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Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Is Living Up To The Hype

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.

Vlad Jr. has been the early MVP by WAR

2021 MLB leaders in total wins above replacement (WAR), through May 25

Wins Above Replacement
Player Team As Batter As Pitcher Total
1 Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Blue Jays 2.99 0.00 2.99
2 Nick Castellanos Reds 2.85 0.00 2.85
3 Gerrit Cole Yankees 0.00 2.78 2.78
4 Max Muncy Dodgers 2.78 0.00 2.78
5 Zack Wheeler Phillies 0.18 2.53 2.71
6 Brandon Woodruff Brewers -0.13 2.83 2.70
7 Byron Buxton Twins 2.63 0.00 2.63
8 Xander Bogaerts Red Sox 2.55 0.00 2.55
9 Shohei Ohtani Angels 1.64 0.90 2.53
10 Jacob deGrom Mets 0.42 2.11 2.53
11 Kevin Gausman Giants 0.02 2.51 2.52
12 John Means Orioles 0.00 2.50 2.50
13 Marcus Semien Blue Jays 2.32 0.00 2.32
14 Mike Trout Angels 2.24 0.00 2.24
15 Isiah Kiner-Falefa Rangers 2.16 0.00 2.16

WAR is measured using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), which averages the metrics found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

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:

The Blue Jays have plenty of star power

2021 MLB teams with the most players on pace for 4.0 WAR per 162 games, through May 25

Team Num. Players
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)

Includes WAR accumulated as both a batter and a pitcher.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

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.

Toronto has faced the toughest slate of opponents

2021 MLB strength of schedule rankings, based on average opposing Elo ratings adjusted for home-field advantage and opposing starting pitchers

Team Wins Losses WPct Elo Rating Elo Rk Avg. Opp.
Blue Jays 24 23 .511 1527 8 1526
Rockies 19 30 .388 1448 27 1522
Rangers 22 29 .431 1463 26 1514
Pirates 18 30 .375 1428 30 1514
Mariners 23 27 .460 1465 25 1513
Orioles 17 32 .347 1431 29 1513
Rays 31 20 .608 1549 5 1512
Brewers 24 25 .490 1508 16 1511
Angels 22 27 .449 1495 20 1510
Marlins 24 25 .490 1480 22 1510
Athletics 29 22 .569 1514 12 1510
Diamondbacks 18 32 .360 1471 23 1509
Phillies 24 26 .480 1499 19 1508
Nationals 20 24 .455 1513 14 1506
Tigers 19 30 .388 1442 28 1505
Dodgers 30 19 .612 1601 1 1505
Cardinals 27 22 .551 1507 17 1502
Braves 24 25 .490 1527 9 1500
Astros 27 22 .551 1554 4 1499
White Sox 28 20 .583 1533 6 1499
Indians 26 21 .553 1512 15 1499
Royals 23 24 .489 1470 24 1499
Cubs 26 22 .542 1513 13 1498
Giants 30 19 .612 1506 18 1497
Yankees 28 20 .583 1563 3 1497
Mets 22 20 .524 1532 7 1495
Padres 32 18 .640 1572 2 1494
Reds 21 25 .457 1489 21 1493
Twins 20 29 .408 1516 11 1489
Red Sox 30 20 .600 1519 10 1488

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.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.


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Footnotes

  1. Which had the effect of delaying the start of his service time and eventual free agency.

  2. Which averages together the defensive values (relative to position average) found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  3. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data on GitHub.

  4. Perhaps surprisingly, Guerrero Sr.’s lone MVP came in a 2004 season during which he “only” produced 5.7 WAR. Truly, it proves once again that Vlad Sr.’s best performances went largely unappreciated in their time.

  5. Ted Williams in 1941, Dwight Gooden in 1985 and Mike Trout in 2012.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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