At the beginning of 2019 it seemed fair to have modest expectations for Bo Bichette’s campaign.
The 21-year-old was coming off a strong year at Double-A, but it was easy to envision the Toronto Blue Jays keeping him in Triple-A all season - and perhaps into 2020 - mirroring their plan for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Bichette was an exciting prospect fans were itching to see, but his arrival didn’t appear imminent.
To the Blue Jays’ credit, they didn’t opt to transparently manipulate the youngster’s service time, and as a result the fan base was treated to an absolutely electric performance from Bichette. The 21-year-old made an assault on the record books - primarily esoteric records relating to a certain number of extra-base hits in his first few games, to be fair - and injected some life into a team that had just shipped spark plug Marcus Stroman out of town.
In 46 games, the shortstop posted a .311/.358/.571 line with 11 home runs, and entrenched himself as the Blue Jays’ leadoff hitter. His aggressive approach at the plate led to subpar walk (6.6 percent) and strikeout (23.6 percent) rates, but he pummelled the baseball enough to easily overcome those deficiencies. His swing-heavy approach leaves some questions about his offensive profile going forward, but what he was doing worked for him in 2019.
Beyond his accomplishments, Bichette brought a hefty dose of entertainment value. From his now-famous flow, to his reckless base running, to his willingness to take enormous hacks, the rookie was exciting - often in ways his compatriot Guerrero Jr. wasn’t. It’s far too early to say who will be the better player, though the smart money may still be with Vladdy despite his tough rookie campaign.
Perhaps the most significant thing Bichette did this year was solidify his status as a shortstop. There had long been doubts about whether he could stick at the position and the rookie dispelled each and every one. Although he made more errors (7) than the Blue Jays would have liked in just over a quarter of a season, they were exceedingly pleased with his progress.
Ross Atkins delivered quite the diatribe on his defensive accomplishments in his season-ending press conference:
He overcame some mistakes with range. The range was so good it made up for some of the mistakes I don’t think he’ll be making in the future. He’s the type of person and athlete who doesn’t make mistakes twice or often. The range, the arm strength are clearly there, the hands are definitely there, he has exceptional footwork. Now the timing of who’s running and when to get rid of the ball and the consistency of transitions for him and fielding the ball on difference surfaces. We’re confident he’s going to be an above-average defender.
Of course Atkins is incentivized to say good things about his shortstop, but the numbers bear out his words. According to UZR, Bichette’s range was worth +2.0 runs — an impressive number considering how few games he played. The small sample size adds a level of doubt there, but by watching Bichette in action, his athleticism and ability to get to balls shine through clearly.
Prior to 2019, the Blue Jays had a talented infield prospect with an unclear arrival date and some positional uncertainty who had yet to conquer Triple-A. He looked like a crucial piece of the picture, but there was plenty of uncertainty there. Today, the Blue Jays are equipped with a bona fide shortstop who’s already put on a dominant offensive performance at the MLB level. That’s a pretty significant difference.
Bichette isn’t an established star just yet. As good as he was in his rookie season, questions about the sustainability of his approach and his offensive ceiling remain. As far as 2019 goes, though, there’s really almost nothing he could have done better.
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