On August 16th, the Atlanta Braves announced that they had signed Michael Harris II to an extension, worth a maximum of $102MM over a maximum of 10 seasons.
This isn’t the first time the Braves have signed a young player to a massive extension. Ozzie Albies is under contract through 2027 (club option), Ronald Acuña through ’28 (club option), and Austin Riley through ’33 (club option). Of course, Harris will have club options as well. At some point, you have to ask yourself if Alex Anthopoulos can keep getting away with this.
The Atlanta Braves have a system for dealing with young talent. We see it with almost every position player who comes through their farm. First, they promote very early. Michael Harris never played above AA until he stepped into the back for the first time in the majors. He didn’t even have 200 PAs above A+. Second, they watch their prospects become valuable contributors to the MLB roster. This year, it’s been Harris. In his first full season, it was Austin Riley last year. It was Ronald Acuña in 2018. Lastly, they sign these players to huge extensions. Acuña’s kicked in during his second year in the majors. Harris’s will too. This is a model that has worked for the Braves. How does that apply to the Blue Jays? Well, they’ve got a few young position players of their own.
Neither Vladimir Guerrero nor Bo Bichette has been able to match their all-world production in 2021 with equal numbers in 2022. However, they’re having two DRASTICALLY different seasons. Vladdy’s shown just how unbelievable his hit tool is. Despite the fact that he’s gone back to smashing the ball into the ground at a near 50% rate (last year was 45%, which isn’t fantastic either), he’s still hitting 40% better than the league average player, with a wRC+ of 139. Last year’s was 166, but nobody’s complaining about the type of player Vlad’s been in 2022, especially considering some defensive improvement.
Unfortunately, many people have fair complaints about what Bo Bichette has done. He’s also seen his wRC+ tank more than 20 points, but unlike Vladdy, he’s not an above-average hitter anymore. When you factor in his base running, FanGraphs has him as a negative offensive contributor. Though he’s seemed to improve defensively, the extent to which that’s true can even be debated, as defensive metrics are in disagreement (+3 OAA, -6 DRS). We already know that Bo Bichette’s been offered an extension in the past, but this season places into doubt whether or not he will in the future. But with how both of the Jays’ biggest young position player names have been in flux recently, how do you make a decision about an extension?
When you’re committing millions of dollars to players over possibly double-digit years, you have to be sure. Bad contracts can absolutely sink a team long-term if they’re given to the wrong players. The Orioles just handed out money in the mid/late 2010s (Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Alex Cobb, J.J. Hardy), and it’s looking like they’re going to go on to miss the playoffs for the 6th consecutive year. Something that’s crucial when evaluating players who are looking to get paid is understanding the concepts of floors and ceilings.
When you have two players who aren’t performing consistently year after year, it would be ill-advised to decide that you’re going to eliminate any data from the sample size. What makes more sense, however, is understanding that all players have ups and downs, and trying to identify median performance. Let’s do that with Vlad and Bo.
Notable Stats Since 2021:
- Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – .299/.380/.561, 154 wRC+, 0.68 K/BB, -3 OAA, 7 DRS, 10.6 bWAR
- Bo Bichette – .281/.324/.458, 113 wRC+, 0.26 K/BB, -2 OAA, -4 DRS, 7.3 bWAR
There are a lot of interesting caveats to this data. Bo Bichette’s bWAR is aided significantly by the fact that he plays the second most valuable defensive position (next to catcher). Even though he’s a negative defender, WAR gives him props for even playing the position that he does, which inflates the numbers. This offseason, Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, and Xander Bogaerts could all hit the free agent market, and it would be irresponsible of the Jays not to give any shortstop a look. Last offseason, they poked around that market as well, and one would expect them to do the same thing this year. If that were to happen, you’d have to figure that Bichette would be moved off shortstop, considering the fact that Correa and Turner are significantly better defenders than Bo. This would depreciate his value. Outside of his WAR, nothing jumps off the page for Bo. He doesn’t get on base at a terrific rate, he’s a poor defender and a slightly above-average hitter, and his metrics like K/BB suggest a lack of sustainability. That’s come to real fruition this year, as Bo’s aggressive tendencies and inability to pull fastballs are being exploited more than ever.
However, for Vladdy, you can really see just how good he is. Over what is now nearly a 250-game span, he’s been 54% better than the league average hitter, and his defence at first base is quite solid as well, with DRS especially being high on him. His K/BB ratio is tied for 15th in baseball over the last two years, which is what allows him to overcome large numbers of ground balls, possibly his only weakness as a hitter.
Now that we’ve taken both players two full seasons and looked at combined stats, what should be the biggest factors you consider when offering a player a contract extension? Generally, you want a player who can hit, but you also want players who can field and run. These are, in a traditional sense, “tools”. When determining contract extensions, I certainly think you should evaluate tools, but I think there’s more to it than the conventional ideas.
The reason tools (specifically, the number of them) matter is because you can think of each one as a safety net for a player. A player who possesses every tool in baseball has an impossibly high ceiling because, in theory, they don’t have any weaknesses. With each tool that a player loses, they get worse.
That said, the more they had to begin with allows them to retain as much value as possible. Conventional wisdom states that the five tools are: speed, field, throw, hit, and hit for power. However, it doesn’t really make sense to break everything down into these five categories, as it is an effectively random and extreme oversimplification. Many players don’t seem to hit for power, but it isn’t because they don’t possess the ability to, it’s because they don’t pull their flyballs. When you look at the data, it may show that they are hitting for power, just distributing batted balls poorly. So here are what I consider to be primary “tools”:
- Power (ability to generate hard hits)
- Contact (ability to avoid swing and miss)
- Batted Ball Distribution
Side note: At this point, I’d be remiss to not shoutout EJNave on Twitter, who I’ve discussed the concept of tools with at length. Great follow for Blue Jays content.
So, we’ve established that the number of tools one possesses is directly correspondent to that player’s ceiling, with each acting as a ‘safety net’, preventing that player from falling further and further downwards. It follows that when teams have opportunities to extend players who are not fully established, they’ll choose ones with an abundance of tools, with more to fall back on if one aspect of their game falters. What tools do Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero have? Let’s go in the order presented above, using stats and data to determine to what extent each player possesses each tool.
- Bo Bichette’s Tool Grade: B-
- Vladimir Guerrero’s Tool Grade: C
Bo Bichette is an incredibly weird baserunner. In the past, he’s always ranked in the 70th percentile or above in Sprint Speed, via Baseball Savant. However, in 2022, he only grades out in the 53rd percentile. Aside from speed, he makes absolutely terrible base running decisions on a routine basis. He’s been unsuccessful just as often as he’s been successful this season when it comes to stealing bases. This gives him a wSB (stolen base runs above average) of -1.9 in 2022. Overall, his BsR in 2022, which encompasses all aspects of base running is -1.1.
Vladimir Guerrero is not as bad of a baserunner as you might think. While he’s certainly not as fast as Bichette, even with Bo’s weird speed regression in 2022, his Sprint Speed percentile of 34th does rank above average for first basemen (20th of 48 qualified). He’s also a reasonably smart baserunner. He’s only been caught stealing once, with 4 successful swipes. He grades out as a reasonably worse baserunner than Bichette by BsR, with a -2.1, but a lot of that has to do with his wGDP (base running on double plays), something that would affect him less if he simply didn’t hit the ball on the ground as much.
Overall, Bo has had a bad year on the base paths, but generally is a slightly above-average baserunner, whereas Vlad is probably slightly below average.
- Bo Bichette’s Field Tool: C-
- Bo Bichette’s Throw Tool: C-
- Vladimir Guerrero’s Field Tool: B
- Vladimir Guerrero’s Throw Tool: B-
Bo Bichette is one of the weirdest defenders in baseball. Not only has he finally managed to post a season with some defensive upside for the first time in his 4 seasons, but that upside is highly debated by different defensive metrics. He has +3 OAA, but -6 DRS. In terms of arm, his is grading out as a positive by Rthrow (definition pictured) for the first time in his career this season (+1), but it’s been so bad in past seasons that it’s too early to tell if this will be consistent. I’m hesitant to say he’s a good defender now, but he’s improved this year. If you asked me last year, I’d probably have graded both his field and his throw as D’s.
Vladimir Guerrero, however, I’m much more comfortable saying, is a good defender now. After a rough first year at the position, he’s now posted a positive DRS for the second year in a row (+2 in 2021, +6 thus far in 2022). OAA isn’t quite as high on him, but it has him at a neutral 0 in 2022. No matter what you look at, he is, at worst, an average first baseman. His throw tool doesn’t really matter considering he plays first base, but for what it’s worth, he has a really strong arm. His accuracy was certainly questionable when he played third, resulting in a negative Rthrow in 2019, but it’s been +1 ever since 2021, which I suppose counts for something.
Overall, defence is the best tool of neither Vlad nor Bo, though both are certainly improving. For now, though, it would seem that Vladimir Guerrero is the better defender of the two.
- Bo Bichette Discipline Grade: F
- Vladimir Guerrero Discipline Grade: B+
Bo Bichette is simply incapable of taking pitches outside of the strike zone for any more than a few at-bats at a time. It’s always been his biggest weakness as a hitter. 2022 has actually been his most disciplined season yet, and he’s still chasing more than 87% of qualified hitters. Last season, that number was 97%. In 2020, it was 99%. I suppose there’s a pattern of minor improvement there, but the reality is that he will likely never be a well-disciplined hitter without sacrificing parts of what makes him good.
Vladimir Guerrero isn’t quite the opposite of Bichette, but he’s certainly a lot different. This has been his worst season in terms of chase rate, it’s only in the 51st percentile. Last season, it was in the 69th, and the 64th in 2020. Overall, I think it’s taken him some time to adjust to the new approach pitchers are taking against him, he’s been chasing less of late.
Overall, one player has been pretty solidly above average at discipline for his whole career, while one has been among MLB’s worst at it for his whole career.
- Bo Bichette Power Grade: A-
- Vladimir Guerrero Power Grade: A++
Bo Bichette’s isolated power (SLG minus AVG) has been 11% above average in 2022, it was 10% above average in 2021. This year, his average exit velocity is in the 87th percentile, and his hard hit rate is in the 89th percentile. It’s basically as simple as that, it’s one of his best tools, and he’s maintained it even through an overall down year at the plate in 2022.
Vladimir Guerrero is easily the best power hitter on the Blue Jays. Even more than that, he’s arguably one of the best power hitters of this generation. His ISO ranks 9th among qualified hitters since the beginning of 2021. It’s suffered in 2022 because of more grounders, which are harder to turn into extra-base hits, but it’s still 18th in the league. To go along with that, both his average EV and his hard hit rate are in the 98th percentile this year, and the former was in the 98th in 2021.
Overall, both players are great power hitters. Bichette excels at hitting for power, but Guerrero is generational at it. It’s one of the biggest aspects of both players’ games.
- Bo Bichette’s Contact Grade: C+
- Vladimir Guerrero’s Contact Grade: C+
Bo Bichette was especially renowned for his ability to make contact last year. That narrative was somewhat unfair from the beginning, and has died off significantly in 2022. That’s because he’s been whiffing more than league average this year (47th percentile). Even in 2021, his rate was above average (69th percentile), but it wasn’t as if that was even among the league’s best (though it was certainly above average). It’s reasonable to be concerned with whether or not this tool will come back for Bo, because pitchers have adjusted and found pitches to throw him that he can’t make contact on. That being said, for now, it grades out as above average.
Vladimir Guerrero’s contact tool is probably just about average. This year, using Baseball Savant’s percentiles, his whiff rate has been in the 53rd percentile, in 2020 it was in the 56th, and in 2019 it was in the 51st. In 2021, however, it was interestingly only in the 28th percentile. For his career, Vlad’s always been a bit above average rather than significantly lower. Especially considering how it’s bounced back this year, I’m willing to chalk it up to an outlier, and give him a very slightly above-average C+.
Overall, neither player excels at contact. Bichette’s most recent sample has him below average at it, but his past samples have him as above average. Guerrero is the opposite, as he’s coming off a year in which it was an extreme struggle for him, but it’s pushed back up above average this year. They both get a C+, but for different reasons. Guerrero may be a C+ trending up, while Bichette may be a C+ trending down.
Batted Ball Distribution:
- Bo Bichette BBD Grade: F
- Vladimir Guerrero BBD Grade: D+
Bo Bichette’s batted ball distribution may be a reason why he’s struggling for success at the plate this season. His groundball rate is hugely inflated, up 5% from last year. Without context, that’s already bad enough, but when you consider that he was already hitting too many grounders last year, it only gets worse. Adding further salt to the wound is that Bo Bichette simply does not pull the baseball. Though much is often made about pulling the ball and hitting it up the middle, that is a statistically ineffective approach at the plate. All batted balls hit oppo/middle share a 114 wRC+, whereas pulled batted balls have a 165 wRC+, 50% better than non-pulled ones. Unfortunately, Bo is an old-school hitter who doesn’t go out of his way to try and pull the baseball. As a matter of fact, it’s what he does least often. It’s just an absolute travesty, if he didn’t try so hard to spray the ball, he’d be so much better. It’s a shame.
Vladimir Guerrero, unfortunately, doesn’t have the best-batted ball data well either. His issue comes more in his ground ball rate, which has bounced even further back up in 2022, to 16% above average, which is not a good thing. He also sprays the ball too much, although he does significantly better than Bo, basically distributing at an average rate, unlike Bichette who pulls 25% less than average. If Vladdy could figure out how to hit fewer groundballs than he did in even 2021, he would probably be a 180-190 wRC+ hitter.
Overall, batted ball distribution is probably the biggest weakness of both Bo and Vlad. It’s unfortunate because of how important it is.
So, using these 7 tools, how many do Bichette and Guerrero have each? Bo grades out as above average (B- or higher) in two categories, whereas Vlad does so in 4. Neither are really viewed as players who can do everything, and with good reason. However, both are players that really excel at hitting for power, and it’s what makes them as good as they are. Guerrero’s two above-average hitting tools, discipline, and power, are what make him one of the best hitters on the planet. However, his weakest one, batted ball distribution, is what has caused such variance between this year and last. For Bo, that’s true of his contact. However, Bo has such little to fall back on if pitchers continue to chip away at what makes him good, like they have this year. He’s already regressed to below league average. So what should the Blue Jays be offering in terms of contract extensions?
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. needs to be extended right now. Realistically, this season is his FLOOR, and he’s still probably going to put up 4.0+ fWAR and 5.0+ bWAR. Austin Riley is a good comparison, the young third baseman got 10 years, $212 million. Vlad’s ceiling is capped by the fact that he plays a less valuable defensive position than Riley, but he’s got a much higher ceiling as a hitter. A 10-year, $210 million dollar extension for Vlad makes a lot of sense for the Jays, even though it feels very unlikely he’d accept. It should be considered, however, that some of that would cover arbitration years, which he wouldn’t be making market value for his performance anyways. It would give him a $21M AAV, but that would likely be backloaded, so he would make closer to 30 million by the end, but more like 10 at the start. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Jays could come to terms with a contract that both parties would agree on until this time next year.
Bo Bichette is an entirely different story. In 2022, he’s shown that his floor is extremely low. He’s been too much of a question mark at the plate to warrant any sort of long-term extension, and that’s because he doesn’t have enough to fall back on if his inability to pull and consistently make contact on fastballs continues to falter. For that reason, I would wait at least one more year before even offering Bichette an extension. If he returns to his 2021 form next season, then you have to consider committing nine figures to him, but until then, we’ll just have to wait and see…