One of the biggest surprises of the New York Mets’ season is the offensive emergence of center fielder Juan Lagares.
Unfortunately, Lagares will likely not be able to keep up his current pace.
Lagares has always been a defensive maestro but a very poor hitter. According to FanGraphs.com, Lagares had a better defensive season last season than any player since 2002, when FanGraphs first began tracking defensive metrics, albeit in limited playing time.
However, Lagares also posted a disappointing slash line of .242/.281/.352 with nearly 100 strikeouts in 392 at-bats. Even as a potential Gold Glover, it is tough to get playing time when you cannot get on base.
This year, the 25-year-old looks like a new player, hitting an impressive .288/.331/.423 with 11 doubles, two triples, two home runs, 18 RBI and 19 runs in 156 at-bats.
It is hard to pinpoint what has caused such a dramatic rise in Lagares’ offensive numbers. So far, he is swinging at fewer pitches but also making contact on fewer pitches. His discipline has improved from last season, although not significantly.
(Note: O-Swing% = percent of pitches swung at outside of the strike zone)
Lagares also has an abnormally high batting average on balls in play (BABIP), at .364. The league average is near .300, which means Lagares has been the recipient of plenty of good fortune at times.
On the other hand, Lagares is a tireless worker with a great work ethic. The metrics do not show a clear reason for Lagares’ quick jump in hitting numbers, so perhaps he is just an improved player.
The most likely cause is a combination of both hard work and luck.
Lagares has developed but only moderately on paper. His walk rate is up slightly, his strikeout rate is down slightly and he is swinging at fewer and better pitches. Yet somehow, Lagares has willed himself to a batting average that consistently hovers near .300.
The most prominent change in Lagares’ numbers is how well he makes contact with the ball.
Look at the chart below on the different kinds of hits Lagares is producing:
(Note: GB% = groundball percentage, LD% = line drive percentage)
While his contact rate and swing rate are both down, his line drive rate has skyrocketed and his groundball rate has plummeted. Lagares is also getting more infield hits (IFH%) while relying less on bunting for a base hit (BUH%).
Ultimately, this is perhaps the main argument in support of Lagares’ numbers.
Lagares may be making less contact than last season, but he is hitting the ball harder and making better contact. Additionally, Lagares’ high BABIP can be explained by the increase in line drives.
This suggests Lagares can continue hitting at this pace, but that is a bold claim to make about a defensive-minded player with 548 career at-bats.
Currently, Lagares is recovering from an intercostal strain that has sidelined him since June 2. When Lagares does return, he must show that the pre-injury numbers are no fluke.
The Mets may even consider slotting Lagares immediately into the leadoff spot.
His numbers as a leadoff hitter nearly mirror his full-season stats, with a line of .289/.333/.422 in 90 at-bats. He is not as big of a base-stealing threat as Eric Young Jr., the other typical leadoff hitter, but Lagares has made up for that with an ability to hit and consistently get on base.
What will Juan Lagares' batting average be at the end of 2014?
And getting on base is precisely what the Mets need most in a leadoff hitter.
The core of the lineup, with players like Daniel Murphy, David Wright and a streaking Curtis Granderson, has suffered all season due to the lack of any threat from the hitters around them.
At the least, Lagares deserves the opportunity to lead off. The Mets desperately need offensive help, and Lagares is a young, promising player on a hot streak.
Only time will tell if Lagares can maintain his current pace on offense. While he has made great strides already in his offensive game, the metrics tell the story of a player with slightly skewed hitting stats.
In time, Lagares can feasibly blossom into the player he has showed at the beginning of this year. But for now, there is too much room for development for Lagares to realistically keep up his pace.