Big expectations — and building anticipation — can bring out the need for immediate results. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. had humongous expectations given his lineage, his prospect status, and the utter destruction he wrought on minor league pitching. His name made him known earlier than other prospects without Hall of Fame fathers, but his play declared him ready for the majors last year, with some desiring a May call-up and the player’s union mentioning him by name last September when he remained in the minors. Through 10 games, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. has not produced, but then, even super-duper prospects who are almost completely unlikely to bust sometimes don’t hit well for 10 games.
Given the expectations, it’s easy to call a .162/.244/.189 slash line with a 23 wRC+ disappointing. It is disappointing. Just like the 29 wRC+ Paul Goldschmidt has put up over the last 14 days. Or the 35 wRC+ from Corey Seager during the same time period. Mitch Haniger’s wRC+ over the last two weeks is a measly 49. Ronald Acuña Jr.’s is barely better at 51, with Jose Altuve just ahead at 56. It’s possible the latter numbers have escaped your attention. It’s okay to have missed them or to even have known about them and ignored them because we know they aren’t an accurate representation of the talent level these players possess. But when a player comes up from the minors for the first time and doesn’t break out immediately, second thoughts can creep into the backs of our minds about can’t-miss prospects who missed.
If you want to worry, here’s some ammunition. Since 1995, there have been 19 position players who were ranked first or second by Baseball America coming into the season when they made their debut. Of those 19 players, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.’s 23 wRC+ over his first 41 plate appearances is only better than Alex Gordon’s. Here are those 19 players’ numbers with their names omitted for the time being.
The number of players above might appear low given that there have been 25 prospect lists with 50 players ranked first or second; even taking away the pitchers, there have been a lot more than 19 top position player prospects over the years. But about half of the potential players were eliminated because teams gave those players a taste of the majors in the year before they were ranked first or second. What should stand out is that most players who have been rated as one of the very best prospects in the game do really well in their first 10 games or so. Their median wRC+ is 125 with an average of 116; 13 of the 19 players hit at an average level or above.
So what does it all mean? Nothing. Here are those players’ performances over their net 600 plate appearances after their first 40 in the big leagues.
If these players’ first 40 plate appearances had any bearing on their next 600 plate appearances, it doesn’t really show up here. In their first 40 plate appearances, the top eight players averaged a 111 wRC+, while the bottom seven players averaged a 110 wRC+. The top half produced three below-average hitters; the bottom half produced four while also producing the best player in the bunch. Maybe the next 600 plate appearances aren’t enough, though. Here are the career numbers compared to the first 40 plate appearances, keeping in mind there are a few players without lengthy careers shown.
Again, a scatter plot devoid of meaning. Two of the top-five career wRC+ figures, and two of the top-three with at least three years in the majors, came from the bottom four debuts. Conversely, of the eight best debuts, only three found themselves in the top-eight for career numbers and none were the three-best starts.
We’ve compared these players’ debuts to their next 600 plate appearances as well as career numbers, but now let’s compare their first 600 plate appearances after their first 40 to their career numbers.
There is a pretty clear relationship here, as the we can see a diagonal line moving upward from left to right. How a player performed in his next 600 plate appearances after his first 40 did a pretty good job of forecasting his career. Now you might be saying that it’s not really fair to look at the debut and compare it to the career, and then compare a full seasons worth of plate appearances to career numbers. Of course the relationship is going to be better; it is a lot more playing time. If you were to say that, I’d think you were getting the point I’m trying to make.
Here are the relevant numbers for all the players above, as well as both Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr.
|Player||Year||AGE||PA||BB%||K%||BABIP||AVG||OBP||SLG||wRC+||Next 600 wRC+||Career wRC+|
|Ronald Acuña, Jr.||2018||20||41||7.3%||19.5%||.393||.342||.390||.632||172||136||138|
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||2019||20||40||10.0%||30.0%||.273||.222||.300||.444||100||—||—|
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||2019||20||41||9.8%||26.8%||.231||.162||.244||.189||23||—||—|
Nearly all the players above have had at least good careers, with some considerably better than that. It might be slightly disheartening to see some top prospects who didn’t quite pan out the way they were expected to, but for the most part, these players have done quite well. Acuna, Bryant, and Buxton still have a ways to go in their careers and Buxton still has a lot of time to improve his numbers, but it should be comforting to know that Mark Teixieira and Mike Trout started their careers in similar fashion to Vlad Jr. and turned out just fine.
If you are still looking at the list and trying to parse and make meaning of these early numbers from Guerrero, I will grant you that there was some relationship between walk rate and the next 600 wRC+, as well as the career numbers. If you are trying to spot a potential bust in this group after 40 plate appearances, which you shouldn’t do, you might look to walk rate. The table above is sortable. If you sort by walk rate, you will find six players with walk rates lower than 5%. Those six players also happen to be the bottom six players in terms of career wRC+. The walk rates of both Guerrero and Tatis are around 10%, well above that mark.
In sum, debuts come in all shapes and sizes and for players like Guerrero, how they perform in their first 10 games or so has little bearing on how they ultimately will do in their careers. Guerrero has hardly seen any pitches to hit in the last couple weeks, but he has yet to chase outside the zone at a high rate. He might not have a track record at the major league level to lean on, but he does have a track record, and it says he will hit. Panic if you must, but you are likely to look foolish very soon.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.