There’s No Ignoring Jesus Aguilar Anymore

Among qualified hitters this season, Jesus Aguilar is tied for fourth in wRC+. He’s the current National League leader in home runs. He homered yesterday against the Marlins. The day before that, he homered twice against the Braves. At last update, he’s the leader in the NL for the All-Star Game’s Final Vote. Every player in there is good, but Aguilar is perfectly deserving.

Don’t like half-year samples? Since last season began, Aguilar has batted 596 times. He’s put up a 136 wRC+, which matches the wRC+ put up by Anthony Rendon. Mookie Betts is at 135. Nolan Arenado is at 133. Looking at first basemen, Aguilar has been out-hit by only Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman, and Paul Goldschmidt. Last season proves that Aguilar is no random flash in the pan.

It’s a bit of a funny coincidence that the Brewers are hurting for a second baseman, because late in the spring in 2017, they dropped Scooter Gennett, who’s turned into an All-Star. Gennett, in a sense, is exactly what the Brewers could use. Just a couple months earlier, though, the Brewers claimed Aguilar, who’s also in the process of turning into an All-Star. There was no room for Aguilar in Cleveland, and then he was in part responsible for there being no room for Gennett in Milwaukee. So as far as second base goes, the Brewers can be only so upset. Aguilar fought for opportunities to prove himself. He’s seized the few chances he’s had.

I mentioned those two homers against the Braves. They came on Sunday, and they’re delightful to watch. I like to think of them as being representative dingers. Here’s Aguilar with a two-strike count in the seventh:

And here’s Aguilar with a two-strike count in the eighth:

In one, Aguilar stays on an offspeed pitch away, and drives the ball out to right field. In the other, Aguilar turns on a fastball in, and drives the ball out to left. You see him staying on 84, and you see him turning on 96. Two swings don’t mean anything on their own, but this is Aguilar in back-to-back innings, and it’s immediately clear that he’s an all-fields threat.

To get to this point — well, we should rewind, real quick. Aguilar joined the Brewers in February of 2017, but the team had also signed Eric Thames to play first base. Aguilar can’t handle any other position, not very well, so he didn’t have a clear path to much playing time. He had to earn a roster spot with a big spring, and even then, he was a backup. Through the end of April, he’d started only six games. In no month did he start more than 11. Aguilar’s chances were only semi-regular, and it’s not as if he’s someone with a ton of defensive versatility.

He hit just fine, but even this spring, it didn’t look like Aguilar would have much of a role. Once again, Thames stood in his way. Aguilar got a spot on the bench, but he started just six of the first 24 games. And then Thames got hurt. He’s not hurt anymore, but he’s having to re-familiarize himself with the outfield, because Aguilar is too good to sit.

Jesus Aguilar had been slapped with the Quad-A label. Some executives believe there are Quad-A hitters; other executives believe they’re just hitters who haven’t been given a fair shot. Aguilar was fortunate to end up with Milwaukee, and for the sake of his own career, you could say he was fortunate that Thames got injured. Not that he’d ever say that, of course, but that’s what allowed Aguilar to play just about every day. And that’s what’s allowed him to show that he’s an All-Star-caliber hitter.

He’s a power hitter more than he’s anything else, and what’s impressive to me is that he hits the ball hard everywhere. Look at these distributions over the past year and a half:

  • Pull: 238 wRC+
  • Middle: 200
  • Opposite: 223

To the pull side, Aguilar ranks in the 93rd percentile. Up the middle, he ranks in the 95th; going the other way, he ranks in the 98th. Aguilar can hit home runs in every direction. In case you need a refresher, isolated power is simply slugging percentage minus batting average. Since the start of last season, Aguilar has put up a .443 ISO to the pull side. To the other areas, combined, he’s at .400. There have been only seven hitters with ISOs of at least .350 in both categories. Aguilar’s all-fields power is uncommon.

And this is a player who seems to be getting better. Compared to last year, Aguilar’s wRC+ is up 50 points. Where, before, his expected wOBA ranked in the 70th percentile, now it ranks in the 90th. This despite facing more same-handed pitchers — Aguilar, in 2017, got more action as a platoon hitter. Much of Aguilar’s approach now is similar, and it’s not as if he’s overhauled his swing. But what he’s done is make himself quicker. This is reflected by the fact that Aguilar has been one of the best fastball hitters in either league. These days, he’s not nearly so easy to overpower. Check out the following plot, which shows contact rates against in-zone fastballs for 2017 and 2018. Aguilar is the point in yellow.

Against fastballs in the zone in 2017, Aguilar made contact when swinging 74% of the time, which ranked him in the 6th percentile. Against fastballs in the zone in 2018, Aguilar has made contact when swinging 88% of the time, which ranks him in the 59th percentile. His is the third-biggest improvement in baseball, as far as this measure is concerned, and it means Aguilar isn’t so easy to put away with elevated heat. Those whiffs against fastballs up in the zone have started to go away, and Aguilar’s numbers have climbed as a result. He’s a power hitter, but his swing isn’t so complicated and long that he gets himself tied up.

To be clear, I don’t think Aguilar is one of the absolute best of the best. He’s a tier below the superstar first basemen, and he could stand to either chase less often, or swing in the zone more often. His discipline profile isn’t outstanding. But that could evolve over time, and even today, Aguilar seems similar to, say, Gary Sanchez. The good version of Gary Sanchez, the version of Sanchez who goes on his tears. The comp doesn’t extend into the field, obviously, given that Sanchez is a catcher, but even though Aguilar is large, he’s been an average baserunner, and he rates as an above-average defender at his position. In no area is Aguilar a liability. In the box, he’s a strength. He’s a candidate to go deep in any given plate appearance.

Within a couple months, going back a year and a half, the Brewers basically added an All-Star for nothing, and they lost an All-Star for nothing. The former makes the latter an awful lot easier to stomach. Players need to be given opportunities to flourish. That opportunity wasn’t going to be there for Gennett in Milwaukee. And that opportunity wasn’t going to be there for Aguilar in Cleveland. Their loss is the Brewers’ gain. I don’t even think the Indians did anything wrong, or that the Brewers did anything brilliant. Aguilar simply forced his way into their plans. He could soon have a trip to DC to show for it.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

There was room for Aguilar in Cleveland. After the Indians finally dumped Nick Swisher’s contract to Atlanta, they chose to play Chris Gimenez and Chris Johnson over him in 2015. They would have played Johnson even more had he not suffered a spider bite and got an infection. They had a chance to see what he could do every day.

5 years ago
Reply to  JayCle

Cleveland probably wanted the position “flexibility” of Chris Johnson being able to play 3B over Aguilar. I wonder if this may be a more common occurrence where a bat first, defensive inefficient, out of options player get dealt due to modern day 12/13 man pitching staffs, putting a premium on position flexibility for bench players. Different but similar to what happened to JD Martinez in Houston.

5 years ago
Reply to  mbrunette48

FWIW, Aguilar has appeared in 4 games at 3B for MIL this season. No idea how well he’s done there, but it’s a thing that the Brewers have been willing to screw around with at least on occasion

5 years ago
Reply to  JayCle

Chris Gimenez didn’t even play for Cleveland in 2015. Unless Aguilar can catch, Gimenez playing 59 games at catcher for Cleveland in 2016 also isn’t really relevant. Santana was their full time 1b. It’s not like Aguilar could platoon with Raburn at DH.

5 years ago
Reply to  isavage

Also, when Swisher got traded. Aguilar was in the midst of a poor season at AAA. Swisher was traded on August 7th. At that point, Aguilar was hitting .255/.314/405. Not that exciting for a 25 year old first baseman.