How Much to Make of Juan Lagares’ Defense

If you’re not much of a hitter, you might be considered to play a lot anyway for one of two reasons: you’re a pitcher, or you’re an outstanding defender. Juan Lagares isn’t much of a hitter, and he doesn’t project to be much of a hitter, but the evidence and the eyes show he’s an outstanding defender, and that’s why he’s in the mix to start in center field for the Mets. That’s why he’s probably the favorite, or at least, that’s why he probably ought to be. The Mets also happen to be big believers in Eric Young, and that’s their right, and I don’t intend to address that part of the conversation.

What Lagares has on his side are some incredible defensive numbers. We all know to be cautious with those, when we’re talking about individual seasons. The words of this rival team official read like FanGraphs in the newspaper. There’s no question that Lagares is highly talented in the outfield, and that no amount of regression can make him look anything but skilled. But with Lagares in particular, the situation’s a little different, and the numbers have to be treated a little differently.

To quote that official:

As one rival team official noted, defensive metrics generally are plagued with “less year-to-year reliability,” making them far less precise than their offensive counterparts.
[…]
“You can’t just take his 2013 WAR and say that’ll work,” said the official, who has a background in analytics. “You have to regress defensive projections a bit and combine those with your offensive projections, plus whatever else you know about the players.”

Absolutely, right on. Lagares’ WAR last year was 2.9, in a partial season. That doesn’t mean you just project him as a borderline star in a full season. That’s fairly obvious stuff, but Lagares was supported by crazy defensive statistics and those have to be dealt with. What’s really interesting about Lagares is how those statistics break down.

For outfielders, UZR considers errors, range, and arm. With Lagares, you can just ignore the errors column, because the number is negligible. His range number was terrific, probably because his range was terrific, and this is what people usually think about first when they think about defensive statistics. They think of them as measures of range. But Lagares’ UZR got an enormous boost from his arm. His arm rating was more strongly positive than his range rating.

We have arm ratings going back to 2002. Let’s put everything over a per-150-games denominator. Last season, per 150 games, Lagares’ arm comes out to 20.6 runs above average. Since 2002, there have been 922 player-seasons of at least 750 innings in the outfield. Lagares in 2013 owns the highest Arm/150, by a full four runs over 2007 Alfonso Soriano. Right behind, there’s 2004 Alex Rios. Over 12 years of baseball, at least, no outfielder had a more productive arm than Juan Lagares last summer. He wound up with an astonishing 15 assists.

So, yeah. But then, if you paid any attention to the Mets, you already knew about this. It was no secret that Lagares was doing things with his arm other players generally didn’t do. It was actually a function of Lagares’ aggressive positioning, speed, hands, and arm. Controlling the running game is a skill of Juan Lagares’, but more important than what he’s done, now, is what he’s going to do. How reliable is an arm rating, year to year?

My guess was that range rating would prove more consistent than arm rating. I identified all outfielders who played at least 750 innings in consecutive seasons between 2002-2013. This left me with a sample of 587, and then I calculated all the Range/150 numbers and all the Arm/150 numbers. Year-to-year, Range/150 yielded an r value of 0.50. Here’s what that means: if a player was one standard deviation better than average in Year X, he’d be expected to be 0.50 standard deviations better than average in Year X+1.

Year-to-year, Arm/150 yielded an r value of 0.32. As expected, there’s a weaker relationship, and here’s what that looks like graphically:

arm150lagares

You might prefer a table. Here’s another way of showing what regression looks like. For Year X, I split the players into six groups, in descending order of Arm/150. Then I averaged their Arm/150 ratings for Year X+1.

Group Year X Year X+1
Group 1 7.7 2.4
Group 2 2.9 0.6
Group 3 0.8 -0.2
Group 4 -0.9 0.1
Group 5 -2.9 -1.3
Group 6 -6.0 -2.2

The idea was already that we had to regress Juan Lagares’ defensive numbers. But because he built so much value on his arm, we have to regress a little more aggressively, because the arm numbers are a little less consistent than the range numbers. And that seems to make intuitive sense, because there are fewer opportunities to make a difference with your arm, and once people know you’re a threat in the outfield, they’re likely to change their baserunning strategies.

Just for the sake of showing some individual cases, everybody agrees that Jeff Francoeur has an amazing arm. In 2007, his arm was worth 16.6 runs above average. In 2006, it was +3.5, and in 2008, it was +2.5. Ichiro went from negative to positive between 2002-2003, and he went from positive to negative between 2008 and 2009. Alfonso Soriano lost ten runs per 150 after his remarkable 2007. Nyjer Morgan lost 20 after 2009. No single player has yet posted consecutive double-digit Arm/150 ratings. Well, let me revise that — no single player has yet posted consecutive double-digit Arm/150 ratings with the same sign. Between 2002-2003, Bobby Higginson went from one of the best ratings to one of the worst. Jeff Francoeur has almost pulled it off, but Jeff Francoeur has almost pulled a lot of things off.

Getting back to Lagares, last year his Arm/150 was almost 21. It was about 4.4 standard deviations above the average. According to the calculated r value, next year we’d expect Lagares to be about 1.4 standard deviations above the average, which would leave an Arm/150 around 6. Which would represent a reduction of about a win and a half, and truth be told we should probably be regressing more heavily since Lagares was in the outfield for barely 900 innings. As noted before, you can’t make Lagares’ arm not good. But you can make it less extraordinary, and applying regression makes Lagares’ numbers a lot more realistic.

You regress the arm stuff, heavily. You regress the range rating separately, and then you put them together. You still get a very good defensive center fielder, and maybe Lagares is better than his regressed self, but you can begin to understand why the Mets aren’t just going to hand him a regular job. His 2013 WAR is misleading. Lagares really might not be able to hit enough, because as good as he’s been in the field, he’s been that good for two-thirds of one season.

Sure does still seem better than Eric Young, though. And I sure do hope people keep trying to run on him, because as much as I believe in regression to the mean, I’m most fascinated by those who refuse to do it, and we can’t be sure it’ll happen to Juan Lagares until or unless it happens.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


26 Responses to “How Much to Make of Juan Lagares’ Defense”

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  1. Ultimately, I think that Juan Lagares will (somehow) start the year in AAA-Las Vegas. Hear me out. The Mets do not have a solid leadoff option on the roster, and it’s looking as if Stephen Drew might not find a team this offseason unless Boras decides to stop asking for outrageous amounts of money. So unless Stephen Drew ends up with the Mets, I believe Terry Collins will want to place Eric Young, Jr. as the leadoff hitter, while playing Left Field, with Chris Young in centerfield. You wouldn’t want a young guy (Lagares) to be a bench player, so he’ll probably be optioned to AAA for the sake of at-bats, and because EYJr isn’t a bad defender either.

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  2. acoustic567 says:

    Is the UZR “Arm” formula designed to control for the reduction in an OF’s baserunning kills due to the factor of reputation? In other words, it’s quite predictable that Lagares’s OF assists rate will go down in 2014, but that might be largely because of a corresponding tendency on the part of baserunners not to challenge him by attempting an extra base. If his reduction in assists were to be *wholly* due to baserunners’ respect for his arm (not likely, I know), would that nevertheless “punish” Lagares by resulting in a lower UZR?

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    • AK7007 says:

      It does, according to the UZR primer: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-fangraphs-uzr-primer/#4

      Relevant text:
      “(O)utfield arm run values are also computed separately from “regular” UZR. They are based on the speed and location of batted balls to the outfield and how often base runners advance extra bases (advances), don’t advance the extra base (holds), or get thrown out trying to advance (kills). Park factors are used in arm ratings. For example, because the left fielder plays so shallow in Fenway and balls tend to quickly ricochet off the Green Monster, it is difficult to advance an extra base on a hit to LF in Boston. In Colorado, because the OF is so expansive, base runners advance more easily than in an average park. The UZR “arm engine” adjusts for those things.”

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      • acoustic567 says:

        Great, thanks. Not sure, though, whether “holds” and “kills” are treated equally by the “ARM” formula.

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        • danlby says:

          They shouldn’t because a kill is more valuable than a hold. But it’ll shake out colder to equal on average in the end. E.g. imagine holds are half as valuable as kills, and instead of getting 14 assists this year he induces 28 more base runners to hold up. Same value.

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  3. Iron says:

    I’ve often wished there were a way to quantify ‘threat of ARM’. Obviously an assist is more valuable, but the reputation of a cannon arm itself has fielding value that defensive metrics do not, as far as I know fully capture. Keeping a guy on first from going to third on a basehit to the outfield, or keeping a guy on second from scoring, turning doubles into singles, etc. may not be as good as the sprinter with massive range making the catches for outs, but it isn’t nothing.

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  4. Shaun says:

    Terry Collins is an idiot. This is the same man that will probably put Dice_K in the fifth spot and Mejia in the bullpen. He is the same man that DID and probably WILL trot Lucas Duda out to left field. It was literally COMICAL watching how bad Duda was in the outfield. Lagares milb numbers aren’t bad and after he started getting regular playing time his offensive numbers were MUCH better. EYJ isn’t a better option offensively. Sure he can steal bases but that is such an overrated statistic.

    Terry Collins needs to be fired.

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    • LOL says:

      You are not a smart man.

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    • LongTimeFan says:

      Lagares:

      April: .083/.214/.083/.298 – 14 PA’s

      May: .171.171/.314/.486 – 36 PA’s

      June: .271/.282/.386/.667 – 72 PA’s

      July: .353/.408/.529/.937 – 77 PA’s

      August: .259/.297/.375/.672 – 118 PA’s

      September: .168/.216/.221/.437 – 104 PA’s

      Not quite the way you’ve opted to describe his offensive performance.

      As for Terry Collins, his players love him. You seem to be amongst the Collins-hating, Backman-wanting, Lagares-supporting crowd who bash Collins for your disappointments.

      Roster construction and rotation decisions, major player decisions heavily involve the GM, manager and coaches working together. Duda in the outfield last year was a Sandy Alderson roster decision.

      Ultimately, it’s about the team, the big picture, not individual players nor fan preferences. If Eric Young is leadoff hitter it will because both the GM and manager feel it gives the Mets the best chance of winning.

      I happen to agree. EY had a very high career minor league OBP and put up solid ones in part time duty for the Rockies in 2011 and 2012. He has it in him. Speed and being major base stealing threat is the weapon opposing teams hate. Eric Young is a high energy spark plug, majorly energized the Mets, should score a 100 runs with a higher OBP – both of which are attainable.

      Lagares’s has no standout offensive tools. His value is in his defense which is terrific, but on this team, this season, that can be competently replaced by Chris Young even with whatever downgrade from Lagares’s 2013 – CY is very good.

      On the other hand, there’s no base runner on the Mets who is as dominating in threat, as distracting, as energizing, as game changing as Eric Young.

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      • J Katz says:

        Eric Young Jr is going into his age-29 season and has over 1200 major league PAs. Let’s leave his minor league stats out of the discussion. His .342 OBP in 2011 was in 229 PAs and came with an anemic .298 SLG. His .377 OBP in 2012 was in 196 PAs and heavily, heavily boosted by a .367 BABIP. EYJ got almost 600 PAs last season and performed pretty much to his career norms. I’m glad the Mets gave him a shot to start last season and see what he could do as an everyday player, but the fact is that he’s NOT an everyday player, especially not in LF, and expecting him to magically increase his OBP by 30-40 points this season is foolish.

        Also, saying something like “Speed and being [a] major base stealing threat is the weapon opposing teams hate” doesn’t just make it true. Sure, opposing teams dislike fast runners and base-stealing threats more than they dislike slow runners, but it’s more fair to say that they dislike good players. Eric Young Jr is not good enough to be an everyday player and shouldn’t be in the regular starting lineup for this team just because of his baserunning.

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      • Shaun says:

        Lets consider Juan Lagares 2.9 WAR last year compared to EY 0.8 WAR. Lagares is younger, showed adjustments at the plate , and has overall better upside then EY in every aspect.

        His Defense is hands down better then EY. He’s younger.He COULD develop into a better player. At this point EY is what he is, he is a 4th OF. There is a reason that he was traded for Collin Mchugh. Im not saying Lagares is an all star but he has the potential to be a good OF with his defense included. EY is barely replacement level.

        Also if you think Sandy Alderson was making Terry Collins put Duda in the OF you are crazy. The GM may dictate who is on the roster but the Manager comes up with the lineup card. Alderson doesnt look over his lineup card and say…NO I WANT DUDE IN THE OUTFIELD.

        Chris Young will be a disaster. Granderson is old. This team has serious issues. The younger guys need to be played to see if they have something in them. Terry Collins has been known to play middling veterns over giving some of the younger guys a legit chance. He did with Lagares and he responded with a very nice year. Defense in this league is so underrated by people who are slaves to fantasy baseball and SB and HR.

        Quintanilla was JUST as terrible as Tejada last year yet they let the 23 year old who had two good seasons at 21/22 rot in the minors. Quintanilla was a NEGATIVE .3 WAR last year, below replacement level. What was the reason for not playing Tejada? He couldn’t have been any worse.

        The Mets problems are way beyond Collins but on a rebuilding team he is that last thing they need. Hopefully he doesnt get resigned and this is his last year.

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        • vivalajeter says:

          “Quintanilla was a NEGATIVE .3 WAR last year, below replacement level. What was the reason for not playing Tejada? He couldn’t have been any worse.”

          I know what you’re getting at, but Tejada was worth negative .3 WAR in about half as many games as Quintanilla played. So yeah, he could’ve been worse.

          But I thought they sent him down to make him get his act together, and not just because they thought Quintanilla was a better player. I actually think more teams should do that. If you have a young player that isn’t putting in the effort, I don’t see what’s wrong with sending him to the minors for a few months as a wake-up call.

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        • Valuearb says:

          If you think Collins ignores his bosses wishes when he fills out lineup cards, you are delusional. It’s the exact reason Wally Backman isn’t the manager.

          I actually would have preferred Backman, cause Crazytown would provide great entertainment value while the team has no chance to compete.

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  5. shthar says:

    He’s a heckuva hitter from 2011 on.

    Juicing?

    Or finally healthy? Wrist in 09, ankle in 10.

    I don’t know what to think.

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  6. Grack Zeinke says:

    is there a difference between trying to estimate defensive value and actually quantifying runs saved ? I mean, it seems like you’re trying to quantify the defensive contribution by this particular OFer when in fact the number of exact number of runs saved will vary from year to year but it doesn’t mean Lagares will cease being an elite defensive OFer.

    For example, as others have said, runners will begin to stop even attempting to take extra bases on balls that are in play and fielded by Lagares. Do these defensive metrics have a mechanism to account for the runs saved by this “reputation effect”?

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    • CJohnson says:

      As noted in comments above, UZR takes into account whether outfielders are above average in preventing runners from advancing for whatever reason.

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  7. Metsox says:

    How this post didn’t come with numerous gifs of amazing Lagares outfield assists I don’t know….

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  8. Mr. Met says:

    I forget if the post was here or somewhere else but somebody did a great post going through Lagares’ assists and noticed the trend of him not having such an amazing arm, but playing the outfield like a (former) infielder,charging balls, among a few other things. Either way his range is such a plus I really hope the Mets give his bat a shot in CF over Eric Young Jr’s bat in LF

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  9. ken says:

    What is your basis for saying that he doesn’t project to do much offensively? He is young. In 2011 and 2012 in AA he combined for a 304 average over 661 at bats. In a limited extent in 2013 in AA he hit 346 over 78 at bats. Then when he came up (while he was hot) Terry iced him by sitting him on the bench for a month or two.

    He is young enough I think that he is going to improve his hitting at the major league level, if Collins will play him. This along with his defensive ability gives him a much, much higher ceiling than Eric Young.

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  10. ImKeithHernandez says:

    If Lagares doesn’t start, we riot.

    It’s not that I think he’s a true talent 3 WAR player, but his competition is Eric Young. Nothing against Eric Young — I just don’t see how you can’t at least try and see what Lagares can do in year two.

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  11. David says:

    Considering it seems like he’s managed to top last years numbers, how about an update-article on this?

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