The Blue Jays plan on moving Vlad Jr to first base sooner than we thought, a decision that takes a lot into account
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.‘s position has been a topic of discussion among Blue Jays fans since he was signed back in 2015. Prior to his signing, Vlad was primarily an outfielder, but he’s been viewed as a third baseman by the organization since the ink dried. While his arm meant that third was a legitimate option, his large size meant that there was a strong chance he would eventually take on more of a first base/designated hitter role.
As a result, Friday’s news that Vladdy would predominantly play 1B/DH during the 2020 season was the kind of story that was simultaneously surprising and not surprising.
[Before I continue talking about this interesting but relatively unimportant topic, I’d like to express my feelings about the planned 2020 season occurring amidst the still very much ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I haven’t written a post about the Blue Jays since early March, not because I have consciously chosen not to, but because I just haven’t had the inspiration to write anything about sports. I write when some Jays-related topic starts rattling around my head and has to be let out, so when the Jays are far from my mind, I don’t feel much motivation to write about them. My daily statistics focus has shifted away from WAR, wRC+, FIP and xwOBA towards much more unfortunate and existential numbers. With regards to the 2020 MLB season, I think the Nationals’ Sean Doolittle captured my sentiment well: “Sports are like a reward for a functioning society”.
Three of the four major European soccer leagues (Germany, Italy and Spain) restarted their seasons at a point at which their seven-day average of daily cases per million was below 10. There was an average of 19 daily cases per million in the United Kingdom when its primary soccer league, the English Premier League, restarted its season. In each of the four countries, testing was abundant enough that the trailing seven-day positive test rate was below 2%. Reasonable people could justifiably argue that sports of any kind during a pandemic are an unnecessary risk and use of scarce resources. Reasonable people could also justifiably argue that a well-planned restart in a country with a very low positive test rate may generate enough social benefits to be worth the risk. I have gone back and forth between these two views myself and honestly still don’t really know where I stand on the matter.
Canada is now averaging roughly 8 daily cases per million and has a positive test rate of 0.8%. Ontario, home of the Toronto Blue Jays and the second-most affected Canadian province after Quebec, is averaging roughly 9 daily cases per million and has a 0.6% positive test rate. These are numbers that fit in very well with those of the aforementioned group of European countries. Reasonable people could justifiably argue that Canada is now at a point where the benefits of a pro sports restart *might* outweigh the risks. That the NHL has planned to finish its season entirely in Canada makes a lot of sense.
The United States of America is currently averaging 176 daily cases per million and has a positive test rate of 8.2%, 22 times the per capita cases of Canada and ten times Canada’s rate of positive tests. These rates have been increasing for nearly one month and show no signs of plateauing, let alone decreasing, any time soon. In this environment of increasing cases, inadequate testing levels and test results that can take many days to process, the idea that sports teams are testing their players regularly and getting results within 24-48 hours feels gross. That said, the underlying issue seems less that sports leagues are “taking” tests from the public, but rather that the US federal government has failed to build a national testing system that could provide enough tests to the public (one of its many failures during the pandemic).
Like the NHL, the NBA has opted for a bubble approach, in their case at Disney World. While this approach, like any sports restart approach right now, is far from perfect, playing in a relatively contained area at least *appears* to make it less likely that a restart will contribute to increased cases in the US. Hopefully, both the NBA and the NHL seasons proceed as smoothly as the European soccer leagues have.
In contrast, I feel that the MLB approach of playing in empty stadiums across North America is even more problematic than the imperfect bubble approach. To the best of my knowledge, when teams are playing at home, players will essentially live like the rest of us: motivated to obey best practices, but ultimately living amongst the public. While we all hope that the resulting interactions between the players and the public do not increase either group’s probability of catching the virus, none of us should feel too confident that this will hold true.
Ultimately, it just doesn’t feel like American society has earned the “reward” of sports yet. There is still a great deal of hard work ahead before it can arrive at the still-uncertain-and-not-completely-safe situations that the societies of Canada and the aforementioned European countries now find themselves in. Moreover, it feels like the plans of Major League Baseball, in particular, could contribute negatively to America’s COVID-19 condition. The clouds over the upcoming 2020 MLB season are dark and clear to all, yet it’s also clear that MLB intends to go forward. As a result, those of us who love baseball can only hope that our worries are overstated and that things will progress smoothly, not just in relation to player health but also with respect to the health of the general public.
Before I get back to the post, there’s another more-important-than-sports idea I would like to state: Black Lives Matter.]
I’ve always felt that it made sense to be patient with Vlad in his development as a third baseman. He was young and new to the position, so there was a reasonable chance that he could develop into an average-or-better defender at the hot corner. Plus, it made sense in a more general context, given the higher value of a third baseman relative to a first baseman — if Vlad could stick at third, a player with limited defensive quality but a big bat (maybe, hopefully Rowdy Tellez) could be slotted in at first.
As a minor leaguer, Vlad did in fact show improvement as a third baseman. According to Clay Davenport’s essential MiLB fielding data, Vlad was below-average in early 2017 with Low-A Lansing (-4 Fielding Runs Above Average), average in late 2017 with High-A Dunedin (1 FRAA) and above-average in 2018 between Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo (8 FRAA). This progress made me hopeful that he would hold his own in the majors at a premium position.
Vlad’s 2019 season, however, was a strange one. On the one hand, he played 123 big league games in his age-20 season, something only eleven players have done since 1995, and was a slightly-above-average hitter (105 wRC+) to boot. On the other hand, given his top-prospect status and the impressive recent debuts of Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr., Jays fans were left more than a little wanting, evidenced most clearly by his near-replacement level production overall (0.4 fWAR). While we understood that the vast majority of great players aren’t great immediately, we all really hoped that would be the case with our man Vlad.
There was also the specific case of his third base defence. The various defensive metrics don’t always agree on a player’s defensive performance, but they did in Vlad’s case — he produced -9 DRS (third-lowest among MLB third basemen), -9.4 UZR (lowest) and -16 OAA (lowest). That said, he was a big league rookie, so there was hope for more defensive development.
Now, while the team has said that Vlad will probably still get reps at third going forward, his primary role will be 1B/DH. While I was hopeful he could achieve his goal of being an effective MLB third baseman and still feel that further development could make that possible, I also understand the choice Vlad and the team have made.
Let’s start with the players around Vlad. Last season, Vlad was manning third base, Bo Bichette shortstop and Cavan Biggio second base. There wasn’t a veteran third baseman on the roster more deserving of regular playing time instead of him and there weren’t any prospects pressuring Vlad from below.
However, over the last number of months, circumstances have changed. The opportunity to sign Travis Shaw to a one-year, $4 million deal was too good to pass up. Sure, Shaw’s performance was poor last season (47 wRC+, -0.8 fWAR), but one’s baseline expectation of his 2020 performance shouldn’t be anywhere near those numbers — the various FanGraphs projections have him hitting just above the league average and producing roughly one win above replacement. He’s also arbitration-eligible in 2021, so if he performs well this season, the Jays can bring him back at an affordable price for another season. Shaw is also a strong defender at third, having produced 11 DRS there over his career (3508.2 innings). He was even an NL Gold Glove finalist in 2018.
The other major infield addition is Austin Martin, the fifth-overall pick of the 2020 MLB Draft and arguable second-best prospect taken (based on evaluator rankings and signing bonuses). While Martin was drafted as a shortstop, that won’t necessarily be his primary position when he arrives in the majors, a very similar story to Jordan Groshans, the twelfth-overall pick of the 2018 MLB Draft. These two clearly have the talent to be effective major leaguers, with both ranking in the top half of Baseball America’s updated Top 100 prospects list (Martin is ranked 16th, Groshans is ranked 31st).
Regardless at which position these prospects end up, their eventual presence in the majors will, at the very least, increase the probability that Vlad is eventually moved off of third base. And, while it may seem like that time is well into the future, both Martin (March 23rd) and Groshans (November 10th) were born in 1999, like Vlad (March 16th), with the caveat being Vlad’s unusually extensive professional experience for a 21 year old. If Vlad is only going to be playing third base for another couple of seasons, and those seasons will either see him make modest defensive improvements or continue to struggle, the team might as well use a short-term option like Shaw instead.
Interestingly, both Martin and Groshans were added to the Blue Jays’ 60 man player pool for the 2020 season. Based on my understanding of the 2020 rules, my strong assumption is that this was the only way for either prospect to get regular reps this year, given the lack of MiLB season. It is extremely unlikely that either will break camp with the team and only slightly more likely that either will be called up at some point later on. But they are there right now, amongst the major leaguers.
It’s also useful to think of the various trade-offs that exist between employing Vlad at third vs. first base. One question that we won’t be able to answer until the games start is whether Vlad is a better first baseman (relative to MLB first basemen) or third baseman (relative to MLB third basemen).
An average third baseman is “worth” 12–15 more runs per season than an average first baseman. Let’s say that Vlad is truly fifteen defensive runs worse than the average third baseman (based on his 2019 DRS and UZR pro-rated to 150 games). If it turns out that his true talent as a first baseman is between three to zero runs worse than the average first baseman, Vlad’s improvement after going from third base to first will have completely made up for his move to an inferior position. It remains to be seen, however, just how effective a first baseman Vlad can be.
For the time being, this is a positional swap between Shaw and Vlad, so it’s also worth considering Shaw’s relative effectiveness at the two positions. Based on his career DRS and UZR at the two positions, Shaw has produced eight to ten defensive runs above average per season at first and two to four defensive runs above average at third (bear in mind that his sample size at first is only 825 innings). For simplicity’s sake, let’s take the average and go with nine and three defensive runs above average at first and third base for Shaw.
These numbers suggest that the original combination of Shaw at 1B and Vlad at 3B would be expected to produce roughly six defensive runs below average (Shaw’s nine runs above average plus Vlad’s fifteen runs below average). A reversed combo of Vlad at 1B and Shaw at 3B would generate more defensive value so long as Vlad was no worse than nine defensive runs below average over a full season at first.
While we have no clue how effective Vlad’s first base defence will be, we can take an educated guess. From 2010 to 2019, 14 major leaguers played at least a half-season worth of innings (729) at both first base and third base, while posting below-average DRS and UZR marks at third base. On average, pro-rated over the course of a full season, these fielders produced an extra eight DRS and an extra five UZR at first base relative to third base. If Vlad experienced that sort of improvement in positional DRS/UZR after moving to first base, the Vlad at 1B/Shaw at 3B combo would be expected to produce roughly the same value as the Shaw at 1B/Vlad at 3B combo — around four to seven defensive runs below average (Shaw’s roughly three runs above average plus Vlad’s seven to ten runs below average).
Finally, there is the question of whether Vlad’s efforts to develop as a third baseman hindered his hitting last season. If it did, then that would certainly be an argument in favour of moving him to first baseman, as his hitting is his primary weapon. Unfortunately, it’s a very tough question to answer. Nevertheless, I thought I’d try, though I’d like you to take out the biggest grain of salt you can find before reading on.
Miguel Cabrera has long been a hopeful, but reasonable comp for Vlad. Cabrera originally played third, but produced a steady stream of below-average (often, well below-average) defensive seasons. Over time, he played more and more games at first base/designated hitter. The one constant was his impressive hitting ability (146 career wRC+).
Cabrera is unique, as he is the only player since 1995 to play 1000-plus innings at third base in a season and then follow it up with 1000-plus innings at first base the next season. Oddly enough, he did it twice. In 2007, his last year with the Marlins, Cabrera was a starting third baseman (1310.2 innings) and posted a 142 wRC+. The next season, his first with the Tigers, Cabrera primarily played first base (1204 innings) and posted a 129 wRC+. He remained at first for a few seasons, before the Tigers moved him back to third in 2012. In 2013, his last season starting at third base (1234.2 innings), Cabrera dominated at the plate, producing a 193 wRC+ and winning a second consecutive AL MVP award. In 2014, back at first base full-time (1083.1 innings), Miggy could only muster a 148 wRC+.
What are the main takeaways from Miggy’s career with respect to Vlad? Well, the more speculative takeaway is that moving from third base to first base makes elite hitters less productive. Given the sample size of one (or two, if you count the 2007-08 and 2013-14 Cabreras separately), I would be wary of drawing that conclusion. Perhaps the more important takeaway is that Cabrera produced a 106 wRC+ during his 2003 rookie season, at the age of 20, very similarly to Vlad. Over the next 13 seasons, Cabrera produced a 155 wRC+. Only time will tell if Vlad can also match Cabrera in that regard.
It’s also the case that, more generally, only time will tell if this move across the diamond was a positive one for Vlad and the Blue Jays. While it doesn’t seem like the move alone will make Vlad a much better hitter or make the Jays a much more effective defensive team in 2020, the presence of Shaw in the short-term and Martin and Groshans in the long-term provides a reasonable justification for making the move now rather than waiting a few years.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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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.