There was a time, back in 2014, when Juan Lagares was considered a rising star. In his second full season as the regular center fielder for the Mets, he combined league-average offense (.281/.321/.382) with a glove so spectacular that he earned +26 Defensive Runs Saved, tied for the best of any outfielder. It earned him a Gold Glove, and just before the 2015 season started, it earned him a four-year, $23 million extension.
It didn't quite work out so well. Lagares hasn't hit much since (.253/.293/.364 in the last three seasons), and worse, he's barely played. Beset by injuries, largely to his thumb and elbow, and stuck behind the overstuffed 2017 Mets outfield, he's collected only 432 plate appearances over the last two years, or fewer than he had in 2014 alone.
But things are different now. While Jay Bruce has returned, Curtis Granderson is gone, and Michael Conforto's shoulder surgery could keep him on the sidelines for the early part of the season. Barring another move, Lagares should start in center on Opening Day, and his early-season performance could be key to carving out playing time after Conforto returns.
In other words, it might be his last best chance to prove he can be an everyday outfielder. While he has much to prove with his bat -- reports that he's now working with the hitting coaches who helped turn around J.D. Martinez's career are encouraging -- we can at least provide some happy news about his defense.
Whether it's the eye test, advanced stats like DRS or UZR, or Statcast™, the reports are the same: He remains elite, as you can see below on this September grab, which had a 21 percent Catch Probability. Three-quarters of the time, an outfielder with that opportunity doesn't make the play.
Because Lagares had limited playing time, it's a little difficult to compare him to full-time players via counting stats. Looking at Outs Above Average, our range-based outfield metric, Lagares rated a strong +7, but that was only tied for 10th, and well behind the +25 mark that overall leader Byron Buxton put up.
There's another way to do this, however. Instead of looking at overall outs saved, we can look at it in a way that accounts for playing time. We can look at Catch Percentage Added, which asks two very simple questions: Based on the difficulty of every ball hit to Lagares, how many would an average outfielder catch? How many did Lagares himself catch?
By taking the difference between those numbers, we know how much value a player added -- or didn't. For example, an average outfielder would have caught 82 percent of the balls hit to Andrew McCutchen last year, and he did indeed catch 82 percent, giving him average range. He did what was expected of him. On the other hand, you can see the impact of the leg injuriesYoenis Cespedes has suffered, as the average outfielder would have caught 84 percent of the balls to him, yet he got to only 78 percent. That's a six-point difference.
There were 125 outfielders who received 100 opportunities in 2017, roughly four per team. If we sort the list not to look at those who played every day, but just to show those outfielders who did the most with their time, you'll see Lagares still rates extremely well.
Catch Percentage Added, 2017
+6 points -- Byron Buxton, Twins
+6 points -- Adam Engel, White Sox
+5 points -- Ender Inciarte, Braves
+5 points -- Jason Heyward, Cubs
+4 points -- Juan Lagares, Mets (and four others, including Kevin Kiermaier, Lorenzo Cain)
It's a great list of names. Buxton, Heyward, and Inciarte each won Gold Gloves. You might not know Engel, but his speed and defense kept him in the bigs, since he hit just .166/.235/.282 in his rookie year. And Lagares (along with Jake Marisnick and Joey Rickard) is tied with two of baseball's preeminent defenders in Kiermaier and Cain.
If you go back to 2016, when Lagares played in fewer than half of the Mets' games, you'll find the same thing. There were 128 outfielders with 100 chances that year, and ...
Catch Percentage Added, 2016
+8 points -- Billy Hamilton, Reds
+8 points -- Desmond Jennings, Rays
+6 points -- Ender Inciarte, Braves
+6 points -- Jake Marisnick, Astros
+5 points -- Juan Lagares, Mets (and five others, including Heyward, Kiermaier and Mookie Betts)
Again, despite limited playing time, Lagares has made the absolute most of the chances he's been given, and that's a big deal, because the Mets' defense, overall, has not been a strength. GM Sandy Alderson said as much in November, and while a lot of that was about the left side of the infield, it was true in the outfield, too. As a group, the Mets ranked 27th in Outs Above Average, at -10, thanks to a hobbled Cespedes as well as Granderson and Conforto playing out of position in center.
It mattered, a lot, at least to the Mets' pitching staff, who were hurt in a way no other club was. The way we'll do this is to look at the difference between Expected Batting Average (the usual outcomes of each batted ball based on exit velocity and launch angle) and actual batting average, to get an idea of what should have happened against what did happen. No team had a larger gap than the Mets.
Again, the infield is the cause of much of this, but not all of it. This is how, for example, Seth Lugo was tagged with a double on a ball that had a mere 24 percent Hit Probability:
Or how Jacob deGrom can get charged with giving up a triple on an easy fly ball with a 9 percent Hit Probability:
There's still a good Mets team in here, with co-aces deGrom and Noah Syndergaard backed by a ton of interesting rotation options -- Lugo, Matt Harvey, Robert Gsellman, Zack Wheeler, Rafael Montero -- and a decent bullpen that's added Anthony Swarzak to Jerry Blevins, AJ Ramos and Jeurys Familia. They just need some support from the defense. They need a glove like Lagares. We still don't know if he can hit; but we definitely know he's an elite fielder.