Juan Lagares is a career .262 hitter with a .302 on-base percentage. He just signed a $23 million contract. If he matches his career numbers for the next four seasons, that's a good deal. If he hits as well as he did last year, it's a great deal. This is because he's a superlative defender, and elite defensive center fielders have substantial value.
Is there anything controversial in that opening paragraph? There is not. It's 2015, and we're used to the idea of a super-fielder being worth as much as the sluggers of our youth. Lagares is, perhaps, the best center fielder in baseball right now. He's the Andrelton Simmons of the outfield, statistically speaking. He should be a millionaire, considering how much better he is at baseball than a lot of his peers. Congratulations to him and the Mets.
But it's time that I apologized for something. For a few things, really. In my youth -- my impetuous, stat-drunk, cocksure youth -- I was rude to a lot of baseball players. I said and wrote a few things, and ... well, I'm not proud of them. If I'm going to bring my kids up in a defense-minded world, I need to atone for a few things. I need to apologize to some retired baseball players.
To Rey Sanchez: I'm sorry. You were actually pretty good. The Giants signed you after a .307 OBP season, which was really bad back in the late-'90s, and I said and wrote horrible things about you for seven months. Sorry.
Occasionally, someone would show up in a Giants forum and say something like ...
who cares if he can't hit, he can field. if he can hit .270 or .280, he's a huge asset, imo
... and the rest of the forum would pounce on the fool. Sanchez was hitting .347 at the end of May, and one poster promised to eat a baseball -- literally eat a baseball cut up into small pieces -- if he finished the season over .300. Knowing what we know now about the capriciousness of batting average, hoooo boy, was that a risk. But it was a promise given, in part, because of the complete disregard baseball nerds had for defense.
Sanchez was pretty good for the '98 Giants, and then he went to the Royals, which made everyone giggle, of course. He ripped off three straight outstanding defensive seasons and helped the Royals win a few games more than the average shortstop would have.
He was pretty good.
To Darin Erstad: I'm sorry. You weren't just one of baseball's greatest fluke seasons, and you weren't the most overrated player in history (which I probably wrote back then, being drunk on fermented AOL trial disks as college kids usually were.) You were really, really, really good in a lot of different facets of the game.
Erstad hit .283/.313/.389 in 2002, good for an 86 OPS+. Here's part of what Baseball Prospectus wrote about him in their 2003 annual:
"Erstad has one excellent season. One. That's it. Outside of that season, he's hit like a fourth outfielder. But because of his good defense, marquee value, and the perception that he's a scrappy, Pete Rose, hustling dude, Bill Stoneman saw fit to sign him to a contract for four years and $32 million. Granted, it's not one of those really dizzyingly bad Mike Hamptonesque signings, but it's not good. If you're going to pay that kind of money and take that kind of risk, it should be for a better player than this."
I read that and nodded my head. It made sense at the time. I couldn't have agreed more. Using Baseball-Reference's WAR to look back at that season, though, it turns out that Erstad was worth over six wins, the fifth-most valuable player in the American League.
Josh Phelps was on the cover of that Baseball Prospectus. That was a good choice at the time. I spent a lot of money on Phelps that year in my fantasy auction because, hey, on-base percentage and dingers. He was the archetype of what every smart baseball team needed, or so I believed at the time.
Sorry, Darin. I should have appreciated you more.
To Pedro Feliz: You really did have more skills than I gave you credit for. A Gold Glove defender at third with 20-homer power is probably a worthwhile player in any era. Bill James once wrote about how bad GMs focused on what players couldn't do instead of what they could, and I was so into that idea. It made so much sense, I thought, as long as you only apply it to players who take walks. Feliz didn't take walks, so I wanted to put him into a trebuchet and send him into the Bay. Why couldn't the Giants ever find someone who could hit enough to play third, like Mark Teahen or Eric Hinske?
Apologies to Mike Bordick, too. Turns out you were pretty fantastic, even before the late-career power spike. Apologies to Jack Wilson and Pokey Reese -- I guess you really were worth a starting job for a while, there. And I can't express enough how deeply sorry I am for what I said about you, Adam Everett. You were not the reason the Astros wasted Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. That wasn't even close to accurate. You were awesome.
As for Neifi Perez ...
You know, I'm not there yet, and I don't know if I ever will be. Here a learning lesson for all of us, though. This is a lesson for baseball fans young and old, and it comes via a Juan Lagares extension. We don't know everything. Baseball will surprise us, and then it will surprise us again. Dinosaurs were lizards before they were birds, and the player you're ripping right now might be more valuable than you think.
Lagares is one of the best center fielders in baseball. The Mets locked him up accordingly. Let's check in with what Amazin' Avenue has to say:
Even though he might spend a lot of time batting ninth in 2015, Lagares should continue providing terrific value to the Mets in the near future.
And the commenters?
I would have been OK with a lifetime contract
This is such great news.
Indeed. Everyone can see what a good move this is. It's so very obvious. All we can do now is apologize to the pioneers of super-defense, who were ridiculed and lambasted during The Great Sabermetric Revolution that left hundreds wounded after dry quips and "Simpsons" quotes were tossed their way with impunity.
It turns out that catching the ball is important. Everyone realizes that, now. The Mets, being penny-foolish and pound-wise, certainly realize that, and Mets fans will get to watch one of the best in the game at what he does for the next few years. If this happened 10 or 15 years ago, we wouldn't have been able to publish the responses from the commenters. Baseball will always change, as will our perception of it. Here's Juan Lagares to prove it.