On Wednesday night, Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman crushed a fastball from New York Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler deep to center field. Center fielder Juan Lagares turned to chase the ball and, in only a few strides, made a leaping catch against the wall (pictured above) to send Freeman back to the dugout shaking his head.
While some may marvel at the sheer difficulty of this play, for those who watch Lagares on a nightly basis, the highlight reel catches seem almost commonplace. Since being called up at the end of April last season, Lagares has quickly proven himself to be a defensive whiz in center, considered by many to be perhaps the best defensive outfielder in baseball. He combines an almost prescient ability to read the ball off the bat with precise routes and a deadly accurate arm, which helped him post the fifth-highest defensive WAR among position players in 2013 in only 97 starts (WAR is a cumulative stat).
However, despite Lagares’ defensive prowess, the question for him has been can he hit consistently enough to justify keeping his bat in the lineup? In his rookie season, Lagares only posted a 0.2 offensive WAR thanks to a paltry .242 average and .633 OPS. Those numbers are a slight misrepresentation as his numbers plummeted in September, not uncommon for rookies experiencing the length of their first big league season. While Lagares has never been a power threat, his average and on-base percentage were always solid during his minor league tenure, so there’s a precedent for his offense to improve.
Although it’s an incredibly small sample size, through the first nine games of the 2014 season, Lagares’ bat has done almost as much talking as his glove. In 37 plate appearances, he’s sporting a slash line of .303/.351/.867 (AVG/OBP/OPS) and has come up with several clutch hits, including the game-winning RBI single to help the Mets earn a series victory over the rival Braves. Although it’s a bit premature to expect Lagares to be a .300+ hitter with a .800+ OPS, given his wizardry with the glove, anything above a .750 OPS would be icing on the cake for New York.
Lagares will have to improve his pitch recognition in order to maintain his offensive success, but after only drawing 20 walks in 121 games last season, he’s already drawn three in the first nine games of this season. That, coupled with a propensity to take the outside pitch the other way, are clear marks of an improving hitter. If you extrapolate his defensive numbers from 2013 over the course of a full season, Lagares merely needs to be worth 1.5 wins above replacement on offense to be top ten in the National League in WAR among position players (according to last season’s metrics). For comparison’s sake, Drew Stubbs, who hit .233 with 10 home runs, 45 RBI and a .665 OPS in 2013, posted a 1.5 offensive WAR, so Lagares need not be among the league leaders in hitting to be one of the most valuable players in baseball.
The Mets, a team that has been short on great stories the past few seasons, can only hope that their center fielder keeps up his offensive aptitude to go with his prodigious defense. If he can, a position once considered to be an impending black hole for this franchise will have been filled in spades by a most unlikely candidate.