Stephen Guilbert - Players Not To Overlook Part 1- Juan Lagares and Travis d'Arnaud: Value Misinterpreted

From Juan Lagares' Instagram: Off-season downtime with his son. 

Juan Lagares, in fewer than 1.5 seasons worth of baseball, ranks 40th amongst active players in defensive Wins Above Replacement, as calculated by baseball-reference. The only other player with 2 seasons or fewer of playing time remotely close to Lagares is two-time Gold Glove winner Nolan Arenado who is a full win behind Lagares. No other player with two seasons of playing time ranks in the top 100.

Sometimes I wonder about the true value of Juan Lagares. After 2013 I heard many arguments--some from brilliant baseball minds--who vehemently argued against Juan Lagares as a starting player. The defense could not possibly be that good. He will regress. The bat won't play. He was never a top prospect. Defensive statistics are flawed. Runners will stop challenging him which will make his defensive value plummet. Some of these statements were from well-respected baseball minds in the Met blogosphere and even outside it. It goes past the petty arguments on the chat boards of Facebook and Mets360. Fangraphs ran an entire article about how Juan Lagares would regress defensively in 2014. He didn't. In fact, he was even better.

Defensive metrics are flawed. I am a full believer in advanced statistics but I understand the limitations of UZR and DRS. Data loggers look at every batted ball. If a ball hit in a certain spot falls for a hit 75% of the time and the outfielder makes the play, they get .75 added to their value. If they miss it, they lose -.25. Not only does this methodology not account for situation (were there runners on? Was the batter speedy? Would it have been a triple in the gap or a bloop single?) but it also completely ignores defensive positioning and subjects the player to the ubiquitous factor of human error. How does this relate to Lagares? Well, a lot, actually. He plays the field differently than any other center fielder in baseball. He plays a shallower center, he charges faster, and he also makes more errors than most center fielders. Yet, he is judged the same way as a slower-footed CF who plays deep. We have yet to get to the point where an analyst can say, "Juan Lagares made this out when zero other current major league center fielders would have and it resulted in 1.1 runs saved based on the situation". I hope we do, eventually.

Given what I know about baseball data collection and the game of baseball itself, Juan Lagares might actually be undervalued, especially on this team. We forget that Michael Cuddyer, a truly awful fielder with abysmal range, would have been an unlikely signing if it weren't for the presence in Center where "Extra base hits go to die". However, that's not all I'm talking about. FanGraphs and Baseball Reference continue to try to compare Juan Lagares to his peers and I am not certain he has any. When I hear, "Defensive metrics are flawed. He is not a 5-WAR player", I think, "You're right, he's better". I just think, given the tools we have at our disposal, that the quantification of Juan Lagares' value is not properly measured. Reality could be harsher to Juan Lagares or kinder. It's this amateur analyst's opinion that it would be kinder.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who asked me about the Mets pursuing Alex Gordon and/or Jason Hayward in 2016 if Gordon opts out and Hayward does not sign an extension. He then fantasized about an outfield of Gordon in left, Nimmo in center, and Hayward in right. We started to talk about Lagares and he mentioned that Lagares' value peaks at 4 WAR, if that. How do we know that? If he is a league-average hitter--something advanced stats has a very good grasp on--he's a truly elite defender. Perhaps the game's best. That sort of extreme is difficult to properly quantify given the ability we currently have. The Mets won 79 games last year with a largely rag-tag team. It would be a mistake to assume a large component--perhaps the single largest in 2014--to the team's success was not Juan Lagares.

Via Twitter: d'Arnaud in Arnaudville, Louisiana. 

Is Travis d'Arnaud being taken for granted a bit? Much of the positive chatter in the off-season I heard applauded the pitching. Pitching pitching and more pitching. Shiny new toy in the outfield. Two TJS recovery pitchers coming back. Wright bouncing back. Granderson bouncing back. Duda smashing more homers. Murphy playing for a contract.

What about our 26-year-old catcher? Yes, the master pitch-framer who smacked the ball after his stint in Triple-A early in the season. The one our golden staff loves throwing to. The one who is a power threat in the lineup and only getting better.

The critique of Travis d'Arnaud seems to be louder than appreciation of his true value. Perhaps it is just the circles in which I find myself or the articles I choose to read but it seems like there is a vast under-appreciation for TdA. Let me give you a couple stat lines to ponder:

.244/.309/.379/.688/93 wRC+
.242/.302/.416/.718/102 wRC+
.265/.313/.474/.787/126 wRC+

The first line is the MLB average for catchers in 2014. The second line is d'Arnaud's full 2014 season. The third is d'Arnaud in the second half.

The 126 wRC+ is particularly ridiculous. Only 36 qualified players had a wRC+ of 126 or better in 2014 and only two were catchers (Posey, Lucroy).

Needless to say, the offensive bar is very low for catchers and we have a rare gem in a solid defensive catcher who can hit and hit for power. His .474 slugging percentage in the second half would have been second to only Buster Posey had TdA accomplished it over an entire season. Think about that for a second. Remember, if you have better players around the diamond than your opponent, good chance you're going to win. There are few teams who will have a better two-way catcher than the Mets in 2015.

Before the contrarians come out in droves to critique my lack of sample size significance or to remind me that "d'Arnaud has to prove he can do it over a whole season first", let me remind you that those are exactly the reasons d'Arnaud is undervalued and under-appreciated.

Let me start the hype machine now, then. Travis d'Arnaud makes the 2015 All-Star team. He is worth between 4 and 6 WAR by season's end and he hits 20+ home runs. Mark it down.



Hobie said...

Great essay, Stephen.

Thomas Brennan said...

Stephen, I agree with you on Lagares and on d'Arnaud. Both will (if healthy) do what you indicate (be really good in 2015), and are big parts of the overall reason I project the Metsies at 92-70.

With shorter fences in right center this year, reducing the acreage, will ANY balls hit to center fall in against Lagares?

If 2015 progresses well, and they're in the race and keep Plawecki, how about a seasoned d'Arnaud and Plawecki as back up instead of Recker? Beats the 2014 catching mix by a long shot.

Reese Kaplan said...

The Mets are a team that doesn't buck conventional wisdom, one dubious pearl of which is you don't promote young players to sit on the bench. (Apparently they haven't been watching Collins' lineups).

If you said Plawecki would get time at 1B while Mayberry spelled Granderson against tougher lefties, then I could perhaps buy it. However, Plawecki doesn't even have a full season of AAA under his belt and the team is loathe to let the meter start ticking on younger players until after the SuperTwo deadline passes.

More importantly (in Metsville, anyway) is that Recker is a familiar presence a'la Ruben Tejada, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and others who have demonstrated very little value yet still seem to play far more often than they should. Put that one partially on the GM who decides the roster but mostly on the manager who fills out the lineup card.

Thomas Brennan said...

Herb - could not agree with you more about Moncada not sitting in a Bronx dugout - we endured the Jeter Phenomenon for years, and when Reyes finally outshined DJ, we dumped him. Is time to return to the mid 80's and finally dominate the City rivalry again after so long as #2 dog in the NYC Kennel.

Stephen Guilbert said...

The thing with Recker is that he's a very good defensive catcher with an arm that can stop just about any run game. An ideal backstop hits a bit more than he does but I like him just fine as a major league backup catcher.

As far as Plawecki, I cannot help but look at him as trade bait. There was a time I thought d'Arnaud was not going to stay healthy enough to stick at catcher and, given a need at first base, he'd slide over there and let Plawecki handle the catcher duties but d'Arnaud both got healthier, improved his defense, and Lucas Duda happened. "Good problem to have" again. Plawecki, given a good start to his season, should be a consensus top-50 prospect come mid-season and should be able to be the centerpiece in a trade for whatever the Mets will need (I'm still saying it's going to be shortstop).

The Rockies have three catchers but none of them are all that good. Instead of deGrom or Syndergaard as the centerpiece, why shouldn't it be Plawecki? Catchers who are as good receivers and hitters as he is are very rare in today's game. GMs know that--even if fans don't.

Richard Jones said...

Last year I became a huge fan of Lagares. I'm a Met fan who lives outside of the NY area. My finances weren't good in 2013 so I didn't subscribe to extra innings and didn't see a lot of met games. Last year I did. Watching Lagares on a regular basis was worth the price alone.I remember a play where a ball was hit to right. Cohan was focused on Nieuwenhuis who was playing right field. The ball was hit to the warning track. Lagares came out of no where to make the catch. They showed another wide angle view of the play. I used the rows that are created in the grass when it is cut. Lagares coverd more than twice the ground that Nieuwenhuis covered.
There are a lot of intangibles that a player like Lagares brings to a team. You hear of the negative effect of giving a team 4 outs has on a pitching staff. Lagares often gets them off the field with the pitchers just earning two. Those players who don't run because of him. How many get stranded on base that would have scored off another centerfielder? Lagares doesn't get credit for that in the stats but his presence saved runs.
After 2014 d'Arnaud's value went down for me. It was not about the bat. Even when he was struggling I thought his bat would come around. He missed a lot of time the two previous years and I knew it would take time for his bat to get going. I was very disappointed with his defense. Other than his framing pitches he suck in every way as a defensive catcher. Hopefully his bat will add more value than his defense subtracts. Hopefully he improves his defense. That is one reason I would be behind the Mets exploring another position for him. His bat would play well in the outfield and it would open things up for Plawecki.

Stephen Guilbert said...

Richard, I remember that play. Lagares has freakish talent to me and it's not just his speed and athleticism. He reads balls off the bat as well as anyone I have seen. It's also true that runners stopped challenging him (look at his assists from '13-'14) and no, that is not even accounted for in his stats which makes his 2014 accomplishment even that more impressive.

As far as d'Arnaud, part of the territory of being a master pitch-framer is passed balls. I never pitched so I wouldn't know which pitchers prefer, but I heard the number 75 for the amount of strikes d'Arnaud "stole" last year. That's astronomical. When you listen to pitchers talk about throwing to him, I think you have a sense of how undervalued that skill is.

You don't have to buy into the hype--I certainly made some bold claims in this article--but I am as comfortable with the future at catcher since the Piazza days.

Thomas Brennan said...

Hey Richard

I remember seeing Swoboda's diving catch in the 1969 world series. Thought it was so great - wondered if any catch could be better. They were getting miracles that year and Swoboda went for a ball he should not have and caught it inches off the turf.

Lagares does that catch and better almost weekly. He may be the best OF fielder I've seen. Grear arm, great jumps, great instincts, great acrobatics, and great quickness and speed.

I'll bet d'Arnaud is an above average defensive catcher in 2015 after the bone chips were removed. it is a mazing with bone chips that he threw as well as he did.

Stephen Guilbert said...

Very good point about the bone chips.

Richard Jones said...

Swoboda's catch was a great catch. I have a different take on what a great catch is than what most fans do. I always got irritated when announces would claim that Jim Edmonds made a great play. He may have made a great catch but it wasn't a great play. He read the ball off the bat very poorly. Most of the time when he finished a play with a diving catch a centerfielder like lagares would have been camping under it and would have made it look very routine. In my opinion most great plays are made at the beginning of the play. How the player broke on the ball, the path the player took.It is not on how a player finishes the play. A dive looks nice for the fans but if it is done because the fielder needed to makeup for a poor break or path to the ball, it was not a good play. Maybe a great catch but a poor play.
As Stephen mentioned a big part of Lagares defense is his read of the ball off the bat. Plays that look routine for him are hits against other centerfielders. When you are able to make a play look routine you remain in a position to make a strong throw and keep runners from advancing. Players like Edmonds who made routine plays look great, aloud runners to advance because they weren't in a position to make a throw.

Thomas Brennan said...

I agree with you, Richard. When I saw Swoboda go for that, I was like "OH NO!" and then he caught it. Which was great - but he got away with a dumb play.

Lagares - I do not see anyone better defensively. I saw one diving catch on highlights one night last year...tremendously fast jump, covered amazing ground, and dove and caught it just off the ground - but it did not look risky. Brilliant. I think his time as a SS in the minors, with the need for fast footwork, was just the catalyst he needed in the outfield to bring out his innate brilliance as a fielder.

I think he'll hit .290. He could hit .220 and be valuable.

Richard Jones said...

I didn't intend to make my post above an evaluation of Swoboda's play. I was 5 when he made that catch. I saw highlights and it was a great catch. I never saw the play as a from the beginning. I don't know if there was even a camera angle available that would give enough of the play to tell what type of jump he got off of the ball.
The cameras are so much better today and there are more of them. You can appreciate the play like the one I mentioned in my first response much more today than you would have been able to in 1969.

Hobie said...


I'll be a little a picky and take issue with one phrase from a post a basically agree with: "Other than his framing pitches he suck in every way as a defensive catcher."

Certainly we hope he can refine his framing technique to reduce the risk of not catching the ball, and, while he is not going to grow a gun, a little better footwork would improve his CS rate. But he has mastered the not-blocking-the plate tag as well as anyone I see and calls a pretty decent game from what I hear.

Richard Jones said...

I teach high school math including Geometry. When Lagares made that play. He and Nieuwenhuis got there at about the same time. Nieuwenhuis would have been just short of making a good catch. I calculated that Nieuwenhuis covered about 70 ft. Lagares covered about 145 ft. Looking at just Nieuwenhuis he didn't seem to get a bad break on the ball, it wasn't great but it wasn't bad. He also has decent speed. That is why that play was so impressive to me. How does any player cover 145 ft in the same time another player goes 70 ft.
I was working off a TV screen and my numbers could be based off of distorted angles so I doubt my numbers are perfect but there close.

Richard Jones said...

I'm glad the English teachers at my school don't read this blog.

Thomas Brennan said...

Richard, we're going from hyperbole to hypotenuse! Please ask them to read this site's articles...we're seldom obtuse but often go off on tangents :)

Richard Jones said...


I live near Dallas TX. Mets fans are hard to find around here. Most of those I work with are Texas Ranger fans.

Thomas Brennan said...

Great to have another Met fan in the Lone Star state, Richard. Hopefully, we can hit a little more like some past Rangers teams this year.

Ernest Dove said...

Lagares will hit .272 with 11 homers and 34 stolen bases in 2015...... ok bye.

Stephen Guilbert said...

Richard, that is very cool about the geometry. It did amaze me watching den Dekker (a VERY gifted fielder) and Nieuwenhuis (a talented defender in his own right) look inferior to Lagares. One of the many ways you know you have something special with him.

I do hope he can hit at least somewhere within 10% of league average. If he does, he's worth putting out there in center every day he's able. If he can pull a Carlos Gomez with the bat, that's huge. But I agree, even if he doesn't, he's still a starting CF on most any team.

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