Jays From the Couch compares Vlad Jr & Bo Bichette to another highly touted Blue Jays prospect- Travis Snider
A few weeks back, Dave Church over at BP Toronto wrote a personal post about his lingering disappointment over Travis Snider and the effect it has had on his enthusiasm for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. That disappointment is shared among all Jays fans who bought the hype—Baseball America ranked Snider as the 11th best prospect in baseball in 2007, moving him up to 6th in 2008. Dave concluded his post by highlighting the importance of trying to move on and opening oneself to the optimism that new prospects bring to a fan base that has been starved of an elite home-grown position player since Vernon Wells and Carlos Delgado.
I’m a Vlad and Bo optimist, because the data says they’re special prospects, so I was curious whether the data was similarly as bullish on Travis Snider at the same stage of development. This post hopes to build on Dave’s by digging into some important differences between Vlad and Bo, on the one hand, and Snider, on the other.
The first difference is the simplest one: I think it’s fair to say that the current front office has a stronger appreciation of and commitment to player development than was the case under J.P. Ricciardi. Doug from Future Blue Jays succinctly captured this in a comment to Dave’s post: “There is a whole department overseeing Bo and Vladdy’s competitive, emotional, and physical development.”
The relative lack of this development infrastructure meant that Snider’s MLB potential had a wider margin of error than Vlad or Bo’s does. That’s not to say that we can say for certain that both will become MLB superstars. However, nothing about their development will be left to chance, which gives them a massive leg up over Snider.
A look at the rookie ball, Low-A and High-A performances of Vlad, Bo and Snider highlights another key difference: strikeouts. Let’s start with their experience at rookie ball. Overall, they were each well above-average offensive producers (wRC+), particularly in terms of power (ISO). Vlad showed off his excellent plate discipline (K%, BB% and BB/K) and Bo showed off his exceptional contact ability (BABIP). Snider produced an excellent BABIP and managed a decent BB/K thanks to his strong walk rate. However, his worse-than-average K% was a harbinger of doom.
At Low-A, Vlad and Bo began to really show just how good they are. They both produced some of the best wRC+ marks at their level last season and better-than-average marks in terms of K%, BB%, BB/K, BABIP and ISO. As they did in rookie ball, Vlad showed off his exceptional plate discipline, while Bo showed off his exceptional power and contact skills.
Snider’s excellent wRC+ was once again driven by his exceptional power and ability to get base hits. However, his plate discipline issues got worse. His strikeout rate jumped from 20.8% to 25% and fell from just below-average to well below-average. And, while his walk rate remained above-average, it experienced a notable dip. The result was a now below average walk-to-strikeout ratio.
In Snider’s short time at High-A, at the start of the 2008 season, his strikeout rate ballooned to 33.3%, one of the worst marks at the level in 2008. Similarly, his walk rate worsened a bit more (to 7.6%), dipping below-average. Now, his plate discipline was an issue in terms of both his strikeout and walk rates. Those two marks combined for a 0.23 BB/K, which put him in the 14th percentile at his level. However, his power (.279 ISO) and ability to turn balls in play into base hits (.371 BABIP) allowed him to continue to produce a high level of overall production (149 wRC+).
In contrast, Vlad and Bo improved their plate discipline after their mid-season promotion to High-A. Vlad’s gains came from an even higher walk rate, while Bo was able to get his strikeout rate down a bit more. While Snider generated more impressive production with his bat (BABIP and ISO) at the level, Vlad and Bo were no slouches—each produced a BABIP that was very strong and an ISO that was above-average.
Importantly, there was a notable age difference during each player’s time at High-A—while Snider was in his age-20 season (roughly three years younger than the average player), Bo was only in his age-19 season (roughly four years younger than average) and Vlad was five years younger than average (in his age-18 season). For what it’s worth, Snider was relatively fresh during his time at High-A, as that stretch occurred at the start of his third minor-league season. On the other hand, Vlad and Bo played in High-A in the second half of their second minor-league season (and first go at full-season baseball).
Snider’s short time at High-A points to a third key difference between the three Blue Jay prospects: patience. I feel like a thoughtful front office would have allowed Snider to remain at High-A until the all-star break. His sky-high strikeout rate indicated that he hadn’t yet conquered the level. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins would probably agree. They have made it very clear that Vlad and Bo will determine how quickly they will rise up the minor-league ladder. Reading between the lines, it seems that they have no intention to rush their young golden tickets. As the two show they have dominated a level, they will be promoted, until they are finally playing in Toronto.
Doug from Future Blue Jays concurs. In particular, he argues that “J.P. was stung by criticism of how he could only draft high floor/low ceiling/highly signable college guys, and felt the need to rush Snider to prove that wrong.” Unlike Ricciardi, “this management group won’t make that same mistake…[Vlad and Bo] will arrive in MLB when they’re ready, and not a day before.”
After flashing extraordinary power in High-A, Snider was promoted to AA in mid-April, where he spent most of his 2008 season. While his strikeout rate continued to be worryingly high, he posted above-average BB%, BABIP and ISO. Overall, his production was well above-average. His tantalizing potential was evident. This earned him a promotion to AAA in early August.
His improved AA walk rate regressed back to the single digits in AAA, sending his BB/K plummeting. While his high BABIP powered him to a strong overall level of production, a worrying sign emerged. With his poor plate discipline, Snider needed to maintain an exceptional level of power to be an elite hitter (or, of course, improve his plate discipline). Unfortunately, at AAA, his typically exceptional power regressed to just above-average.
Nevertheless, he found his way to Toronto in September 2008 and once again produced an overall level of production that was better than the average batter at his level. But, like in AAA, his strong wRC+ was primarily driven by a .400 BABIP, an unsustainable mark in the majors. His power was above-average and certainly impressive for a 20 year old, but his plate discipline was once more amongst the league’s worst.
For added context, we can compare his short debut in the majors with those of other 20 year old (or teenage) rookies. Again, there’s a lot to like, in particular his well above-average power. But that strikeout rate was massive and his BB/K was well below-average for his peer group.
Snider ended up with 1,971 plate appearances in the majors, far more than any of us ever will. But his early potential meant that he would be measured against the very best baseball players in the world. Unfortunately, in that context, he came up short. His slightly above-average ability to walk, turn contact into base hits and generate power meant that he wasn’t a terrible producer, overall. However, his abysmal strikeout rate meant that he could never become the elite hitting talent that Jays fans dreamed he’d become.
My confidence in Vlad and Bo stems from their balanced strengths at the plate. Unlike Snider, they have shown themselves to be better-than-average in terms of plate discipline, contact ability and power. Plus, they have done all of this at a younger age than Snider. When they are compared to other teenagers who have played in the minors over the last decade, they rise to the very top.
Let’s finish off with a couple of key points. First off, even the best prospects, with the best development system and tons of resources around them, have a margin of error. Anything can happen. That said, there are very good players in the majors, which suggests that some prospects do pan out. In general, I think it’s best to approach prospects with a measured level of optimism. With prospects like Vlad and Bo, however, the appropriate and measured level of optimism is a lot of optimism.
Finally, while I’m super excited to see the boys in Toronto blue, I’m perfectly fine with that happening a year or so from now (or whenever they happen to be ready for the show). As our own Ryan Mueller outlined, there’s no reason to rush them. Indeed, the key takeaway of my post is the same as Ryan’s: they are both best served by a methodical path to the majors. Fortunately, we now have a front office that knows what it’s doing, so I’m confident that (unlike poor Travis) Vlad and Bo will be given an appropriate amount of time to develop into the superstars we hope they’ll become.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.