Juan Lagares stood in the batter's box for his first at-bat of Monday night's game at Citi Field and watched the pitch as it whizzed by.
The Mets centerfielder recognized it as a sinker from Phillies starter A.J. Burnett. Hard with movement, it was timed at 93 mph. Lagares didn't swing. Strike one.
Three pitches later, Lagares belted a fastball that got too much of the plate for a two-run double to rightfield. The hit snapped an 0-for-17 stretch.
Instances like this one -- of Lagares taking a strike and waiting for a better pitch to hit -- have been rare since he returned from the disabled list June 26. The more Lagares has chased pitches out of the strike zone, the more his batting average has dropped. Lagares was hitting .295 on June 2. He is now batting .272.
Manager Terry Collins said after Monday's game that Lagares' hit was "huge for him and for the team . . . because we need him to do what he did in the first half." Before he went 1-for-3 in the Mets' 6-0 loss Tuesday night, Lagares explained why the first pitch of that at-bat was also critical.
Lagares isn't too interested in taking strikes. He never has been, he said. What he said he would like to change, however, is his habit of chasing balls out of the strike zone and swinging at pitches -- even ones that are strikes -- he knows he can't hit.
"Sometimes you swing at a pitch, you miss and think to yourself, 'Damn, I'm in trouble now.' But the problem is mostly the pitch," Lagares said. "There have been pitches I know I shouldn't be swinging at. It's hard. I don't want to be taking pitches that are strikes. I just don't want to be swinging at pitches out of the zone."
For Lagares, that's been far easier said than done.
Lagares, who sees only 3.80 pitches per plate appearance, has swung at pitches outside of the strike zone 37.4 percent of the time since his return, according to FanGraphs. That number is well above the league average of 30.7 percent. In comparison, Lagares swung at pitches outside of the strike zone 34.6 percent of the time before he landed on the disabled list on June 2.
Lagares also has swung at 51.3 percent of the pitches he's seen, which is an increase from when he swung at 44.7 percent. "When you try to do too much, you chase a lot," Lagares said.
After swinging at a first-pitch fastball and consequentially grounding out in his first at-bat Tuesday night, Lagares took the first pitch of his second at-bat for a strike. Two pitches later, he hit a single that ricocheted off Cole Hamels' leg.
"It's a long season," Lagares said, "and things you try to work on take time."
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