It’s probably fair to say that batting average, as a shorthand for the quality of a hitter, has lost a bit of luster over the past decade or two as the public has become acquainted with metrics that correlate more strongly with scoring runs and winning games. That said, for a player to hit safely in 40% of his at-bats at any professional level is still incredibly rare and worthy of consideration.
Even if he weren’t to hit .400 this year, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. would still be worthy of consideration. As the son of a Hall of Famer, as a 19-year-old who has already reached Triple-A, there’s plenty that merits attention. But he’s also batting .389 in the middle of August, which means that Guerrero the Younger has a shot at a historic season.
Over at MLB.com, Jim Callis went through the list of minor leaguers who have hit .400 in a season. It’s not long. Back in 1999, Erubiel Durazo was a 25-year-old playing in Arizona’s system after a few years in the Mexican League. He hit .404 in 409 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A before his callup to the majors. He hit .329 for the Diamondbacks, putting his average at .381 for the full season. Back in 1961, Aaron Pointer hit .401, but almost all of that time was spent in Class-D, which was low in the stratosphere of minor-league affiliates — sitting below not only Triple-A, Double-A, and Single-A, but also Class-B and -C. Given the state of the minor leagues before the 1960s, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the last time a a player hit .400 facing a reasonably high level of competition was Ted Williams in 1941, when he hit .406 on the season.
Guerrero missed time earlier in the year with a knee injury and has come to bat just 351 times this season. If he plays out the minor-league season and starts 13 of 15 game,s averaging 4.3 plate appearances per game, he’s only going to end up with around 407 plate appearances, which isn’t quite a full season. Assuming 3.1 PA per game over 136 minor-league games, one arrives at 422 PA as the standard for the high minors. Even if the Blue Jays brought Guerrero to the big leagues — more on that later — and gave him 20 starts, he’d still end up at roughly 493 plate appearances, just short of the 502 needed to qualify for the MLB batting title.
To determine Guerrero’s chances at hitting .400 in the minor league season, we have to approximate Guerrero’s talent level against minor leaguers. He has a .389 total batting average between Double-A and Triple-A with a .339 average in only 71 Triple-A plate appearances. With 56 presumed plate appearances left in the minor-league season, we can expect him to take six walks, which would be consistent with his 10% walk rate this season.
Using that calculus, Guerrero would need to record 24 hits in his final 50 at-bats in order to hit .400 on the season. What are the chances of that happening? I’ll provide two scenarios, one where Guerrero’s current .389 average represents his current talent level and one where a more reasonable .340 average does.
|MiLB Talent Level||Exactly .400||At least .400|
If you believe that what Guerrero has done this season represents his talent level against minor-league pitchers, then he has a 12% chance of hitting .400 this season. If .340 is more representative of expectations in Triple-A the rest of the season, then the odds are just 3% to reach the magic number. Because there is so little time left in the season and Guerrero currently has ground to make up, his chances don’t look great. If he were hitting .400 right now, even at the .340 projection, his chances at .400 wold be around 22% and near 50% with a .389 projection. As it stands, to give him 50/50 odds at .400, you’d need to believe he’s a .471 projected hitter.
Guerrero’s season doesn’t have to end with the conclusion of the minor-league season, though, as the parent Blue Jays play baseball all September. I’ve added another 20 games for Guerrero with a few different projections, including Steamer’s .302, to find a few more odds.
|MiLB/MLB Talent Level||Exactly .400||At least .400|
Providing Guerrero with a larger sample over which to reach .400 doesn’t really improve his chances, because a promotion to the majors also means a step up in competition. Even if you think Guerrero is a .389 minor-league hitter and a .340 major-league hitter, he would still only have a 7% chance at hitting .400 over the rest of the season. It’s not impossible. Craig Wilson, for example, got 53 plate appearances for the White Sox in his 1998 debut and hit .468. It just isn’t likely.
There is one other scenario we haven’t discussed, however, and that’s the Blue Jays calling up Guerrero right now. We’ll go with the Steamer .302 figure for that. As the table below indicates, the odds are very long in this version of things.
|MLB Talent Level||Exactly .400||At least .400|
If Guerrero were called up today, he’d only have a 1-in-500 shot at having a .400 season. His odds of hitting .400 in the majors over the course of the rest of the season would be about 1-in-100. Those odds might be long, but they are actually pretty impressive. That .302 projected batting average from Steamer is behind only Jose Altuve’s .307 mark while matching Mike Trout and Mookie Betts’s figures. It’s not just batting average where Guerrero rates highly. He is one of the top-20 hitters in baseball right now despite having to stay in the minors all year.
|J.D. Martinez||Red Sox||.295||.366||.573||148|
|Mookie Betts||Red Sox||.302||.381||.534||143|
|Josh Donaldson||Blue Jays||.260||.367||.496||134|
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||Blue Jays||.302||.365||.493||132|
|Eloy Jimenez||White Sox||.293||.336||.510||129|
|Jose Abreu||White Sox||.283||.344||.503||128|
While the numbers suggest Guerrero might already be one of baseball’s best hitters, he’s unlikely to have an opportunity to provide proof of concept. If the Blue Jays were contending for a playoff spot and trying actively to win games, Guerrero would likely already have a place in their lineup. They aren’t, though, so he isn’t. And because Guerrero isn’t a Blue Jay now, he likely won’t be a Blue Jay for the first few weeks of next season, either, as Toronto seeks to acquire another year of control over their hitting prodigy. We saw this happen to Kris Bryant in his rookie campaign. We saw it happen with Gleyber Torres and Ronald Acuna in April of this year. (Here’s a reminder that the Braves are currently one game from falling out of the playoffs.) It’s likely to happen with Guerrero and Eloy Jimenez next spring.
While there is sometimes real logic for giving certain prospects extra time in the minors, the practice of doing so merely to extend team control by a year ultimately does a disservice to the game. Currently, however, that’s the direction in which teams are incentivized — even teams that appear likely to compete for a playoff spot. Ultimately, everyone would benefit from an improved version of the policy. Kris Bryant’s service-time grievance went nowhere, however, so some combination of the union, teams, and/or commissioner will have to change this practice and prevent it from occurring.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.