Juan Lagares was signed by the New York Mets as a 17 year-old in 2006. He spent three years playing shortstop before the Mets moved him to the outfield. The 6'1, 175 pound centerfielder made his major league debut three weeks into the 2013 season, and played in 121 games. Over that time he compiled a pretty meager .242/.281/.352 slash line, for a 75 wRC+. 204 players received at least 400 plate appearances in 2013, and 188 of them had a higher wRC+ than Lagares. While his performance at the plate was less than inspiring, Lagares made a name for himself with his glove. Despite playing only a few more than 800 innings, he finished 7th in UZR. His UZR/150 of 33.1 was the third-highest mark in the major leagues. By DRS, he was 26 runs above average.
This season, defensive metrics are giving Lagares the same kind of love. By either UZR, UZR/150 or DRS, he ranks among the five best defensive players in baseball. Only Jason Heyward has more DRS, and he has 320 more innings in the outfield. Going back to 2013, Lagares ranks third in the major leagues in DEF, behind Andrelton Simmons and Manny Machado, both of whom have player far more innings. Only Simmons has a higher DRS, and he has the advantage of 800-odd additional innings of defense. Since 2013, Lagares' UZR of 37.6 is tops in the MLB. Simmons is known in popular circles as the best defender in baseball, and Alex Gordon is getting all kinds of sabermetric love for his defensive play. But, Lagares might be better than them all.
Lagares possesses a deadly arm. Last season he finished third in the major leagues in outfield assists with 15, despite receiving far less playing time than Gerardo Parra and Gordon, who had 17 each. Here's a clip of Lagares gunning down Jason Heyward in a game last season. While strong, the arm isn't cannon-like. Rather, it's the speed at which he approaches the baseball and the quickness of his release that get Heyward. It's the kind of fielding technique you might expect from a converted shortstop.
via cdn.fangraphs.com (Jeff Sullivan)
This year, baserunners have been less inclined to test Lagares' arm, and he has only four outfield assists. However, he's showed off his exceptional range on numerous occasions. Overall he has just three fewer defensive runs saved in 150 fewer innings. This is just one of the many exceptional plays the Mets centerfielder has made this season.
Lagares' 3.0 fWAR is on par with the value produced by Justin Upton and Jacoby Ellsbury, though he has received 150-175 fewer plate appearances. Looking back, it's hard to believe that he had to battle to make the team out of Spring Training. It's likely that his .283/.323/.387 slash line and 102 wRC+ will slide, but his defense should make him an everyday player. Simmons' glove gets him on the field every day, the Mets should do the same with Lagares.
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Chris Moran is a former college baseball player at Wheaton College and current third-year law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He's also an assistant baseball coach at Wash U. In addition to Beyond The Box Score, he contributes at Gammons Daily. He went to his first baseball game at age two. Follow him on Twitter@hangingslurves