Juan Lagares: Assassin of Runners

For baseball professionals and amateurs across the globe, the dream is to reach the major leagues, and every single year, there are dreams fulfilled that belong to players I’ve never heard of before. Like most baseball writers, I know something about most players, but there are a lot of players, and I have only so many brains. Some months ago I didn’t know a thing about Scott Rice. Scott Rice is the major-league leader in appearances, for pitchers. Usually, the players I don’t know are relievers, but every so often they’re utility infielders or versatile outfielders. Generally, they tend to be relatively unremarkable. I’m supposed to know the guys with big talent. Generally, I don’t expect the players I don’t know to go on to rank among the league’s best at something.

It took me a little while to recognize the name “Juan Lagares.” I’d never heard of Lagares when he started getting playing time with the Mets, and I was left unimpressed by a glance at his statistical track record. But, at the plate, Lagares has gotten better, and at the plate isn’t where Lagares is at his most interesting. See, Lagares has been his most remarkable defensively. Just Wednesday, he robbed the Braves of at least one run with a diving catch at a sinking liner. And while Lagares has demonstrated his ability to move around the outfield, range hasn’t even been his strength. His range has been good, but his arm has been outstanding. Juan Lagares’ arm has put him on a leaderboard.

One thing to know about Lagares: he hasn’t been a full-time player, not all year long. He’s right around 700 defensive innings or so. Another thing to know about Lagares: at present, he ranks second in baseball in outfield assists. And we can do better than just looking at outfield assists.

Included in UZR is an arm component, known as “ARM”. It takes into consideration not just throws and kills, but also baserunners prevented from moving up. You know, stuff that arms do. Lagares has an ARM rating of +11.5 runs, easily tops in baseball. And we can expand the picture beyond just 2013.

We have this data going back to 2002, so let’s look at that whole window, splitting seasons and setting a minimum of 500 innings in the outfield. Let’s take a look at the best ARM seasons, giving everyone a consistent denominator of 1,000 innings. A table of the top ten:

Season Name Team Inn ARM ARM/1000
2013 Juan Lagares NYM 699.7 11.5 16.4
2005 Jeff Francoeur ATL 589.0 7.5 12.7
2002 Eli Marrero STL 748.0 9.3 12.4
2007 Alfonso Soriano CHC 1164.3 14.3 12.3
2004 Alex Rios TOR 964.7 11.7 12.1
2006 Ryan Freel CIN 802.3 9.7 12.1
2007 Jeff Francoeur ATL 1440.7 16.6 11.5
2005 Kelly Johnson ATL 648.3 7.3 11.3
2004 Ryan Freel CIN 621.7 6.9 11.1
2005 Miguel Cabrera FLA 1105.7 12.2 11.0

I, also, had forgotten that Miguel Cabrera was an outfielder. But this is about the name at the top of the table, not the bottom. At least so far, Juan Lagares’ arm has been a legitimate weapon — arguably the most effective outfield arm in at least 12 years. Of course, we need to give him more time, and of course, we expect all extreme performances to regress, but if you’re looking for the thing that makes Juan Lagares most notable, here you go. He’s shut down the running game better than anyone else.

Here’s a little footage of Lagares striking down Jason Heyward:

Lagares3.gif.opt

Here’s a little footage of Lagares striking down Heyward again, the next day:

Lagares2.gif.opt

So what is it that makes Lagares so good? When you imagine a great arm from the outfield, you imagine a great arm from the outfield — an arm that’s incredibly strong, and incredibly accurate. Something like vintage Ichiro, or Francoeur, or even Yasiel Puig. Lagares doesn’t have a weak arm, and his throws are typically accurate, but this isn’t something people talked about as Lagares climbed the organizational ladder. Lagares actually started as an infielder. From a report from 2010:

He has the speed to cover plenty of ground and a solid average throwing arm.

From Kevin Goldstein in 2012:

Originally an infielder, he’s a solid-average runner who has improved in the outfield, and his arm is solid.

Lagares’ success might have a lot to do with his background as a shortstop. He hasn’t actually played short at all since 2009, and he hasn’t played it regularly since 2008, but you can see the shortstop instincts in the throw below:

LagaresSpin.gif.opt

More substantively, there’s evidence that Lagares has a particular way of approaching batted balls hit in his direction. A few weeks ago his arm got him some coverage in the Wall Street Journal. Interesting theories and explanations were advanced.

Mets players and coaches say that Lagares has the ability to run in to retrieve ground-ball and line-drive singles faster and more aggressively than any player they have seen. As a result, when Lagares picks up the ball, he is physically closer to home plate than other outfielders, giving him an advantage when it is time to make a throw.
[…]
“He’s closer to second base than anybody I’ve ever played with,” catcher John Buck said. “You get a jump that good, you have to be anticipating, your wheels have to be turning. That’s something I’ve never seen.”
[…]
Most outfielders, Buck said, have to slow down while charging in to field ground-ball singles to ensure that they don’t skip behind them. That’s because they aren’t used to handling the tricky hops and bounces.

Lagares ordinarily plays more shallow than most center fielders. He has a good first step and a lot of confidence in his own ability to track fly balls over his head. He runs the right routes, and because of his speed and trust in his ability to retrieve a ball and throw it on the move, he cuts down the distance a thrown ball spends in the air. Though Lagares doesn’t have baseball’s strongest arm, so much of his work in the outfield optimizes things, allowing him to make the most of what he has. Baserunners just have less time to run.

Here’s a play that Buck talked about, against the Padres:

Lagares1.gif.opt

The throw didn’t make it to the catcher on the fly, but it arrived where it needed to, and Lagares initially approached the ball aggressively and threw from unusually close to second base. Here’s an overhead view of a different play, where Lagares picked up another assist. For an idea of how shallow Lagares sometimes lines up:

lagaresposition1

His subsequent position when he threw:

lagaresposition2

That play itself was a confusing one, where the baserunners believed that Lagares caught the ball instead of trapping it, but you get a sense of what Lagares does in center, and how close to the infield he can end up.

In a general sense, Lagares is a good reminder that there are different ways to be defensively outstanding. Some players are blessed with nearly unparalleled lateral range or instincts. Some players have impossibly strong and accurate arms. Andrelton Simmons is an amazing shortstop because of his arm, and because of his hands. Brendan Ryan is an amazing shortstop because of his instincts and positioning. Jeff Francoeur can control the running game with his arm strength. Juan Lagares can control the running game with his footspeed, aggressiveness, and arm accuracy. And teams are going to notice, if they haven’t already. Teams are going to take fewer chances against Lagares going forward. He’s going to be a known factor.

It’s probably not a flash in the pan. A year ago in the minors, Lagares recorded 17 assists in 126 games. This year in the minors, he recorded four in 17. There’s no need to test Juan Lagares anymore — his ability should be understood. Even without a true cannon, Lagares does so many other things well that it’s basically the same idea. Lagares can be death to flying things and to running things. There’s every reason to challenge Juan Lagares when he’s standing at the plate. When he’s pursuing a ball in the field, though, one should be content with what one can get.



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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.


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Ringling Brothers
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Ringling Brothers
2 years 8 months ago

Can’t say I’d blame Heyward (or the Braves 3B coach) for sending Heyward the second time, after the weakish throw up the line on the first assist.

The second assist was an absolutely perfect bullet. That kind of year for Heyward.

The Kudzu Kid
Member
Member
2 years 8 months ago

Heyward’s baserunning numbers are way down this year from last year (7.9 in 2012, -0.7 in 2013 by BsR). Anecdotally, it seems he’s been cut down at the plate a lot on plays like these. Could be an interesting study to try to see if these kinds of plays are what’s killing his BsR.

The Ted, Section 437
Guest
The Ted, Section 437
2 years 8 months ago

I’d say they’re both pretty justified, since there were two outs. First one is kind of an iffy send because Lagares was so shallow, it was to his arm side, and it was hit fairly hard. Second one deserves a Mutombo finger-wag from Lagares… shame they were down five runs.

Jobu
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Jobu
2 years 8 months ago

I’d love to see something on Leonys Martin’s pop-time throwing out runners from CF–quickest release I’ve ever seen.

David
Member
David
2 years 8 months ago

Great article! It’s nice to see Lagares getting some praise for his defense. He’s been a pleasure to watch all season.

Wobatus
Guest
Wobatus
2 years 8 months ago

Amazin’.

There was some speculation coming into the season that this may be one of the worst outfields of all-time, although if I recall correctly there was an article or someone in a chat here who kiboshed that notion. After all, this isn’t the same outfield they started the year with, having gotten -1.8 from early season guys like Baxter, Ankiel, Valdespin and Collin Cowgill.

Anyway, the Mets are 13th in outfield WAR, right between the Reds and Tigers. And ahead of the Werth/Span/Harper Nationals.

David
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David
2 years 8 months ago

Most of that, of course, was Marlon “No really, I’m not back on the roids again” Byrd. No one expects a career year from a 35 year old journeyman. Take him out and they’re a solid 25th in MLB.

And projections of awfulness were based on that early season outfield lineup. Clearly those guys are who the Mets thought were the best they had also.

Stephen
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Stephen
2 years 8 months ago

There’s no reason to take production out because it tickles your right and wrong bone. What he did, he did, predictable or sustainable or not.

Wobatus
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Wobatus
2 years 8 months ago

I think that it was probably not expected that the opening day Mets line-up would be the one who ended up as starters, and I think whoever said that they probably would not be one of the worst outfields made that point. They may have realized Lagares was better than Cowgill but wanted him to get some AAA time.

But sure, they caught lightning in a bottle with Byrd (who did put up 4 WAR 3 years ago), and Eric Young has been pretty good since they acquired him. Still, if Brown and Lagares had started all year instead of Byrd and Ankiel/Cowgill, they might be pretty much in the same place.

I’m not suggesting it would have been rational to predict them being this good, or irrational to say they’d be bad. It’s just not how it ended up.

And you could take Jason Heyward out of the Braves outfield and they’d be 25th too.

Dune Muffin
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Dune Muffin
2 years 8 months ago

David, I have a feeling if you remove the WAR of any outfield’s top player they won’t fare so well. There’s also no proof whatsoever that Byrd is on steroids this year.

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter
2 years 8 months ago

It is pretty remarkable that they haven’t been bad this year. Last off-season, I assume most Mets fans would’ve loved if they signed Bourn/Swisher for $25MM/year. As it turns out, they got more production from Byrd/Lagares – for about $1MM combined – than Cleveland got for their pair.

Billy
Guest
Billy
2 years 8 months ago

Also, I think most of the Nat’s relative outfield badness when compared to the Mets has to do with Span being rather disappointing this season. Harper and Werth may still be better options than any outfielder the Mets had on their roster this season, including Byrd, even if he did have a better single season.

That said, the Mets outfield has been nicely respectable. Juan Lagares has been a favorite of mine for a few months precisely for his defense and EY jr. has always been a bit of an underdog favorite for me who is not amazing, but better than what awful perception of him suggests. For an outfield that was supposed to be so awful, I rather enjoy watching them play.

Wobatus
Guest
Wobatus
2 years 8 months ago

Yeah, I wouldn’t be shocked if Harper out-WARs the Mets outfield by himself next year. Regardless, Lagares has been a real feelgood story, although we all know how a partial year of UZR value in WAR can be flaky.

Gerald Westerby
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Gerald Westerby
2 years 8 months ago

Watching Lagares most days (Met fan here), what I notice most is the aggression. I have never seen Juan Lagares hesitate on a ball. He’s one of those guys who seems to have gotten a jump before the ball has left the bat. That isn’t scientific, but watching the guy play you just get the impression that he knows that his read will always be right, and he commits to it a step ahead of when another player would. Put that together with nice (but not amazing) speed and a solid (but not freakish) arm, and you get a player with good tools that play as if they were elite.

Greg
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Greg
2 years 8 months ago

I definitely have noticed the same thing. He reminds me of Carlos Beltran defensively the way he always gets good jumps on balls/takes good routes.

Zack
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Zack
2 years 8 months ago

Reminds me of Beltran too. Wasn’t crazy athletic, just always got 100% out of his athletic ability and was incredible at getting reads on balls in center.

If he continues to get better at the plate, he’s going to be really valuable for the Mets.

IZZY2112
Member
IZZY2112
2 years 8 months ago

Beltran was a lot faster than Lagares.

Franco
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Franco
2 years 8 months ago

Beltran got great jumps/routes, but he was a freakish athlete in his prime too. Much faster than Lagares.

cactus
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cactus
2 years 8 months ago

Reminds you of Beltran??? They play a completely different CF. Beltran played very deep, and Lagares plays very shallow.

attgig
Member
attgig
2 years 8 months ago

Lagares has been amazing, and I was surprised that he was moved to RF for Matt Den Dekker. If those two could hit, you could live with someone like Duda in LF….

Too bad they can’t hit….yet…

LongTimeFan
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LongTimeFan
2 years 8 months ago

Duda is not going back to the outfield as a Met. That’s been made clear organizationally and also fine with Duda who only wants to play first base. For the Mets, he’s defensive liability in speed and other skills and knows it. At first base he plays well and also becomes .300 hitter.

LongTimeFan
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LongTimeFan
2 years 8 months ago

I should clarify he’s a defensive liability in the outfield, not first base.

attgig
Member
attgig
2 years 8 months ago

a quote from the WSJ article that makes me love Lagares more…

Now, Lagares is worried about his reputation. If he keeps this up, nobody will run on him again.

“I want them to run,” Lagares said. “I want to keep throwing.”

FeslenR
Guest
FeslenR
2 years 8 months ago

I wouldn’t worry about it, people still ran on Frenchy, and all he had left was his arm.

Let’s just hope Lagares’ career goes smoother than his.

Eminor3rd
Member
Eminor3rd
2 years 8 months ago

Cool article, Jeff.

Richard
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Richard
2 years 8 months ago

I’d be scared to death if I was a catcher and saw Heyward rounding third knowing the play at the plate was going to be close.

kevin
Guest
kevin
2 years 8 months ago

nah, i’d just put my shoulder out and check ‘im in da jaw!

LongTimeFan
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LongTimeFan
2 years 8 months ago

It’s rather sad for baseball that charging and scooping grounders in the outfield, on the run, without stutter stepping is now so unusual as to stand out. Lagares is simply playing the outfield the way all outfielders are supposed to play, the way it was common to play decades ago, certainly the way it was played when I followed the game in my younger years in the early 70’s and beyond. Problem now is that players are not adequately taught.

Wobatus
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Wobatus
2 years 8 months ago

I don’t recall most centerfielders playing as close in as Lagares back in the ’70s. Rick Monday, Larry Hisle, Dusty Baker, Al Oliver? Nope. of course, there were some great fielding centerfielders back then (Billy North, Paul Blair, Cedeno), just as today we have Michael Bourn, Carlos Gomez, etc. But I don’t recall that many played so close in.

Jeff makes the point he plays close in because he still gets good enough reads and jumps to get to balls over his head, and he has his history as an infielder to help when charging bouncing balls. It’s not that other outfielders don’t charge, just that most are farther away or not quite as good with the short hops as Lagares.

Napes
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Napes
2 years 8 months ago

Yet the Mets insist on playing den Dekker in CF and shifting Lagares to right. It makes absolutely no sense, but either do half of the moves the Mets make.

Greg
Guest
Greg
2 years 8 months ago

Lagares’ main asset is his throwing arm, which will not lose any value by shifting to RF. Den Dekker is considered a 70-75 defender by most scouting reports that I’ve read.

MustBunique
Member
Member
2 years 8 months ago

From what I’ve read it is not Lagares’ throwing arm that makes him a good defender. In fact that is what the whole article was about, that his insticts, playing shallow, and agressive fielding make up for an arm that is probably above average but not great. I’m not positive about how a shift to right will change how many defensive runs the Mets save with this move overall, but it is not his throwing arm that is making him elite at throwing runners out.

Greg
Guest
Greg
2 years 8 months ago

Well now we’re just getting into semantics here. I should have said “ability to throw runners out.” His range is good but not so good that it would be wasted in RF.

Chris Blessing
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

No one ranks Den Dekker a 70-75 defender. Plus-Plus is a pretty ridiculous defender. I think he probably falls in the 55-60 range. He will make the spectacular but he will never cover the type of ground Lagares covers.

vivalajeter
Guest
vivalajeter
2 years 8 months ago

That’s silly. Coming into the year, I recall seeing plenty of scouts who said he’s the best defensive outfielder in their organization, and could be a gold glover in the big leagues asap.

Jeffrey Paternostro
Member
Jeffrey Paternostro
2 years 8 months ago

Yes, he’s probably the best defensive OF in the system; no, that doesn’t make him plus-plus. He’s a legit plus defender in CF, but he’s only there at the moment because his arm is much fringier than Lagares, so RF isn’t an option for den Dekker.

Spike
Guest
Spike
2 years 8 months ago

I think that Den Dekker/Andrew Brown platoon in LF is how the alignment will end up next year with Lagares back in CF. The market for RFers is pretty robust this year so they prob go outside to fill that role.

Spike
Guest
Spike
2 years 8 months ago

if DenDekker is a good CFer, then he should be as good or better in one of the corners. Not sure how the Mets can justify moving Lagares out of CF after what he’s done there this year.

Izzy
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

Because they want Young in left and Den Dekker’s arm doesn’t play in right.

LaLoosh
Guest
LaLoosh
2 years 8 months ago

Young is not going to be an every day corner next season unless something goes terribly wrong this winter.

Wobatus
Guest
Wobatus
2 years 8 months ago

Den Dekker is considered a pretty good fielder as well, and played almost exclusively center in the minors. Lagares played left and right about as often as center in the minors. And it’s September in a lost year, so may as well see what Den Dekker can do in center.

TheBigStapler
Guest
TheBigStapler
2 years 8 months ago

Well, it’s September in a losing year. I think playing den Dekker in center is smart because it will give him the most opportunities to field balls. Lagares has already proven himself at the highest level so it’s fair to let Terry see what DD can do in preparation of next year.

Astromets
Guest
Astromets
2 years 8 months ago

den Dekker has been rated the best OF defense in the Mets system for 3 straight years, playing almost all of his games in CF and pushing Lagares to the corner spots whenever they were on the same roster

Brad
Guest
Brad
2 years 8 months ago

Now if only Lagares could hit an off-speed pitch.

Zen Madman
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

Osvaldo!!!

Eric
Guest
Eric
2 years 8 months ago

For all the people who say “if only he could hit…” take a look at how he has fared since getting the time to adjust to major league pitching. Since the second half began he’s been an above-average hitter. Even though his BABIP will regress a bit, he’s shown over the past three minor league seasons that he can produce high BABIPs, so there might not be as much regression as one might think. Plus, his walk rate has been increasing, and his strikeouts have decreased to about league average. He’s a keeper.

Ron
Guest
Ron
2 years 8 months ago

I just keep thinking about Dustin Ackley, as he adjusts to the outfield hopefully he develops these skills to offset his lack of arm.

eltorostrikesagain
Guest
eltorostrikesagain
2 years 8 months ago

Awesome article. Love watching Lagares play defense. Same way I love watching the Molinas catch. Same way I used to love watching Jack Wilson play short. Hope his bat holds up.

Carl
Guest
Carl
2 years 8 months ago

Moving Lagares is silly. He already has 3.0 dWar this year despite missing 2 months of the season in the minors/on the bench. His OPS+ is 96, and is trending upward. With .9 OWar already, he is looking @ a 2.0 oWar player. Other than the Angels, who moves a 5.0 War player off their primary position, especially when the position they’re moving him to (RF) has Puello, a top prospect in the system @ AAA? The Mets have a legit cost-controlled AS in CF for the next 5 seasons.

olerudshelmet
Member
olerudshelmet
2 years 8 months ago

Is there something to the fact that Lagares is the only player on that list in the last six years? Was there a change to the way that ARM was calculated?

mkt
Guest
mkt
2 years 8 months ago

Nice “death to flying things” reference.

Dinos8
Guest
Dinos8
2 years 8 months ago

Excellent article. Like all the comments. We can dissect his throwing arm, versus his jumps on the ball versus his positioning, versus his whatever… but his real value is that he commands so much of center, that right and left field become appreciably smaller. Don’t know if den Decker can do the same. Look at Young, a second baseman playing left, and all the doubles and singles he has cut off, diving to his right and coming in. With Lagares in center, it looks to me like Young plays closer to the line and more shallow than what we have seen more recently from Met outfielders. Byrd just raves about Lagares potential… With respect to his hitting…he is becoming a student and made significant strides. I just wish the Mets would get someone like Carlos Delgado as a batting coach. Frankly, less than impressed with Hudgens.

chief00
Guest
chief00
2 years 8 months ago

“When you imagine a great arm from the outfield, you imagine a great arm from the outfield — an arm that’s incredibly strong, and incredibly accurate. Something like vintage Ichiro, or Francoeur, or even Yasiel Puig.”

Nope, I imagine Jesse Barfield. He controlled the game from RF better than anyone I’ve seen before or since. Anyone. This is based on a cannon arm, accurate throws, really good speed, and a great reputation. His defensive peak ran for 5 seasons. Here are a couple of links:
http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/who-was-best-at-playing-the-field/
http://aleastbound.com/2013/05/21/jesse-barfield-the-greatest-ever/

I imagine many oldtimers think of Roberto Clemente or Al Kaline but If I was putting together a team, I’d put Barfield in RF.

JJ
Guest
JJ
2 years 8 months ago

+1

More Jesse Barfield!

Good links too BTW – I forgot how sickening his arm and overall ability in the field really was.

fhc1224
Guest
fhc1224
2 years 8 months ago

if for some reason the mets do the unthinkable and fail to add major league OF talent for next season, there is a possibility you could see an OF consisting of Lagares, den Dekker & Puello. it might be one of the lower offensive OF around but could be amazing defensively. Puello has a cannon and can play an above average CF though he would not have to in this configureation. Personally I would have den Dekker in LF, Lagarse in CF, and Puello in RF. The range, the athletic ability, speed, and arms in this OF would be an amazing thing to watch.

kevin
Guest
kevin
2 years 8 months ago

and if i recall correctly(and i do, damnit!) when citifield first opened, the front office(minaya’s) said it would cater to a team built on pitching, speed and defense. Granted, this was the original park, before the walls moved in. but still. Mets have great young pitching at multiple levels and these sorts of defenders, and a lil bit of speed. could be the makings of a new DYNASTY in NYC!

Luis Cammarano
Guest
Luis Cammarano
2 years 2 months ago

Here’s a crazy idea, why don’t try Lagares at Short Stop

Luis Alvarez Despacho Castillo
Guest
Luis Alvarez Despacho Castillo
2 years 23 days ago

Here’s a crazy idea, why don’t comment on stories 6 months afterwards.

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