Join Jays From the Couch as we put a ribbon on Blue Jays’ super-prospect, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Double-A career
Last night, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. made his debut with the AAA Buffalo Bisons, picking up three walks and an RBI via sacrifice liner to left field. The Blue Jays’ franchise cornerstone now finds himself one step away from the majors. In order to mark the occasion, I wanted to take a quick look back on his season with AA New Hampshire and reflect on just how impressive a talent Vladdy Jr. appears to be.
This season, Vlad Jr. produced a 202 wRC+ over 266 plate appearances at the Double-A level. FanGraphs minor league data goes back to 2006. Over 12 full seasons, not one player in their age-19 season produced a higher wRC+ at Low-A or higher (minimum 51 PA). Coincidentally, the only player to come close was his once and future teammate Bo Bichette, who produced a 201 wRC+ with A Lansing last year. Vlad Jr. is also tops among 19-year-olds in AVG (.402), SLG (.671) and OPS (1.120), but could only muster the third best OBP (.447) among the group.
Impressively, it’s not one fundamental thing that makes Vlad’s performance at the plate special. This group of 19-year-olds is made up of 1059 player-seasons, with all but 30 occurring below AA. While Vlad’s walk rate is about average, his strikeout rate, ISO, and BABIP all rank in the top three percent. These three metrics are most predictive of future success, so his elite performances at all three corroborate the 80 hit grade he’s received.
His exploits are impressive even when compared to players of all ages. From 2006 to 2017, there were 18,156 player-level seasons from Low-A to AAA of 200+ PA. Vladdy Jr.’s 202 wRC+ ranks seventh. Again, Vlad’s ability to avoid strikeouts, hit for power and get on base shines through when compared to this large group of minor-leaguers, virtually all of whom are either older than him or playing at a lower level—13 players also saw 200+ PA at AA during their age-19 season, while two (Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies) did so at AAA. His strikeout rate is in the top five percent, while his ISO and BABIP are both in the top two percent.
At the Double-A level, only two recent prospects have performed as well as Vlad Jr.: Kris Bryant (220 wRC+, Age-22, 2014) and Giancarlo Stanton (204 wRC+, Age-20, 2010). Even compared to elite hitters, Vladdy’s advanced ability to avoid strikeouts really stands out. He produced a better AVG, thanks to that excellent K% and a very good BABIP, but lagged the other two in terms of power.
Extending the historical analysis further back is tricky, as minor league data is not easily accessible. However, thanks to Baseball Reference, I was able to check the Eastern League batting leaders going back to 1963, its first season as a AA league. To the best of my knowledge, only one Eastern Leaguer with more than 141 AB (Baseball Reference’s automatic criteria) was able to beat Vlad Jr.’s 1.120 OPS—a fella named Joe Pactwa (1.229), who did so in 1973.
I’d like to end with one point that’s not so historic but is quite relevant to Vlad’s future as a Blue Jay: his defence. Watching the Sportsnet special about him and his father (Namesake) reminded me that his favourite player growing up was Adrian Beltre. This fact supports an idea I had read recently (the source is slipping my mind) that the Blue Jays are giving Vlad a shot at third base at his insistence. Evaluators who’ve spent time watching Vlad at third tend to be pessimistic about his chances of sticking at third, especially due to the assumption that his already bulky frame will only get bigger. That said, the numbers do show that Vlad has made steps forward as a defensive third baseman.
Clay Davenport provides data on virtually all baseball players in North America. Back in 2016, with Rookie-ball Bluefield, Vlad was worth -1 defensive runs over 50 games at 3B. Last season, with Low-A Lansing, Vlad was below-average again, producing -4 defensive runs over 60 games. After his promotion to High-A Dunedin, Vlad improved, producing +1 defensive runs over 41 games. This season, with AA New Hampshire, Vlad Jr.’s 3B defence has improved even more. Over 52 games at the hot corner, Vlad was worth +6 defensive runs, ranking third in the Eastern League at his position.
Now, Davenport’s defensive statistic is just one data point. Nevertheless, it speaks to improvements made by Guerrero as he’s progressed through the minors. While we all understand that service time is the key reason why we won’t see Vlad in Toronto until 2019, maybe the front office is being honest when they speak about wanting Vlad to develop his non-hitting skills further before he gets to the majors. Both reasons can be right at the same time.
If both team and player believe in Vlad’s ability to stick at third base, at least for the first half of his career, allowing him to develop those skills in the upper minors makes sense to me. Importantly, there is a lot of value in seeing what Vlad can do at third. After all, an average fielding third baseman is worth about 1.5 more WAR per season than an average fielding first baseman (that gap can be applied to any 3B and 1B who rank roughly the same in terms of fielding quality within their position).
All in all, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has had a truly historic 2018 season. His performance at the plate is the best by a 19-year-old, regardless of level, since 2006. It is one of the best performances by a minor leaguer of any age and at any level, since 2006. It is the second-best performance by any Eastern Leaguer in terms of OPS, since 1963.
While his fielding at third hasn’t been historic, Vlad has shown meaningful improvements. It seems all but certain that he will be manning the hot corner at the Rogers Centre at some point early next season and may even stick there longer than most expect. Until then, I’m looking forward to seeing his development continue at AAA Buffalo. If I’m lucky, he’ll be in the lineup on August 25th, when I’ll be sitting along the third base line at Coca-Cola Field.
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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.