New York Mets outfielder Juan Lagares entered the 2018 season with a new and improved swing. The early results haven’t been any different from the past, though.
After posting a career-high 101 wRC+ through 452 plate appearances in 2014, the 29-year-old has failed to post a wRC+ higher than 84 in any of the following three years. That’s why the defensive whiz spent eight days in Southern California with hitting guru Craig Wallenbrock.
The purpose? To increase his launch angle and be the latest player to join the fly-ball revolution.
It wouldn’t be fair to draw concrete conclusions about Lagares’ performance since he’s only accumulated 64 plate appearances heading into Wednesday’s action. Still, it’s worth noting that the transformation we were hoping to see from him at the plate hasn’t happened yet.
Compared to his last three seasons, Lagares has actually been much more of an offensive asset based on his overall production.
He was slashing .339/.375/.390 entering Wednesday’s action, which has led to a .765 OPS and 112 wRC+. Both of those numbers are on track to be new career-high marks, while he’s also not really striking out anymore.
Entering the 2018 season, Lagares owned a career strikeout rate of 19.9 percent through 1,770 plate appearances. This includes a 20.6 percent mark in 2017, the highest it had been since his rookie year.
It’s been a completely different story through the first month-and-a-half of this season, though, as he’s gone down on strikes at just an 11.5 percent clip.
His 50.5 percent swing rate tells us the slick-fielding outfielder has been more aggressive at the plate, but it’s also been in the right instances. After swinging at strikes 59.7 percent of the time in 2016 and 61.5 percent of the time in 2017, that number is up at 67.4 percent through 64 plate appearances.
This swing rate would be a new single-season career high if the year ended today.
Swinging at more strikes is great. However, it’d be even better if it translated to more contact and improved quality of contact. Neither of those things has happened for Lagares.
Despite a noticeable uptick in his swing rate on strikes, Lagares’ contact rate in that situation has only increased slightly to 87.5 percent (86.1 percent in 2017). This would be a manageable number if his hard-hit rate was at least at a league-average level, but it’s not even close.
In fact, his current 24 percent hard-hit rate is exactly the same as his 24 percent soft-hit rate. And while those numbers are concerning, they’re not the most disappointing ones he’s produced thus far.
As mentioned before, the whole point of Lagares’ trip to Southern California was to change his swing path and improve his launch angle. According to the rest of the right-hander’s batted-ball profile, the opposite has happened.
Here’s a look at how his line-drive rate (LD%), ground-ball rate (GB%), and fly-ball rate (FB%) compare on a year-to-year basis since 2016.
So, no, this isn’t exactly the kind of trajectory he was looking for upon reporting to Port St. Lucie in February. And if he wants to keep that overall production on the up and up, he’ll have to make some changes.
After all, it wouldn’t be realistic to expect his BABIP to stay around the current .392 mark it’s at upon seeing these other peripheral stats.
One of the longstanding issues with Lagares is that while his defense is superb, his offense has been bad enough that he’s never really received consistent playing time. It’s been more of the same story in 2018, as he hasn’t played more than five days in a row at any point (and those weren’t even all starts).
It’s difficult to carve out playing time in the Mets’ outfield with guys like Yoenis Cespedes, Jay Bruce, Michael Conforto, and on-base machine Brandon Nimmo also on the roster. This could change for the immediate future, though.
Cespedes has officially been placed on the disabled list with what’s been labeled as a right hip flexor strain, while Bruce has seen some time at first base in order to fit Nimmo onto the field and at the top of New York’s order.
Both of these situations would allow Lagares to log consistent innings in the outfield, as well as logging enough at-bats to potentially get into a groove. He undoubtedly put plenty of work into this new swing, and it’d be great to see drastic improvements all over his profile at some point.