Published on September 14th, 2013 | by Josh Chapdelaine0
How Valuable is Juan Lagares Compared to Bryce Harper? The Answer May Surprise You
On June 8th, 2009, Sports Illustrated published their weekly periodical bestowing the image of a 16-year-old phenom Bryce Harper. The magazine highlighted his all-around impressive arsenal that included a 96 MPH fastball, natural swing, and talent that was more advanced than Alex Rodriguez or Ken Griffey Jr. at the same age. His talent propelled him to a historic 19-year-old season in 2012 that helped propel the Washington Nationals to their first playoff appearance in franchise history.
Juan Lagares never received national media attention at 17-years-old when the New York Mets signed him as an international free agent. He never cracked one of Baseball-America’s top prospect lists, either. The 23-year-old Dominican never played an inning of his professional career in center field until he was tested in Binghamton despite looking like he never left a baseball diamond when gracing the position.
Is it possible that Harper and Lagares could both be of similar value to their clubs despite superficial differences?
Bryce Harper clearly has tremendous offensive value as evidenced by his career .271/.355/.486 clip that he has produced through his first 1,032 big league plate appearances. The 20-year-old has not yet approached his offensive prime and won’t do so for close to another half-decade.
Juan Lagares is not Harper at the plate and likely won’t ever resemble the Nationals passionate outfielder. His .264/.301/.383 line through 360 plate appearance has produced a 93 OPS+, supporting the belief that his offense has been below-average.
The players are polar opposites. Harper personifies youthful energy, excitement, and passion about baseball that many flock toward. The media will always be quick to take to an engaging and emerging figure in sports. It’s a sound strategy that, as evidenced with A-Rod, can give an outlet close to 20 years of continuous drama.
Lagares is soft-spoken and graceful in his style of play. He doesn’t smash bats into the ground following a poorly constructed plate appearance, works diligently in the video room to improve every aspect of his game, and is adjusting to a life in the major leagues that he was never guaranteed at 16-years-old.
Yet Lagares has actually been just as valuable as Harper has in 2013.
As has been the case in MVP voting, offense will almost always be the go-to category for overall production. While Harper has undoubtedly blown Lagares out of the water in that facet of the game, offense is truly only half of the story. Creating runs becomes necessary when a lack of coverage in the outfield deprives teams of outs that turn into runs against their club. In this particular case study, one will find that Harper has been roughly a league-average fielder. Harper’s 2.2 UZR/150 in 2013 is barely a tick above league-average (0.0). Furthermore, Baseball-Reference accounts that Harper has been worth -0.5 dWAR over the course of this season, reducing his overall value.
Lagares has earned most of his value through his stellar defense. His 34.0 UZR/150 is easily tops in the National League. Lagares has been so good in center field that he has had the best ARM season over the past decade, besting other great arms such as Jeff Francoeur and even Miguel Cabrera during his time with the Florida Marlins. To read more about Lagares’ success in this category, check out the full FanGraphs article by Jeff Sullivan here. Baseball-Reference shows Lagares as 3.2 dWAR at his position during his rookie campaign, an almost unreal number.
Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs seem to disagree about their overall value, but not by much: FG believes that Harper has been worth 3.4 WAR against Lagares’ 3.1 WAR, while BR believes that Harper has been worth 3.1 WAR while Lagares has been worth 3.9 WAR. There is no perfect statistic, but the conclusion that we can draw from these numbers is that both players add significant value to their teams through different means and that offense shouldn’t account for one’s entire perception of a player. It’s not to say that many haven’t taken notice of Lagares’ truly exceptional play over the course of his rookie season, but many would be quick to dispel the notion that he has been similar to Harper in any sense.
While Lagares won’t likely become a perennial MVP candidate who can blast 20 home runs while providing a solid presence in the middle of a lineup, his value is much more graceful than the swing of a bat. He glides seemingly effortlessly though the outfield to help reach balls that most outfielders would be playing on several hops. He’ll save more runs than he’ll help to create, but that’s all he needs to do to ensure that he’ll remain the starting center fielder for the foreseeable future.
Photo Credit: Michael Baron