Ready for Liftoff: Juan Lagares Alters His Swing in Bid to Impress the Mets

Ready for Liftoff: Juan Lagares Alters His Swing in Bid to Impress the Mets


But that might be as far as the Mets go in looking outside their current roster, especially with General Manager Sandy Alderson intimating that the team’s payroll is likely to decrease next season. That means that someone like Lagares, 28, who was a Gold Glove winner in 2014 but has been relegated to part-time duty the past few seasons, might figure notably in the Mets’ plans for 2018.

Alderson said the Mets have talked about improving the team’s defense. Having Lagares in the starting lineup more regularly — he appeared in 94 games last season — would seem one way to reach that goal. But Lagares has to hit enough to justify a bigger role.

If Wallenbrock and Van Scoyoc can improve Lagares’s offense to a more productive level — perhaps a .750 on-base plus slugging percentage — Lagares might take on some of the stature he had several years ago.

“It can help me,” Lagares said of working with the hitting instructors to try to hit more balls in the air and end up with a lot more extra-base hits. “I have to keep working on it. Just because I went to them doesn’t mean I’m going to hit 50 home runs.’’

Lagares’s defensive abilities have never been questioned. Still, when he won the Gold Glove in 2014, he also hit a solid .281 in over 400 at-bats and seemed to be emerging as a potential All-Star outfielder.

The next spring, the Mets rewarded him with a four-year contract extension worth $23 million that runs through the 2019 season. From about that moment on, Lagares has found it hard to avoid injuries or to hit with much impact.

In 2015, he batted .259 and in 2016, just .239. Last season, his average went back up, but just a little bit, to .250. Increasingly, in a Mets outfield that, at various times, featured Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, Jay Bruce and Conforto, he came to be seen as nothing more than a backup player.

It did not help, too, that his power has been minimal, with only 20 career home runs to date.

Looking to change his luck, Lagares, who bats right-handed, tried a new approach at the plate last season, hoping to pull the ball more to increase his power and production.

Photo

Lagares hitting a home run for the Mets in 2015. It is an image the Mets would like to see more often as they contemplate a bigger role for him in 2018.

Credit
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

It didn’t work. Yes, Lagares hit ball to the left side nearly 44 percent of the time when he put the ball in play, according to FanGraphs.com. It was a figure that represented the highest rate of his career. And yet it translated into a .250 batting average, three home runs and a modest .661 on-base plus slugging percentage.

So what was the problem? Other analytics suggested the answer. For one thing, the average velocity of the ball off Lagares’s bat, known as exit velocity, was 84.7 miles per hour in 2017, according to BaseballSavant.com. That was five miles per hour slower than the figure for Lagares in 2016. And it was more than two miles per hour slower than the average for all of baseball last season, according to MLB.com.

Then there was Lagares’s launch angle, which is the vertical angle at which a ball leaves a player’s bat. The rule of thumb is that any ball struck at less than 10 degrees is a ground ball, any ball between 10 and 25 degrees is a line drive and anything between 25 and 50 degrees is a fly ball.

In 2017, Lagares’s launch angle dropped from 12.3 degrees in 2016 to 8.5. And that figure was way below the average in baseball in 2017, which, according to MLB.com, was nearly 12 degrees.

Which meant Lagares may have been pulling the ball more last season, but too many of the balls he hit were bouncing in the infield, to little effect. Indeed, his ground-ball rate rose from about 42 percent in 2016 to nearly 51 percent last season, according to FanGraphs.com. His fly-ball rate dropped to a career-low 29 percent.

Lagares clearly was at a crossroads, unable to hit with nearly enough clout to compete for a regular spot in the lineup. At which point, he asked his agents for advice.

Those agents also happened to represent Raul Ibanez, a power-hitting outfielder who played for 19 seasons in the majors and hit 305 home runs.

Ibanez had used Wallenbrock as a hitting coach. And it was Wallenbrock, and Van Scoyoc, who helped Martinez turn into a .300 hitter with 30 home runs a year the past few seasons, and helped Taylor transform into a .288 hitter with 21 home runs last season as the center fielder for the Dodgers.

So Lagares spoke with Ibanez. Then, last month, Lagares flew to Southern California to spend a week hitting with Wallenbrock and Van Scoyoc. They filmed Lagares’s swing and dissected it. Lagares watched film of elite power hitters like Cespedes, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout.

“I watched all the power hitters and saw the little things they do that you don’t normally notice,” Lagares said. “You can learn from them and practice it.”

Growing up, Lagares said, he was taught to hit “on top of the ball,” but that led to too many ground balls. He said he now hoped to make harder contact on a more consistent basis. And, of course, to hit the ball in the air more.

To do so, Lagares said he was working on adjusting the angle of the bat path with his hands, and even tweaking how he used his legs in his swing. He said a challenge would be altering his approach on which pitches he should swing at.

Lagares said he stayed in touch with Mets teammates such as Wilmer Flores and Cespedes throughout the off-season so that he could get their input on his hitting drills. He said he might want to spend a week hitting with a former Mets teammate, Daniel Murphy, who transformed his approach at the plate to put more balls into the air and is now one of the best hitters in the National League as a member of the Washington Nationals.

As the off-season progresses, and Lagares continues to train in his native Dominican Republic or in Florida, he will send videos of his progress to Wallenbrock and Van Scoyoc. He cannot promise immediate changes in the results he produces, but he hopes the adjustments will help and lead to more playing time.

“It’s my first year doing this,” Lagares said. “I hope to have a good year. And it also depends on the opportunities I get. I can do all this, and if I don’t get the chances to play, I can’t do anything.”



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