Blue Jays top prospect, Vlad Jr, is making great defensive strides, which only adds to his incredibly high ceiling
On Monday afternoon, I was scrolling through my Twitter timeline when I came across this:
#BlueJays Vlad Jr. just made the earth shake at 3B. He dove to his right, picked up the ball and made a beautiful throw to first base. It was a play that can change the minds of people who doubt he can play defense. He's not great, but better than many think-and quicker.
— Bernie Pleskoff (@BerniePleskoff) October 29, 2018
A few minutes later, MLB Pipeline tweeted video evidence of the play:
Defensive wizard Vladimir Guerrero Jr., ladies and gentlemen!
Now if the #BlueJays 3B prospect could just hit a little.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) October 29, 2018
This excellent play reminded me of the “Vlad Jr. is a better defender at third than he’s given credit for” post that’s been sitting on my to-do list. I totally understand the urge to look ahead to his likely suitability for the position. But I also feel strongly that Vlad will be the one to determine the position he’ll play as a major-leaguer. Based on the work ethic I’ve seen him display, I wouldn’t bet against him sticking at third throughout his twenties.
There is a decent body of evidence supporting the idea that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has improved his third base defence a great deal. Minor-league fielding data is a lot more limited than at the MLB level, but Clay Davenport and Baseball Prospectus each provide a fielding runs above average (FRAA) statistic for minor-leaguers.
Both sources do suggest that Vlad struggled at third base to start his pro career, to be expected given his lack of experience at the position before joining the Jays. Vlad spent the entire 2016 season playing with the Bluefield in the Advanced Rookie-level Appy League. In 50 games at 3B, BP gave Vlad Jr.’s defence a -10.7 FRAA, while Davenport gave his defence a -1 FRAA.
In 2017, Vlad started the season at Low-A Lansing, in the Midwest League. In 61 games at 3B, Vlad’s defence was graded below-average by both sources—he produced a -2.6 mark by way of BP’s FRAA and a -4 mark by way of Davenport’s metric. However, both metrics point to an improvement after Vlad’s promotion to High-A Dunedin in the Florida State League. Over 41 games at 3B, Vlad produced FRAA of -1.5 (BP) and 1 (Davenport).
After the 2017 regular season ended, Vlad Jr. seemed to take another step forward. First, he played in the 2017-18 Dominican Winter League. Competing against players much older than him, Vlad fielded well enough at third to produce 3 FRAA (Davenport). Then, he started the 2018 season with AA New Hampshire of the Eastern League. In 53 games at 3B, Vlad produced above-average marks of 1.0 (BP) and 4 (Davenport). He then played 25 games at the hot corner for AAA Buffalo in the International League, producing impressive marks—4.3 (BP) and 4 (Davenport)—in a pretty short amount of time.
This steady progress in his 3B defence is also evident in the way MLB Pipeline has described his fielding since his rookie season in 2016. In the fall of that year, Pipeline assigned his arm a grade of 45 and his fielding a grade of 40, noting that he “lacks the range and arm strength for the position, and some scouts believe he’ll have to move to first base in the future”.
After the 2017 season, Pipeline increased his arm grade to 55 and his fielding grade to 45, where it stands today. Now, Pipeline notes that “Guerrero shows glimpses of becoming a passable defender there in spite of having below-average speed and range. His arm strength has developed into another above-average tool since signing.”
His arm is certainly key to his 3B defence—FanGraphs gives his arm a current and future grade of 60, compared to grades of 40/45 for his fielding. After seeing him play in mid-April 2018, Jeffrey Paternostro of BP gave his glove a future grade of 40 and his arm a future grade of 70.
Another likely factor is his natural baseball IQ, which would intuitively help him with things like timing and processing the play in front of him. It obviously helps his offence a lot, particularly shining through his elite plate discipline and better-than-you’d-expect base running—Pipeline increased the run grade they assigned him from 35 (2016) to 45.
The data suggests that, at the moment, if you put all components of his defence together (to the most accurate extent currently possible at the MiLB level) he is an above-average defender. Setting aside what will happen in the future, it’s important to give him credit for improving his 3B defence as much as he has. And, when looking ahead, it’s important to acknowledge his work ethic and determination, two traits that could help him stick at the hot corner for the foreseeable future.
The best part is, even if my hunch is completely wrong, the Blue Jays are still expected to have an MVP-calibre player on board. As Paternostro notes, Vlad Jr. has “elite potential even at the lowest end of the defensive spectrum.”
Featured Image Provided By 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.