"He might be the best center fielder in the National League," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said last week (Knobler, Aug. 27).
Lagares will have to start hitting better if he wants to put himself into any kind of MVP conversation, but his historic defensive performance probably makes it a lot closer than people realize... and a lot of fun to talk about.
Lagares Is Already a Star, Has Been a Revelation Defensively
Lagares has exceeded expectations this year, both offensively and defensively; but it's his defense that has turned him unquestionably into a cornerstone of a franchise. In fact, Lagares has been so good this season that some have legitimately questioned whether he has somehow "broken" defensive statistics.
How good has Lagares been, exactly? He leads all Mets in WAR (wins above replacement) according to Fangraphs with 3.7, with Daniel Murphy a distant second at 3.1. Fangraphs might actually be underselling him. According to Baseball-Reference's version of the statistic, Lagares has been even more extraordinary, with a 5.6 WAR (trailed by Lucas Duda's 3.1).
My favorite part about Lagares is that it's not an old school vs. new school debate, since everyone agrees that he has been amazing...
- Lagares is among only 19 outfielders since 1961 to earn a defensive WAR (dWAR) of three or more, and he's done it twice.
- Andruw Jones, Barry Bonds, Paul Blair, Devon White, Michael Bourn and Lagares are the only outfielders since 1961 to post two or more seasons of 2.5+ dWAR.
- Lagares also leads the league this season in dWAR, ahead of Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward.
- Lagares is the only player since 2002 to record back-to-back seasons of 25 or more defensive runs saved -- and both years he's had 30 or more
So, Can A Glove-Man Win MVP?
Believe it or not, there are only four players since 1965 to win the National League MVP with a slugging percentage of .500 or less.
The most recent, Barry Larkin, won the MVP in 1995 with a .319 batting average, .394 OBP and .492 slugging percentage. Larkin was actually fifth in the NL in WAR that season, but he did not turn in a good defensive season. The same goes for the other three, Kirk Gibson in 1988, Steve Garvey in 1974, and Pete Rose in 1973, all had weak years in the field.
Perhaps the strongest comparisons to Lagares's sustained defensive excellence, Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones, both failed to win MVP awards while posting their incredible defensive seasons. Ken Griffey Jr. won his only MVP award in 1997 on the back of his offense, in 1996 he posted 3.4 dWAR and finished fourth. Jones failed to enter the MVP conversation when he posted 3.9 or 3.8 dWAR.
In other words, MVP winners are usually among the best hitters in their respective leagues, even if they were excellent on defense as well. Even Jimmy Rollins, when he won the MVP in 2007 posted only 1.2 dWAR.
Lagares's Bat Will Ultimately Determine His Ceiling
That said, an amazing defensive season can certainly help you get into the discussion when your bat is pretty good. A strong narrative can help as well. Who can forget Ichiro's MVP victory in 2001 (he was 4th in WAR behind Jason Giambi, Bret Boone, and Alex Rodriguez) or Jimmy Rollins in 2007 (he was 7th in WAR behind Albert Pujols, David Wright, Chase Utley, Chipper Jones and Troy Tulowitzki).
Lagares has hit a very respectable .282/.321/.389 this year for a .710 OPS, thanks in part to Tuesday night's 4-for-4 performance. That .710 OPS is good for an OPS+ of 103, or slightly above league average.
Can Lagares tick that OPS upward from .710 this season to .750 or better in future seasons? His minor league resume includes a .779 OPS at Single-A, a .764 OPS at Double-A, and a .943 OPS in his cup-of-coffee at Triple-A; and he hit .300 or better at all three levels from 2011 to 2013. It may well be that Lagares is a true-talent .775 OPS kind of player.
If the Mets come alive, and if Lagares can hit .300, while continuing to rewrite the defensive record books, you never know... MLB has likely only seen back-to-back defensive seasons like this once since integration (Andruw Jones's historic 1998 and 1999), so it remains to be seen how the narrative might shift.
The High Five counts down the top five defensive plays from Juan Lagares in the month of August >> Watch on SNY.tv
Brian Mangan is an attorney who lives in New York City. His writing can be found at The Read Zone. Follow his Mets-related thoughts on Twitter: @brianpmangan