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Lagares and Cespedes make for difficult choice in center field

Statcast shows surprising similarities between the pair
MLB.com @mike_petriello

When Game 1 of the World Series kicks off on Tuesday night in Kansas City (air time 7:30 ET, game time 8 ET on FOX), the Mets are going to have to manage a decision that they haven't had to make all postseason: With the designated hitter now available in the American League stadium, what's the best way to create a lineup that optimizes both offense and defense?

It's a question that takes on added importance due to the fact that the Royals are the AL champions, because they put the ball in play more than any other team, placing added emphasis on defense. Kauffman Stadium's outfield size is the largest in baseball, at just a touch over 100,000 square feet. That's a considerable amount of ground to cover, and that's why it's not as simple as just writing out the same lineup card the Mets used in the National League playoffs without putting some serious thought into it.

When Game 1 of the World Series kicks off on Tuesday night in Kansas City (air time 7:30 ET, game time 8 ET on FOX), the Mets are going to have to manage a decision that they haven't had to make all postseason: With the designated hitter now available in the American League stadium, what's the best way to create a lineup that optimizes both offense and defense?

It's a question that takes on added importance due to the fact that the Royals are the AL champions, because they put the ball in play more than any other team, placing added emphasis on defense. Kauffman Stadium's outfield size is the largest in baseball, at just a touch over 100,000 square feet. That's a considerable amount of ground to cover, and that's why it's not as simple as just writing out the same lineup card the Mets used in the National League playoffs without putting some serious thought into it.

We know for sure that Curtis Granderson will be starting in right field, and Yoenis Cespedes will be somewhere in the outfield, given his stated dislike for DH duty. Beyond that, Terry Collins has a few different options at his disposal, but it really all comes down to a single question: Does the combination of Michael Conforto (LF) and Cespedes (CF) beat the combination of Cespedes (LF) and Juan Lagares (CF)?

This seemed like a perfect question to put Statcast™ towards, so we did.

Initially, the findings confirm much of what seems obvious to the naked eye. Lagares covers the most ground, while Cespedes is the fastest despite a slow first step, and the 36-year-old Michael Cuddyer's solid reflexes are limited by his inefficient route running and distance covered. Based on this, it seems clear Lagares has to play.

But that's for all plays, across all outfield positions. What happens when we limit it to just the plays a fielder was involved in, and just for the positions in question?

Center field: Cespedes vs. Lagares

Immediately, you're drawn to the question in center field between the all-around contributions of Cespedes or the stellar defensive reputation of Lagares, though as you'll see it's not as simple as that. The light-hitting Lagares won't be used as the DH and has never played left field in the bigs, so he's either starting in center field or he's on the bench. He has started three of the nine Mets postseason games so far, twice in the NLDS against the Dodgers and in Game 1 of the NLCS against Chicago, though that was clearly due to platoon issues, as all three games were started by left-handed pitchers.

By name alone, the edge here easily goes to Lagares, who finished third among all outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved in 2013 (+28) and second in 2014 (+28 again). However, he fell off in 2015 to just +2 DRS, in part due to multiple injuries, primarily an injured right arm that often prevented him from wreaking as much havoc on opposing base runners as usual -- though we did see him get it up to 95.6 mph in September. Cespedes, meanwhile, has been considered an elite left fielder (+15 DRS this year, +12 last year), and a below-average center fielder (-4 DRS this year, slight negatives in each of his four seasons).

Interestingly enough, Statcast™ doesn't see all that much of a difference between the two in center.

(Route Eff. / Avg. First Step / Avg. Top Speed / Avg. Distance Covered)
Cespedes -- 90.2% / 0.79 seconds / 14.3 mph / 53.0 feet
Lagares -- 89.6% / 0.72 seconds / 14.3 mph / 54.2 feet

Despite the similarities, Lagares did convert 91.6 percent of the balls hit to him in center, as compared to Cespedes' 88.4. In addition, Cespedes has been dealing with a shoulder injury, but expects to be available for Game 1.

Still, as impressive as this is for Cespedes, Lagares is still the one getting credit for all those tough plays that pump up his DRS, and that may be a matter of better positioning -- that is, if he's starting 15 feet closer to where the ball lands, he just doesn't need to run as far or fast for it as Cespedes does. That's one of the items we hope to better understand in the future as the Statcast™ data matures. For now, Collins could make a reasonable case that Cespedes is a capable enough center fielder, as he's done for much of the postseason.

Left field: Conforto vs. Cespedes vs. Cuddyer

Conforto had himself a surprisingly solid partial rookie season defensively, ranking positively in both DRS (+9) and UZR/150 (+26.5). Looking at the Statcast™ left field numbers, Cespedes and Conforto come out looking nearly identical, while Cuddyer, who is unlikely to be in the conversation after a poor showing in the NLDS, lags behind:

(Route Eff. / Avg. First Step / Avg. Top Speed / Avg. Distance Covered)
Cespedes -- 89.3% / 0.73 seconds / 14.1 mph / 43.3 feet
Conforto -- 89.2% / 0.74 seconds / 14.1 mph / 47.9 feet
Cuddyer -- 80.9% / 0.73 seconds / 13.2 mph / 41.4 feet

Cespedes does manage to win out over Conforto on "max effort throws," which we've defined as throws that are in the 90th percentile or higher of a player's maximum arm strength, Conforto topped out there at 90.6 mph from left, while Cespedes reached 94.7 mph. Given what we know about the Royals' willingness to run aggressively, that's a mark in Cespedes' favor.

Ultimately, due to the fact that the Royals have a righty starter, Collins seems more than likely to bench Lagares, put Cespedes in center with Conforto in left, and use the lefty Kelly Johnson as the designated hitter for added offense. Perhaps that's the takeaway here -- it seems like a no-brainer that a defender with a reputation like Lagares absolutely has to be starting in an outfield this size, but the numbers, both Statcast™ and DRS, just don't back that up conclusively.

The Lagares of 2013-14 was unquestionably elite. The Lagares of 2015, perhaps hindered by injury, doesn't seem to clearly outshine Cespedes or Conforto. If he can't prove his glove is superior, his bat certainly won't make the case for him. It might be why he's likely to be sitting, despite the unusual optics of a highly-regarded defender not playing in a park where defense is key.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

New York Mets, Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Conforto, Michael Cuddyer, Curtis Granderson, Juan Lagares