Managing Expectations For Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

When imagining what a top prospect will become, it's fun to be irresponsible. Tempering expectations is boring and being realistic won't generate headlines. This being said, I invite you to read on and have absolutely no fun with me.

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vladimir-guerrero-jr-expectations
Photo: Joel Dina
The junior Vlad, having more fun than you and I are.

At the risk of raining on the parade of those who expect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to become baseball’s next superstar, we need to pump the brakes on the hype train. Just a bit, at least. Because the comments I’ve read from scouts, writers and evaluators have, in my opinion, set unrealistic expectations for the kid.

Hey, I get it. It’s fun to have nice things. And the Blue Jays have a very nice thing in Vladdy Jr. Before going on the DL for a knee injury on June 7th, the feeling within the fan base was that he could be called up to the big leagues any day now. It was exciting to think our team, the Blue Jays, was about to graduate baseball’s top prospect. Then to everyone’s disappointment he got hurt and the timeline was pushed back to September (or perhaps 2019 if you believe the Jays will game his service time). And to be sure, there’s still reason to be plenty excited. But allow me, if you will, to outline the problem I have with the current level of expectations placed on this 19-year old.

The first step in this exercise is compiling references I’ve read that help form the future outlook of the player.

Quotes:

Ben Badler, Baseball America prospect guru

An MVP. He could win a batting title, lead the league in OBP or slugging. When we dropped an 80 future hit tool on him last year, I know that surprised some people, but I think everyone’s seeing it now. He is such a complete hitter, it’s amazing to watch from a 19-year-old.
May 22nd, 2018

Guerrero is the best teenage hitter to come along since Bryce Harper… Vladdy Jr. has his dad’s hitting mannerisms, with an offensive profile in the mold of superstars like Manny Ramirez and Frank Thomas.
May 7th, 2018

Scott White, CBS fantasy contributor

Guerrero, like his dad, will likely be a batting title contender.
May 10th, 2018

Arden Zwelling, Sportsnet analyst

Vlad Jr. exit velocity update: through 40 games, Guerrero’s put more than 45 balls in play at 100+ mph. He recently hit one 119.6.

In MLB this season, only three batters have put a ball in play at 118+ mph — Carlos Gonzalez (118.3), Aaron Judge (118.1), and Mike Trout (118).
May 9th, 2018

JJ Cooper, Baseball America prospect guru

…it’s not hard to find scouts who project him as an 80 hitter. Some see him as having 80 power. Some see him as potentially having both, which would put him in the company of Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera or Albert Pujols at the plate.

“They don’t build major league ballparks big enough to hold him,” a veteran scout said of Guerrero. “I told our guys, ‘He’s got 90 power.’ He has Hall of Fame ability.”
July 5th, 2018

Jim Callis, MLB.com lead prospect analyst

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Sr., the first father-son combination to make the Hall of Fame.
Aug 8th, 2017

That last one’s a head-turner, isn’t it? Pegging a teenager who hasn’t even played a major league game as a future Hall of Famer? Ok then!

It’s important to realize the rock solid reputation of these folks. They aren’t making off-the-cuff, biased comments that you might expect from a passionate fan. They are reasoned remarks by professionals who have a vested interest in being accurate when it comes to evaluating young players. And Callis is one of the most respected prospect analysts in the business, so that’s a pretty notable prediction.

Zwelling is drawing comparisons to the elite Statcast performers in the majors. He’s even pointing out that Guerrero did something this year that no single major leaguer had done at the time (it’s since been done). While that was true, it’s also true the 119 mph threshold was reached five times in 2016 and another five times in 2017. So while the ball Vladdy hit at 119.6 mph was certainly impressive, it was not unprecedented.

Breaking The Scouting Scale

I’d also like to draw your attention to the quote about 90 power. As you know, the scouting scale ranges from 20 to 80. A player’s individual tools can be broken down (ie. a pitcher might have a 70 fastball but a 40 changeup) or he can be assigned an overall grade generally referred to as FV (Future Value). 50 is average and each step of 10 higher or lower represents one standard deviation from the norm.

To pull a couple of the more extreme prospect examples: Billy Hamilton and his 80-grade speed. Aroldis Chapman and his 80-grade fastball. Intuitively, these grades make sense. Both prospects possessed a tool that set them apart from the field. Everyone knew Hamilton would lead the league in stolen bases. Everyone knew Chapman was going to consistently reach triple digits and post high strikeout totals. An 80-grade tool is as good as it gets and includes generational types of skill.

So the problem with the 90-grade power put on Vlad, however tongue-in-cheek the scout might have been, is that it suggests a new echelon of skill, and the expectation it can be reached. While a power grade that is four standard deviations from the norm doesn’t automatically equate to the player’s home run totals deviating that much, it’s nevertheless interesting to approach it this way. If we look at the work Bill Felber did (reprinted by John Thorn here) three years ago, we find that no player since 1900 had a home run total more than 4 standard deviations from the norm.

Measured by standard deviation, Babe Ruth’s best season was 1920 when he hit 54 homers. But even that total only separated him by 3.72 standard deviations from the league’s 17 top home run hitters. Although Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001, he stood only 3.17 standard deviations above the average for the NL’s top 29 home run hitters that season.

As of the time of that writing (2015), the largest standard deviation from the norm in the modern era was 3.76, belonging to Jose Canseco‘s 1988 season. And since 1900 these were the only players to reach three and a half standard deviations from the norm.

Home Run Totals, Standard Deviations From The Norm
Source: https://ourgame.mlblogs.com/the-most-dominant-home-run-season-ever-9504bc8537c4
PlayerSeasonHRStd. Dev.
Jose Canseco1988423.76
Babe Ruth1920543.72
Jose Bautista2010543.70
Babe Ruth1919293.64
Babe Ruth1926473.59

It doesn’t look like any player will come close to making that list this year either, as the top 21 players are all within 12 home runs of each other. Power has become more ubiquitous in today’s game than ever before. Swing changes are being made throughout the major and minor leagues to generate loft and tap into previously unseen pop. It’s not impossible of course, but the chances that one player can separate himself so significantly are slim.

Furthermore, legendary greats like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle never even once lucked into such a feat! Are we really expecting Guerrero Jr. to be the one to do that?

For what it’s worth, some of my Twitter followers weighed in last month on three polls, and expectations were sky high.

 

Extrapolating Stats From The Hype

Herein lies the problem with the expectations. We’ve read that Vlad will win batting titles. He could lead the league in home runs and on base percentage. We’ve seen reports that he’ll play a passable third base and retain exceptional plate discipline. Have we stopped to think what kind of statistical production combining these elements would equate to? Because if we did, it would look a lot like 2013 Miguel Cabrera.

Below are his statistics from said season, with MLB ranks in parentheses.

44 HR (2nd)
.348 AVG (1st)
.442 OBP (1st)
.636 SLG (1st)
1.078 OPS (1st)
0.96 BB/K (7th)
193 wRC+ (1st)
8.6 fWAR (2nd)

He won the batting title, finished runner up in the home run race, and exhibited some of the best plate discipline in the league. Oh, and he took home the AL MVP award too. This is essentially what people expect of Guerrero if the expected future components of his game are combined.

And that might be selling him short.

Miggy’s WAR in 2013 was negatively affected by his extremely poor fielding at third base and extremely poor base running. Both things were to be expected, as Cabrera was 30 years old and his athleticism was predictably declining. And if Guerrero achieves this level of offense in his early 20s when his body is still somewhat athletic, perhaps his fielding and base running don’t eat away at his overall value like they did for Cabrera. If that were to happen, the production above turns into a 9+ win season!

And remember, this is with 80-grade power – A skill level fully capable of leading the league in home runs. Giancarlo Stanton led the league in home runs last year with 59.  The year before, Mark Trumbo led with 47. If we are to believe that this magical 90 power is attainable, what is the ceiling for Vlad then? 60 home runs? 70?

And this is where it starts to get silly.

If Guerrero were to hit for significantly more power than Miggy did in 2013, and similarly win the batting title, we’re looking at a slugging percentage near .700. An OPS well above 1.100. With average defence at the hot corner it’s now a 10 win season. An output comparable to some of the greatest hitters of all time. Cobb, Mantle, Ruth, Williams, Bonds. Vlad?

Hey, anything’s possible. The aforementioned prospect gurus and scouts are much smarter than I am. But it feels like social media and online publications are focusing almost entirely on 90th percentile outcomes instead of realistic expectations. Sure, the latter doesn’t generate clicks or create buzz, but it might help us avoid disappointment if Vlad Jr “merely” becomes a star and not a generational player. After all, the majority of prospects never reach their ceilings.

A Cautionary Tale

For a high profile example of that last point, there exists one Bryce Harper. Prior to the draft he was being compared to Mickey Mantle at the same age. (Just a 20-time All Star, 3-time MVP and one of the greatest ballplayers of all time. No pressure, kid). Sports Illustrated put him on their cover as a 16-year old and said that he was more advanced than Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. Harper was taken 1st overall in 2010 and greatness was expected. To date, he’s fallen short of that. I think most would concede that A-Rod and The Kid will have had careers better than Harper’s when it’s all said and done.

Despite his superstar reputation, the numbers are what they are. Harper has only led the majors in important statistical categories in one of his seven seasons – 2015. He won the NL MVP that year but has no other top 10 finishes for the award. (Mantle had five top-5 finishes in MVP voting by age 26). 2015 is also the only season Harper has surpassed 6 WAR.

The similarities between a young Harper and Vlad are there. Prodigious power, incredibly advanced for a teenager, and talk of being a future Hall of Famer. There isn’t a team in the league that wouldn’t want Harper hitting in the middle of its lineup, but expectations were set far too high.

Harper is not currently on a Hall of Fame pace by some measurements. Using Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system that incorporates a player’s 7 year peak, Harper falls short. Sure, he’s only 25, but he does have more or less the requisite 7 years of data for a JAWS analysis.

bryce-harper-jaws-hall-of-fame
Source: https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/harpebr03.shtml

Harper’s 27.3 WAR falls well short of the 42.9 WAR 7 year-peak average for Hall of Fame right fielders. Maybe Harper picks up pace and gets in. Maybe he doesn’t. What we do know is that it’s incredibly difficult to make the Hall of Fame. Many active players who we consider stars in today’s game will never be inducted.

Reasonable Expectations

If I told you that Guerrero, at his peak, would have multiple seasons with a batting average of .300, an on-base percentage of .400, and home run totals averaging around 35, would that fulfill your expectations? Would you consider that a disappointment? Keep in mind those totals would not have been good enough to rank top 10 in any of the statistical categories last year. And the Vladdy hype train is not built on predictions as a player who “may flirt with top 10 finishes”. Like Harper, the hype is of a potential future Hall of Famer. With Baseball America giving him an 80 hit tool, Vlad is someone capable of being the best hitter in the game.

Just for fun, I ran a quick rWAR calculation for 150 games played and a “modest” line of .400 OBP, .550 SLG while accounting for league average defense at third, and league average base running ability. The calculation spat out 6 WAR. A 6 win player is great! In fact, it’s a single-season total that Kyle Seager has reached only once in his 8-year career. It’s slightly more than what Manny Machado has averaged per year since his first full season at age 20. And a hair more than Nolan Arenado‘s average since his age 22 rookie season.

I hate to be the fun police, but don’t these comps for Vlad make more sense than peak Miguel Cabrera? Or Mantle, Cobb and Ruth?

* * *

A long point made short: if we actually produce statistical equivalents of what the hyperbole suggests, it’s a recipe for disappointment. 90 power means adjusting our idea of future home run champions. Hitting for power and winning a batting title suggests a better season at the plate than Josh Donaldson‘s MVP campaign. Expecting a trip to Cooperstown means that following Bryce Harper‘s career arch to date isn’t even good enough. By thinking in these terms, we start to see how some of Vlad’s expected outcomes are unfair.

You, the reader, may have set no such bar for Guerrero, and are just happy to see what’s next. Great! You have my genuine admiration for being such a reasonable fan. Others may take a more idealistic approach, however, and to those I would say wait up. Hold on. Think in terms of historical comparables and what is actually likely. Think of how impressive it is to lead the league in even one statistical category. Think of how few players have even flirted with a Triple Crown let alone win one (it’s happened just twice in the last 50 years). And then think of all the “can’t miss” prospects who never blossomed as expected.

Perhaps a better question is not if any single Blue Jays prospect will reach his potential, but what kind of team he is surrounded by. Because even if Guerrero is the second coming of Mike Trout, it guarantees the Jays nothing. The Angels have failed to put together a winner around one of the greatest players of all time. So while the Bichettes and Guerreros are exciting, development of the second and third tier prospects in the next few years is just as important.

We’re all but guaranteed to see Guerrero hitting bombs at the Dome for years to come. But anointing a teenager as the team’s saviour and envisioning his plaque in Cooperstown places enormous pressure on a young man to succeed. Wishing for a healthy career with multiple All Star nods isn’t as flashy, nor as fun, but it is probably closer to what we can expect from the younger Vlad. And that’s not a bad thing at all.