When Vladimir Guerrero Jr. finally made his debut for the Toronto Blue Jays in late April 2019 — after being kept in the minors for nearly a month1 — the hype was immense. Guerrero is, of course, the son of Hall of Fame outfielder Vladimir Guerrero Sr., making him one of several Blue Jays whose dads were star players. But even relative to other major-league progeny, Guerrero Jr. stood out: Baseball America named him its No. 1 prospect going into 2019, while others wondered — without hyperbole — whether he was the greatest prospect ever.
It was a lot to live up to, and Guerrero had his ups and downs over his first two MLB seasons. As a 20-year-old rookie, he was already an above-average hitter (106 OPS+) and improved at the plate as the year went on — he also wowed at the Home Run Derby in July — but his defense at third base was poor (-6.2 fielding runs above average),2 which contributed to a mediocre 1.2 wins above replacement3 mark. With his second season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic (and the Jays forced to play extra road games before making a temporary home in Buffalo, New York), Guerrero started the season slow, though he hit .323 with a .945 OPS at home once the team settled into its new digs. Overall, Guerrero improved slightly as a hitter (116 OPS+), but a move to first base failed to salvage his defensive value, and his WAR stayed roughly the same (1.1) if prorated over a full schedule.
Holding one’s own in the majors before being legally allowed to drink is nothing to be disappointed in, but Guerrero had not yet delivered the huge breakout so many were expecting when he entered the big leagues. This season, however, it seems safe to say that Vlad Jr. has officially arrived as a star. After belting five home runs in the last week (including two against the red-hot Tampa Bay Rays on Monday afternoon), Guerrero leads the majors in dingers with 16, tied with Adolis García of the Texas Rangers. More importantly, he has been the most valuable player in all of baseball this season by WAR, powering Toronto’s playoff bid in the hyper-competitive American League East.
|Wins Above Replacement|
|Player||Team||As Batter||As Pitcher||Total|
|1||Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||Blue Jays||2.99||0.00||2.99|
|8||Xander Bogaerts||Red Sox||2.55||0.00||2.55|
|13||Marcus Semien||Blue Jays||2.32||0.00||2.32|
Like his father, Guerrero was already one of the better contact hitters in the game, striking out in just 15.6 percent of his plate appearances last season (which ranked 29th-best among all qualified batters). He was also one of baseball’s most disciplined hitters, either correctly swinging at strikes or laying off balls 74.6 percent of the time (fifth-best in MLB). But Guerrero’s patience at the plate still needed work after he finished below average in walks per plate appearance (8.2 percent) last year. So far this season, he has nearly doubled his walk rate (15.0 percent), showing an understanding of the strike zone similar to those of contemporaries Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr.
And when pitchers have dared to throw the ball over the plate this season, Guerrero is doing serious damage.
Vlad Jr. has always had prodigious raw power — again, see his performance in the 2019 HR Derby — and he produced the 12th-best average exit velocity (92.5 mph) of any hitter last year. But he wasn’t quite applying it to tangible results yet. As a rookie, his isolated power didn’t crack the top 100 among qualified batters, and he remained outside the top 60 last season. This season, however, Guerrero ranks second in isolated power behind only the electric Shohei Ohtani, and he’s tied for third in home runs per plate appearance (7.8 percent) as well.
Thanks to his ability to wait for the right pitch and obliterate opponents’ mistakes, Guerrero has added an MLB-high 22 runs above average when swinging at balls thrown to the heart of the plate. It’s by far the area of the strike zone where he gains the most value on the rest of the league, and his performance is a warning to pitchers everywhere — Vlad Jr. is not to be challenged, even by pitchers who just threw no-hitters.
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At his current pace, Guerrero would be worth 10.3 WAR over an entire 162-game season, which would be better than either of his father’s best pair of seasons. (Vlad Sr. had 7.1 WAR in both 1998 and 2002, as a member of the Montreal Expos.)4 Though he may not maintain that pace all year long — just 60 player-seasons since 1901 have seen a player produce that many WAR, and only three5 came in a player’s age-22 campaign or younger — Guerrero has certainly used the first few months of 2021 to cement his status among the rest of the game’s brightest young stars.
And he’s not the only Blue Jay playing at a high level so far this season. Between Guerrero, second baseman Marcus Semien (8.0), starter Hyun Jin Ryu (5.7), shortstop Bo Bichette (5.2) and right fielder Teoscar Hernández (4.2), Toronto has five players on pace for 4.0 or more WAR per 162 games. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers (eight) and Chicago White Sox (six) boast more players on pace for that much value:
|LAD||8||Muncy (9.4), Kershaw (6.5), Bauer (5.9), Taylor (5.1), Urías (5.1), Betts (5.0), Smith (4.9), Buehler (4.1)|
|CHW||6||Moncada (6.7), Rodón (6), Lynn (5.2), Anderson (4.3), Cease (4.2), Mercedes (4.1)|
|TOR||5||Guerrero Jr. (10.3), Semien (8.0), Ryu (5.7), Bichette (5.2), Hernández (4.2)|
|ATL||4||Acuña (6.3), Riley (5.2), Ynoa (4.9), Anderson (4.8)|
|BOS||4||Bogaerts (8.4), Martinez (6.7), Devers (5.9), Eovaldi (4.3)|
|CLE||4||Ramírez (6.6), Bieber (5.6), Civale (4.5), Karinchak (4.2)|
|PHI||4||Wheeler (8.9), Eflin (5.6), Realmuto (5.1), Nola (4.9)|
|SDP||4||Cronenworth (6.6), Grisham (6.4), Tatís (6.2), Darvish (5.9)|
|TEX||4||Kiner-Falefa (7.0), García (6.9), Gibson (5.8), Solak (4.0)|
Granted, the Jays have also seen plenty of disappointing performances from players they were expecting to do more. Free-agent outfielder George Springer is on the injured list with a strained quad and has played just four games all season. Third baseman Cavan Biggio (77 OPS+) is also injured; even when healthy, he and left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (74 OPS+) have fallen off quite a bit since last season, when both posted OPS+ numbers above 110. And pitcher Tanner Roark, whom Toronto signed as a free agent coming off of a solid 2.1-WAR season in 2019, didn’t even make it through the end of his contract; he was designated for assignment in early May (and later picked up by the Braves).
Toronto has also fought through other factors working against it. According to their run differential, the Blue Jays “should” be three games better than they are in the standings, tying them for MLB’s unluckiest team in that regard. And according to our Elo ratings, Toronto has also faced the toughest schedule of any team in baseball to date, with an average opponent Elo of 1526 after accounting for game locations and opposing starting-pitching strength.
|Team||Wins||Losses||WPct||Elo Rating||Elo Rk||Avg. Opp.|
Through it all, Toronto remains above .500, sporting a 24-23 record with about a third of the season in the books. Though that has earned the Blue Jays only fourth place in the AL East, our model thinks they still have nearly a 40 percent chance to make the playoffs despite the tough competition. And a lot of that is due to Guerrero playing like the MVP everyone expected him to blossom into sooner or later. With his mix of patience, hand-eye coordination and mammoth power, Vlad Jr. has elevated himself into the upper echelon of MLB players this season. Although it took a few years to materialize, Guerrero’s breakout has been nothing if not worth the wait.
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