Breathe easy, Blue Jays fans, Bo Bichette is doing fine

Jays From the Couch takes a close look at the 2018 season for the Blue Jays’ other top prospect

 

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As the Blue Jays transition from the veteran-laden contender of 2015-16 to the youthful contender of the 2020’s, many Blue Jays fans (myself very much included) are learning the details of prospect development on the fly. Watching the Jays system develop has been a fun and exciting process that has made the troubles at the MLB level over the last two seasons a lot easier to deal with.

 

Just like a prospect’s development can hit some bumps along the way, so can the development of a fan’s understanding of prospect development. One particular example is the perception of Bo Bichette‘s 2018 season. Many fans view him no differently than they did before the season started—a prospect whose bat and fielding skills should allow him to carve out a career as a well above-average major leaguer with a few all-star appearances.

 

But others have perceived his performance at AA New Hampshire as “below expectations”, while some have gone so far as to question the high hit and power grades he continues to receive. This post is an attempt to ease this group’s concerns.

 

First off, I think that Vlad’s unreal season has contributed to the perception that Bo has underperformed, which isn’t fair to Bo. Vlad’s season is virtually unprecedented. His OPS at the Double-A level Eastern League was the 2nd highest in its 54 year history. A young player can have a season much less productive than Vlad’s and still be a very, very good prospect.

 

Now, I’m a numbers guy, so I defer to the experts when it comes to evaluating prospects with one’s own eyes. The consensus seems to be that Bo struggled early on—a propensity to expand his strike zone, combined with more advanced pitchers capable of throwing around the edges of the strike zone, led him to swing at more less-than-ideal pitches than usual—but has made the necessary adjustments. This process of responding to struggles by making adjustments is what prospect development is all about.

 

Bo’s numbers reflect this process well. He started the season solidly enough, then dipped into a funk in mid-May. He had an even better stretch from late May into June, but struggled again (though much less so). Over the last couple of weeks, he’s been hot, producing the kind of ridiculous numbers he did in the Gulf Coast and Midwest Leagues.

 

 

Aside from his terrible run in mid-May, he’s kept his strikeout rate under 20% and his ISO above the league average (often well-above). One thing that should jump out from the table is the correlation between his wRC+ and BABIP. While better hitters will produce a higher BABIP, they do not have much control over their BABIP in the short-run. Those fluctuations in his BABIP, which have a lot of influence on his wRC+, are mostly out of his control.

 

Over the 405 PA on either side of his terrible mid-May stretch, Bo has produced some very impressive Double-A performances. His walk and strikeout rates are similar to his 2017 marks. Ditto for his power. And, in spite of a big fall in BABIP, his wRC+ remains very strong.

 

When interpreting Bichette’s 2018 performance, proper perspective is a must. For instance, 441 batters have had at least 100 PA at the Double-A level this season. Three of these are in their age-19 season, while four (including Bo) are in their age-20 season. The takeaway: being a 20 year old Double-A player is remarkable in its own right.

 

Yet, Bo is not simply a 20 year old Double-A player. He’s an above-average hitter, for one thing. 222 batters have had 250+ PA at the level this season. Bo’s wRC+ ranks in the 68th percentile among them, in spite of the fact that 99% of his fellow AA hitters are older than him. Most notably, he is posting a much better-than-average strikeout rate (77th percentile) and ISO (75th percentile), alongside a solid BABIP (58th percentile). Only his walk rate is a little underwhelming (33rd percentile).

 

Let’s focus on the aforementioned group of seven AA batters in their age-19 or -20 season. Each are expected to be solid major-league hitters, either by way of contact or power. Bo leads the 20 year olds in wRC+, with only the 19 year old wunderkind Juniors ahead of him.

 

 

Bo also compares favourably to 20 year old minor-leaguers from the recent past. From 2006 to 2017, players in their age-20 season accumulated 966,689 PA across the minor leagues. Only 3.5% of these occurred at the Double-A level (1.6% occurred at AAA). Again, being a 20 year old Double-A player is impressive on its own.

 

During those 12 seasons, 31 batters cracked 400 PA, like Bo has. While Bo’s wRC+ ranks only 15th on the list (tied with Anthony Rizzo), his uniqueness really jumps out when we focus on his ability to avoid strikeouts while generating serious power. Case in point: since 2006, only one Double-A batter, who cracked 400 PA in their age-20 season, has posted a better K% and ISO than Bo has so far (Oscar Taveras).

 

Finally, let’s turn to Steamer’s major-league projections, which highlight two important points. One, Bo’s stock has continued to rise in 2018, on an objective basis. Prior to the season, Steamer projected Bo to be a 77 wRC+ hitter in the major leagues this season (if he played in the majors). His Double-A performance as a 20 year old has been impressive enough that his current projected big-league wRC+ is now up to 94.

 

Two, Bo’s stock is quite high. His current Steamer projection is better than all but the three best prospects in baseball: Juan Soto (138 wRC+), Vlad Jr. (125) and Ronald Acuna (103).

 

Importantly, Bo has shown how multi-dimensional his talent is. The big question mark for him was whether he’d stick at shortstop or have to move to second or third base eventually. That question is still a ways from being answered, but the fact is that he has produced league-average defence at shortstop this season (0 defensive runs above average, according to Clay Davenport). This jibes with the reports I’ve read from evaluators who have almost universally grown more optimistic about his ability to stay at short.

 

Moreover, his base running metrics suggest that his mediocre run grade might need to be re-evaluated. His speed score (8.0 Spd) is tied for fourth among all batters with 250+ PA at Double-A this season, while he ranks twelfth in weighted stolen base runs (2.2 wSB). In plainer terms, he’s fifth in stolen bases (28) and has an above-average stolen base success rate (78% vs. a level-average of 70%).

 

All in all, Bo Bichette’s season at Double-A meets expectations for a top prospect two steps from the majors at 20 years old. He’s had his ups and downs and ups and downs and ups, as you’d expect for a prospect who’s been given a challenging assignment. Nevertheless, statistical models and prospect evaluators continue to believe in Bo’s ability to be a big-league hitter in the not-too-distant future.

 

 

 

*Featured Image Credit: DaveMe Images

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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.

Jeff Quattrociocchi

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.