Jays From the Couch shows that the Toronto Blue Jays’ Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr rank among the best in history for their age
Over the last decade, Blue Jays fans have developed a high level of cynicism when it comes to our top position player prospects. Players like Travis Snider, J.P. Arencibia, Anthony Gose, Travis D’Arnaud, Jake Marisnick and Adam Lind each appeared in the Top 3 of Baseball America’s annual Jays’ top prospects list. While each eventually found their way to the majors (if not necessarily with the Blue Jays), none of them have been able to consistently produce at the level of “solid MLB regular” (2-3 WAR per season).
Arencibia retired from baseball this past winter, while Snider hasn’t played in the majors since 2015. Gose has shifted from outfielder to pitcher (and, unfortunately, is already dealing with elbow issues). D’Arnaud and Marisnick, both traded in the 2012 blockbusters, have seen semi-regular playing time since 2013, but have struggled with consistency. Of the bunch, Adam Lind spent the most time with the Blue Jays and had a great 2009 season. But he too struggled with consistency, producing 1.1 WAR per 162 games with the Jays.
These experiences have made Jays fans justifiably cautious about getting excited when it comes to position prospects. However, the constant chatter about Bo Bichette and Vlad Guerrero Jr. has started to turn Jays fans into optimists. Well, let me add to your optimism: Bo and Vlad Jr. are two of the most productive teenagers in recent MiLB history.
[First, some statistical context. When comparing minor league performances, it is vital to control for park and league factors. There is a much higher level of variation in these factors than in the majors, so using a statistic like wRC+ is important, as it allows for apples to apples comparison. As Fangraphs only keeps minor league data going back to 2006, I will focus only on the 12 seasons since then.]
Bo and Vlad Jr. each burst onto the scene in 2016 at the rookie-ball level. While Vlad Jr. got in a full season (276 PA) at Bluefield in the Appalachian League, Bo was only able to get 91 PA in for the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays (he was drafted in June and then famously dealt with appendicitis). Nevertheless, each made a significant impact:
In his limited plate appearances, Bo produced a 238 wRC+ (!), the single highest wRC+ at the rookie-ball level in Fangraphs entire data set (among those with 75+ PA).
Vladdy Jr.’s accomplishment was based upon a combination of quality and quantity that is very rare for a 17-year old. Among batters aged 17 and under, his 122 wRC+ ranks 4th since 2006 (250+ PA).
That said, it is their 2017 performances that have sent them towards the top of MLB prospect lists, mainly because exceptional performances at the A/A+ levels are rare for teenagers. The average age in A-ball is about 21.5, while at High-A the average age is 23. The average players at these levels have much more experience than Bo and Vlad Jr. and are also much more physically developed.
While these performances have been lauded, it is only through the right historical context that we can see just how extraordinary the two have been.
Let’s start with their pre-promotion performances in A-ball:
Bo followed up his record-setting (but small sample) performance in rookie-ball with the single most productive season of A-ball since 2006 (among those with 250+ PA). Not for a teenager. For anyone. If we focus only on batters under-20 years old, Bo’s 201 wRC+ is the highest for any teen with 17+ PA.
Vlad Jr.’s A-ball performance was similarly impressive. His 151 wRC+ ranks fourth among 18-year olds, behind franchise names like Trout, Stanton and Harper, while ahead of similarly franchise-level names like Freeman and Correa. As a fan of plate discipline, I’m most taken aback by his BB/K. It is comfortably the best among this group of 18-year old batters and underlines just how advanced his plate approach is.
The most impressive thing about these two is their consistency. They mashed in rookie-ball. Then, they mashed in A-ball. So far, they’re mashing in High-A as well.
Among 19-year olds in High-A, Bo has produced the fifth highest wRC+ since 2006 (among those with 100+ PA). If his power wasn’t being held back by what looks like bad luck (his HR/FB is only 3.7% vs. 12.7% in A-ball), he might be even higher up the list—a list that includes far more very good major leaguers (Stanton, Upton, Heyward, Correa, Bogaerts) than busted prospects (Montero). Given his much lower level of plate appearances, it will be interesting to see if Bo can maintain this level of production in the final stretch of the season.
At the High-A level, Vlad Jr.’s performance has been even more extraordinary than Bo’s. 101 plate appearances in, Vlad Jr. has produced the (far and away) highest wRC+ among 18-year olds at this level. Among all 18- and 19-year olds, Vlad Jr.’s wRC+ is sixth highest. A wRC+ of 89 over his next 132 PA would still leave him tied with Mike Trout for tops among 18-year olds at High-A.
Another point of note is the asterisk above: only 15 batters have cracked 100 PA at High-A in their age-18 season. Yet another point of note: he has improved upon his previously stellar BB/K so far. His 1.36 BB/K is easily the highest among all teenagers with 100+ PA at High-A since 2006.
Much has been written about these two amazing, young talents. At the same time, a team always has some talented prospects to get excited about. Over the last decade, the Jays have had a few such position prospects, with little to show for it in terms of high-quality major leaguers. This has led to some uncertainty as to just how amazing Bo and Vladdy Jr. are.
As my analysis suggests, we should probably get even more excited than we already are. These two are producing at a level that few other teens have in the recent past. Their performances thus far are not in a class with Snider, Gose and Arencibia, but in a class with Trout, Stanton and Correa. Obviously, there are no guarantees in baseball, even among the very best prospects. But, let’s be clear, that is the level that Bo and Vlad Jr. belong in: the very best prospects in all of baseball.
*Featured Image Credit: C Stem- JFtC
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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.