coverage is commensurate with the perception (or lack thereof) of Lagares in the system.  Despite being in the Mets minor leagues since 2007 (!!) Lagares never ranked higher than #22 according to Baseball America, and most years was unranked altogether.  With a career minor league slash line of .282/.322/.405, and with good but not great reports on his tools, the reason for that is clear.

[FN] One of the more enjoyable articles I read all of last year was an article on Fangraphs about Juan Lagares’s defense.  Not simply because it’s about the Mets, or about Lagares,or because it was well written (although it is all of those) but because it took such an interesting and outside of the box look at Lagares’s defense – both from a statistical and practical standpoint.

On September 5, 2013, Jeff Sullivan looked at Lagares’s incredible success in gunning down runners and shared this tidbit with us: “Lagares doesn’t have a weak arm, and his throws are typically accurate, but this isn’t something people talked about as Lagares climbed the organizational ladder. Lagares actually started as an infielder.  Lagares’ success might have a lot to do with his background as a shortstop.”  Sullivan concluded that Lagares was not a flash in the pan, and that his defensive positioning made him a legitimate weapon in the outfield — calling him “death to flying things and to running things.”

It’s worth a read.

Most reports on Lagares, even after his successful 2013 season, simply assume that he won’t hit.  Here at the Read Zone, we don’t take kindly to assumptions.

Fangraphs projections for Lagares rest-of-season are modest, and combining the two shows projection systems results in a projected batting line of .253/.292/.362, very close to last year’s .242/.281/.352.  Despite how putrid that looks, in this brave new baseball world of 2014, a 633 OPS is still good for an OPS+ of 79.  Between that and his defense, Baseball-Reference had Lagares worth 3.7 WAR last season.  So even if Lagares were to duplicate last year’s feeble effort at the dish, he would still be more than pulling his weight.

Nonetheless, I find those projections to be pessimistic for Lagares.  As mentioned earlier, his career minor league OPS is 725.  Although part of that is buoyed by his successful short stint in Triple-A Las Vegas last season (a.k.a. Hitter’s Paradise), where he batted .346/.378/.551, his other high-minors batting lines are equally impressive.

2011 – St. Lucie – Single A – (age 22) – .338/.380/.494, 873 OPS

2011 – Binghamton – Double A – (22) – .370/.391/.512, 903 OPS

2012 – Binghamton – Double A – (23) – .283/.334/.389, 723 OPS

His single worst slash line overall at any of the Mets advanced minor league levels is the .304/.347/.419, 766 OPS he posted at Binghamton.  It has been four years since we saw a Juan Lagares that wasn’t keeping his head above water against age-appropriate competition.

Lagares’s components also show the ability for improvement.  In his last five minor league stops, Lagares struck out between 10.0% and 17.1% of his at bats (it is actually uncanny how consistent he’s been).  Yet last year, Lagares struck out 22.8% of his at bats against major league pitching (and 24.3% so far this year, but I digress).  Lagares is not merely the beneficiary of high BABIPs or other luck (although his minor league BABIPs were high).

For a player like Lagares, we’d expect a BABIP somewhere in the neighborhood of .310 (which it was last year) to .320 (which fangraphs projects).  If his current BABIP comes down from it’s current .375 to the levels that we expect, he will be batting .250.  However, he still has space to improve by cuting down his strikeouts to the level he put up in the minor leagues.  If he can reduce that strikeout rate from 24% to closer to 17%-20%, his average won’t suffer quite as much.

I expect that, in addition to his Gold Glove caliber defense, Lagares will be an adequate hitter as well.  He most certainly will come down off his present .303/.351/.515 (and 8.1% walk rate) high, but I do not expect that he will crater as much as projected by the forecasts or by fans who think he is a glove-only player.

Lagares has shown maturity at the plate this season (Bobby Ojeda could not stop raving about Lagares’s approach in his game-winning RBI last night) and if he can solidify those gains, I expect him to continue to hit.  With his defense as a consistent reminder of why he’s a starter, he shouldn’t worry about hitting and should be able to focus on the process, not the results.

Read Zone Projection: .267/.312/.412, 5.5% bb, 20.5%k.

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Brian Mangan is a lawyer living in New York City.  His all-time favorite homegrown Met was Edgardo Alfonzo, and finally has space in his heart for another.  Will it be you, Juan?  Will you steal my heart like you steal home runs?

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