Vlad Jr. Could Capture the Triple Crown

Vladimir Guerrero spent 16 years in the majors, hitting .318 with 449 home runs and nabbing scores of overambitious baserunners with his cannon of an arm. Just a couple years ago, he gave his induction speech in Cooperstown after breezing into the Hall of Fame on his second appearance on the ballot. For a son getting into the same profession, matching those accolades is a tall order, one of Jon Rauchian proportions. But after a so-so start to his major league career, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is having a breakout season and now threatens to do something Dad never did: win a Triple Crown.

That the younger Guerrero is quite adept at hitting a baseball shouldn’t shock anyone, though his first two stints in the majors were admittedly more middling than magical. But hype is difficult, and I suspect that if he played under a nom de guerre rather than a nom de Guerrero, people would likely have been far more patient before starting to worry about him. As I wrote about Guerrero in my preseason breakout picks:

Perhaps not the gutsiest call, but it feels to me like people have soured way too much on Vladito. A 112 wRC+ won’t win any Silver Sluggers, but we have to remember he was just 21 last season. Let’s imagine that Guerrero Jr. wasn’t part of the imperial-Vlad bloodline and was just a guy in Triple-A in 2020 (in an alternate universe where the minor league season existed). If we translate Guerrero’s actual major league performance into a Triple-A Buffalo line, ZiPS estimates that he would’ve been hitting .288/.370/.526 as a 21-year-old in the International League. Would anyone be disappointed with this line? There would be cries of Free Vlad! echoing through the streets by June. I think players like Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. have spoiled us for normal awesome prospects.

While he was one of my favorite breakout picks, I certainly can’t claim to have seen a breakout on this particular level. If we look back at the preseason projections, neither could ZiPS:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .289 .368 .572 537 84 155 38 6 34 111 64 78 4 150 4.7
80% .284 .357 .540 543 82 154 36 5 31 107 58 85 3 139 4.0
70% .279 .350 .521 545 80 152 35 5 29 103 56 88 2 133 3.5
60% .278 .347 .506 547 78 152 34 5 27 99 54 93 2 128 3.2
50% .275 .342 .486 549 77 151 33 4 25 96 52 96 2 122 2.7
40% .274 .339 .472 551 77 151 32 4 23 93 50 99 1 117 2.3
30% .272 .336 .457 552 75 150 31 4 21 89 49 103 1 113 2.0
20% .267 .327 .440 555 73 148 30 3 20 87 46 109 1 106 1.5
10% .266 .324 .425 557 72 148 29 3 18 84 44 119 1 102 1.2

Now, he hasn’t yet completed 2021 with a wRC+ of 206, but if he did, that’s in 99th percentile territory. I’ve been working on calibrating this model since the start of the season, and projected right now, his 90th percentile wRC+ gets a bump to 163, but 206 still would have been seen as a one-in-50 shot to happen.

As of Tuesday morning, Guerrero leads the American League in batting average, home runs, and RBI, baseball’s Triple Crown components. His sterling performance has been enough for a wRC+ bump of an impressive 27 points since March in ZiPS’ estimate of his current level of ability. At this point, it’s hard to argue his ceiling has been raised; the main question is how high. In the updated projections, which combine year-to-date with the rest-of-season projections, ZiPS has Guerrero leading the league in home runs and RBI and finishing second in batting average behind Michael Brantley. Steamer has Guerrero leading in all three categories.

Even if the stats were reset to zero, Vladito’s projections have improved to the point that he’d have a fighting chance to lead in the three stats, and be in the top 10 in each.

What this doesn’t tell us is the probability that Vlad does, in fact, win the Triple Crown. For that, I used the ZiPS season simulation and projected the rest of 2021 a million times for the American League, then added to the stats already in the books, counting — by computer, not by hand, of course– how many times each player led the league in the Triple Crown categories.

ZiPS Projected BA Leaders – American League
Name BA Leader
Michael Brantley 31.1%
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 27.2%
Xander Bogaerts 22.4%
Tim Anderson 6.3%
Yuli Gurriel 3.9%
Yordan Alvarez 2.9%
J.D. Martinez 1.8%
Jose Altuve 1.7%
Cedric Mullins II 0.7%
Alex Verdugo 0.6%

Injuries have been a red flag for Brantley, but he’s been healthy enough to qualify for the batting title in three consecutive seasons after missing more than 200 games in 2016 and ’17 combined. Assuming perfect health, ZiPS would give him about a 43% chance of taking the batting title, but with him already having missed time with a hamstring injury, he has a smaller margin of error in getting the required plate appearances. ZiPS sees Vlad at the back of the top 10 in rest-of-season batting average, but he’s got a 23-point cushion over the non-Brantley candidates. Also providing an assist is that two of the bigger threats, Mike Trout and Luis Arraez, are almost certainly going to fall short of 3.1 plate appearances per game (or lose too much BA if they fall just short in PA).

ZiPS Projected HR Leaders – American League
Name HR Leader
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 32.0%
Matt Olson 25.5%
Aaron Judge 10.3%
Giancarlo Stanton 8.7%
Miguel Sanó 6.6%
Shohei Ohtani 4.6%
Nelson Cruz 3.2%
José Ramírez 2.4%
Joey Gallo 1.4%
Teoscar Hernández 1.3%

ZiPS still sees Matt Olson and Giancarlo Stanton as better home run hitters, but the four-homer edge to date is enough to leave Vlad the favorite over either. The computer projects him with a 44% shot to beat his dad’s career-high of 44; it surprises me too, but Vlad Sr. never led the league (or finished second) in any Triple Crown stat. The projections give him a 28% chance to pass the 50-homer threshold.

ZiPS Projected RBI Leaders – American League
Name RBI Leader
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 29.7%
José Abreu 22.6%
Matt Olson 13.8%
Rafael Devers 7.1%
Shohei Ohtani 4.1%
Teoscar Hernández 3.9%
Giancarlo Stanton 3.4%
Jared Walsh 3.1%
Bo Bichette 2.6%
Kyle Tucker 2.5%

José Abreu isn’t repeating his 2020 season, but he’s still a player who should hit for power, even in a relative down season. As importantly, Abreu hits third or fourth in a White Sox lineup that’s been surprisingly potent for a team that’s lost Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert. Nobody has more plate appearances with runners on base this season than Abreu. But the Jays are no slouches, and as with the other categories, Guerrero has the lead right now.

If you wanted to be lazy, you’d multiply Vlad’s probability of leading each category together and get 2.6%, decent odds of getting into the record books. That, of course, is something you cannot actually do since these aren’t independent variables. The hundred games of baseball that leave Guerrero with the home run title also leave him with the RBI title most of the time. Batting average isn’t as highly correlated with the others, but if Guerrero hits .340, well, many of those hits will be homers and/or drive in runners. All told, ZiPS gives him a 19.1% chance of winning the Triple Crown. Not a bad shot at something that’s been done once in the last half-century.

Leading all of baseball in the Triple Crown categories — the Triple Crown Magnifique, as I like to call it — is a trickier challenge. That one hasn’t been done since Mickey Mantle in 1956, and Vlad has tough competition in this one. Fighting against Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ronald Acuña Jr. in a battle for junior supremacy drops his chances from 19.1% to well under 1% (0.2%).

Whether he wins the Triple Crown or not, it appears the Vladimir Guerrero Jr. era is in full swing. I don’t have kids, but I’m at least of the belief that most parents hope to see their children exceed their accomplishments. Vladito has a long way to go, but 2021 looks like the start of a run that may end with him achieving just that.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Brian Reinhart
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“if he played under a nom de guerre rather than a nom de Guerrero”

reluctant acknowledgement of really first-class punning

neuronic
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neuronic

You know Dan’s been saving that one for a while. Good stuff.