The State of Juan Lagares’ Defense by Jeff Sullivan June 26, 2015 Among the many complains of Mets fans at the moment is that the defense hasn’t been doing enough to support a pitching staff that carries the burden of trying to do everything. It stands to reason, if you’re going to be built first and foremost around run prevention, you’d want to do as much as you can to, say, prevent runs. It’s not a total surprise the Mets have had some defensive issues; they’ve had Wilmer Flores at shortstop, after all, and Michael Cuddyer in an outfield corner. More of a shock is what’s been taking place in the outfield middle. Juan Lagares has been playing defense like a normal and mortal person. Which a team can’t afford, when said player has Juan Lagares’ bat. The Mets wouldn’t have signed Lagares to a five-year contract if they didn’t believe in him. They were clearly comfortable with the idea of a starting center fielder who does most of his helping on defense. But Lagares, right now, would be evidence to the contrary of the idea that defense doesn’t slump. How much of this seems like a real thing, and how much seems like just a few bad breaks? The defensive stats paint a picture. Hold your reservations for a moment, and just look at the totals. I’m not adjusting for playing time, because there’s no need to make this more complicated. Defensive Runs Saved 2013: +28 2014: +28 2015: +1 UZR 2013: +24 2014: +19 2015: 0 Lagares has yet to play 1,000 innings in a season. This year, he’s just gone past 600, so obviously, we’re dealing with modest sample sizes, but when you have changes of that kind of magnitude, I don’t think you can write it all off as statistical noise. Let’s take the above at face value. It’s not that anyone thinks Lagares has been bad this season — seems like he’s been in the vicinity of average. It’s more about what he’s done before. Before, Lagares didn’t allow baseballs to drop near to his person. This year, some have dropped. That’ll generate attention. The Mets, at least publicly, don’t seem concerned about Lagares’ ability to run baseballs down. From an article titled “What’s wrong with Juan Lagares’ usually Gold Glove defense this year for Mets?“: “We’ve seen him make some plays and still be in position to catch some balls a lot of outfielders might not get to,” Tom Goodwin, the Mets outfield coach, said. “That’s really all I care about. As far as the numbers, I couldn’t have told you if he was ahead or behind last year either. It’s just all about what I see and how he’s going after balls. Those are the things that I look at. Once again he’s doing an outstanding job for us.” This gets into something important. Goodwin doesn’t see anything wrong with Lagares’ defensive process. The numbers, meanwhile, don’t care about Lagares’ defensive process. They’re just trying to capture what his performance has been, while Goodwin is thinking more in terms of how comfortable he still is with Lagares in center today. The defensive numbers, especially over just a few months, aren’t capturing true talent level. It’s possible to play defense above or below your natural ability. Time for us to get into the images. Lagares is clearly still capable of making some really difficult catches. A sinking liner: A shot over his head: You could say Lagares got turned around in the second shot, but that ball was right over his head, and those are tricky to judge, and the catch was made. It was pretty great! It was a pretty Juan Lagares catch. But now let’s look at some of the catches he hasn’t made. What’s feeding those defensive metrics? A few examples: Hard play! Lagares got himself in the right position, just about. He missed the catch by a few inches. Maybe one better step in a straight line, and that’s a spectacular catch. Juan Lagares actually caught this ball. The problem is that he then un-caught it. Obviously, the act of catching a baseball is fed by skill, but this seems like a simple accident, with Lagares maybe aware of the wall closing in on him. I don’t know what to do with this. I can’t measure Lagares’ running speed. This play has Statcast written all over it. But, the baseball tipped off the end of Lagares’ glove. He was that close to making this grab in the gap. If Lagares has lost some ability somewhere, it very nearly didn’t cost him on this attempt. That seems downright uncatchable, although I’m aware that lots of baseballs look uncatchable if you show them being pursued by outfielders who didn’t make the plays. Lagares wound up a foot or two short. Maybe it was a positioning thing — maybe he was playing too deep. Compounding that, maybe he read the baseball as being better hit off the bat. Ultimately, it seems like the range was there. If it were possible to eyeball one’s route efficiency, I’d give this one a high score. Lagares made a beeline for the right spot, even though, off the bat, this looked like more of a pop-up. What happened, though, is that Lagares might’ve pulled up slightly as he got closer to the fence. The ball missed his glove by a matter of inches. I’d say, based on the route, this fly was catchable, but I also can’t imagine what you have to overcome, mentally, to be able to commit yourself to that catch when you see a wall right next to you out of the corner of your eye. I know outfielders are expected to be able to deal with that. Lagares would probably say he should’ve made the catch. But the most important thing is that he was in position to make the catch in the first place. For whatever good it does, I don’t see an outfielder struggling. Struggling to make some catches, sure, but Lagares is right there even on the plays he doesn’t make, and it feels like so many of the examples above are just coin-flip fly balls. It’s bad luck that Lagares has missed them, and not bad outfielding. In one of those examples, it seems like Lagares was playing awful deep, but then that would be positioning, and it would say nothing about Lagares’ natural range. I don’t know why his range would be diminished. I’m not convinced it is diminished, based on the plays viewed. It’s worth noting that Lagares at one point dealt with a rib injury. Even if it’s not still present, the memory of it might be, and maybe that reduces Lagares’ reach by a few hairs. Maybe that makes him a little more afraid to dive, or to crash into a fence. This is just idle speculation on my part. No good evidence of it being true, but even if it were, that would presumably be a temporary effect. Lagares’ instincts haven’t gone anywhere. His legs haven’t gone anywhere. In the long run, it still seems like he should be one of the top defensive center fielders in the game. There is, however, one legitimate problem. One that no one’s denying. You’re familiar with the exploits of Juan Lagares’ throwing arm: Well, Lagares has an elbow injury. Maybe it won’t be bad enough for him to require a major operation, but in an effort to try to keep Lagares on the field, the Mets have asked him to be more judicious with his throws. Lagares these days isn’t airing it out like he has, and while sometimes he does still put his entire self into a throw, other times the throw will be weaker, or there just won’t be a throw at all. Here is a strong throw, but one that’s off-target, possibly because Lagares is out of practice: Here’s a weaker throw, that gets the out but takes a hop: And this is Lagares’ other 2015 assist. Instead of attempting the long throw, Lagares simply threw on a hop to third, taking advantage of poor baserunner awareness: Lagares is throwing less, and he’s usually throwing less forcefully. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the opposition. More often, Lagares is being challenged; more often, runners are having success. Here’s a plot of baserunner advance rate on center-fielder opportunities: The big-league average has hovered around 53%. That is, baserunners have advanced a little more than half the time, on the designated center-fielder opportunities. His first two years, Lagares prevented runners from advancing unusually often. This year, he’s gone from better-than-average to worse-than-average, with an advance rate of 58%. Now, over the years, not all the opportunities for Lagares have been the same, but just as a quick and easy calculation, the difference between Lagares’ old rate and Lagares’ 2015 rate, given his number of 2015 opportunities, is about 15 extra bases. To say nothing of potential assists. This is all reflected in Lagares’ diminished Arm ratings. Until he’s feeling healthier, Lagares won’t consistently feature the weapon that first put him on the radar. So in that sense, yeah, Juan Lagares is a worse defensive center fielder than he used to be. But in the other senses? I’m not sold. He still seems to be moving like himself, and he’s still getting into position to make the difficult plays. Whatever’s been wrong with Juan Lagares shouldn’t stay as wrong. Some of those tough plays will find their way back into his glove, and the numbers will go up. The performance so far has been one thing. Lagares’ level of talent is quite another.