Welcome to Blue Jays Nation’s Season In Review. Instead of doing boring-ass, standard player-by-player reviews or handing out some arbitrary report cards, I’m going to talk about 20 things that are on my mind heading into 2020. Today, we have what to make of Vlad Jr’s rookie season.
The expectations placed on Vladimir Guerrero Jr. were so astronomical that there was almost no way his much-anticipated debut wasn’t going to be a letdown.
About a year ago, FanGraphs’ STEAMER came out with a projection that made Blue Jays fans giddy. They projected that Vlad Jr. would slash a .306/.368/.511 line with 22 bombs, good for 4.7 wins. Only 14 players in baseball were projected to be better than Vlad was projected to be over a 162-game season.
Those were massive expectations to place on the shoulder of a teenager. But it didn’t matter that he was a 19-year-old kid who wasn’t going to turn 20 until right before the start of the regular season. Vlad absolutely made a joke out of minor league baseball. He put up numbers that made it seem like he was using real-life video game cheat codes. Besides, after guys like Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr. accomplished what they did at the same age, there was no denying that Vlad would hit the ground running and kick the ever-loving piss out of Major League pitching, just as he did in the minors.
That didn’t happen. Vlad finally got called up and made his debut against the Oakland Athletics on April 26th in front of probably the most enthusiastic crowd Rogers Centre would host all season. He grounded out in his first at-bat and then hit flyballs in his second and third at-bat before finally coming through with a clutch double in the ninth inning. Ironically, Brandon Drury, the guy who kept his seat warm all month, would be the hero that night, hitting a two-run homer to send the crowd home happy.
That ninth-inning double would be the only extra-base hit Vlad would produce for nearly two weeks. Entering his 14th game on a chilly May night in San Fransisco, Vlad was slashing a .191/.283/.234 line, something we had never seen from him in a two-week stretch since he turned pro as a 16-year-old in 2016. That night, though, after the excitement of his at-bats slowly turned to a feeling of anxiety, Vlad crushed a bomb to straightaway centre field in his first trip to the plate. After singling and talking a walk, Vlad smacked another bomb in his fourth at-bat. He had arrived.
Well, not quite. He would carry a hot bat for a few weeks before it cooled off again. He would head into the All-Star break with a fair slash line of .249/.327/.410. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good, either. The home run derby provided what appeared to be a coming-out party for Vlad, as he mashed a million home runs in front of a stunned crowd in Cleveland.
He came out of the break hot, pushing his OPS up over .800 for the first time in August, but, yet again, he would cool down, ultimately finishing the season with a .272/.339/.433 line.
It’s fair to say that Vlad Jr. didn’t meet expectations in his rookie season. It’s also fair to say that those expectations were very unlikely to be met. It’s also fair to say that the expectations placed on him were the result of his talent and dominance at the minor league level and that they weren’t actually unreasonable. There’s plenty that can be said about Vlad’s rookie season because, ultimately, it was complicated.
There were ups, flashes of brilliance in which Vlad worked counts that made him look like a veteran and teed off on some of the game’s best pitchers. There were also downs, long stretches of panic in which Vlad routinely bit the ball softly on the ground and swung through the first-pitch breaking ball over-and-over again, falling into patterns you don’t see from elite hitters. But with each up and down comes a learning experience. What works? What doesn’t? What needs to be fixed?
It’s easy to look at Soto and Acuna and just assume every highly-touted whiz kid is going to hit the ground running and carve up the Major Leagues immediately. But that isn’t going to be the case. People learn things at different rates. Vlad might not have had the 20-year-old season those two did, but it doesn’t mean he’s never going to reach his potential.
The soon-to-be NL Rookie of the Year was still in college when he was Vlad’s age. The soon-to-be- AL Rookie of the Year was hitting pretty well in A-ball when he was Vlad’s age, just one year removed from being traded from the Dodgers to Astros in exchange for Josh Fields. Neither Pete Alonso or Yordan Alvarez was Ronald Acuna or Juan Soto when they were 20. But that’s fine. You’d happily take both of them on your team right now, wouldn’t you?
How he performed this year at the age of 20 isn’t really the important thing. How he responds this off-season and what he takes from it is what ultimately matters. For probably the first time in his life, Vlad Jr. really faced adversity playing baseball this year. I would bet a lot has come naturally for Vlad in his life, but he didn’t just wake up one day with this much talent. While natural ability played a role, he didn’t dick his way around to posting that historically-good 2018 season in the minors. It came from putting in a tremendous amount of work, year after year. With that in mind, there’s really very little doubt he’ll put in the work to get through this adversity and reach his potential as a player.
“I’m not satisfied with the way I did,” Vlad said after the season. “I’m not satisfied, because I know I can do better, and I’m going to get better. Defensively, since the beginning [of the season] to now, I got a lot better, but I don’t want to stay like that. I need to get better, I want to get better.”
You could see the frustration mounting on him as the season went along and he wasn’t performing as he wanted to. You can tell from his quote above that there’s a deep amount of frustration with how his rookie season went. You can tell already that he’s going to spend this entire off-season ensuring that those struggles don’t happen again. The adversity Vlad faced this year is all part of the process that’ll ultimately push him to reach his potential as a Major League player.