When Vladimir Guerrero Jr. lost 42 pounds in the offseason — and hit .421/.511/.727 in spring training — expectations around his 2021 campaign rose. A quarter of the way through the season, he’s already shattering them.
Outside of Mike Trout, the big first baseman has been the most dominant offensive force in the game hitting .329/.445/.615 with a wRC+ of 190 and a WAR of 2.4 — four times his total from his rookie and sophomore seasons combined.
He’s nearly doubled his career walk rate, cut down on his strikeouts slightly, improved his launch angle, and is on pace to nearly triple his career high in home runs. This is the breakout the Blue Jays have been waiting for.
The ‘outside of Mike Trout’ part is pertinent too, because with the game’s greatest player on track to miss up to two months, suddenly Guerrero Jr. isn’t just an emerging star, he has the look of a real MVP candidate.
While that might seem premature, no one in the major leagues can match Vladdy’s ability to crush baseballs while posting elite walk and strikeout rates.
There are only seven qualified hitters with more walks than strikeouts this season, and Guerrero Jr. has the highest slugging percentage of the bunch at .615. The other six guys are averaging a combined .439 — and the one hitter who’s close is Yuli Gurriel. He’s at .555, but Statcast gives him an xSLG of .438, which suggests he’s had plenty of luck in the early going.
Guerrero Jr. has the ability to hit for enormous power without opening up holes in his swing, and that skill is unusual as strikeout rates soar around the league. Although 2021 stats come from a small sample, Vladdy’s plate discipline and power aren’t going anywhere. His BABIP of .340 isn’t outlandish for a guy who hits the ball like he does and Statcast pegs his xAVG at a healthy .307, just a touch below where he’s at.
The 190 wRC+ he’s rocking now might not be sustainable — it’s a mark that only two hitters (Miguel Cabrera in 2013 and Bryce Harper in 2015) have touched in full seasons since Barry Bonds roamed the earth — as Guerrero Jr. has some room to fall and still hit like a viable MVP choice.
Over the past 10 MVP races, the average winner has posted a wRC+ of 169.4. FanGraphs has five different projection systems that give him different wRC+ numbers for the rest of the year, with those we can take a swing at where he ends up — which looks like this:
Rest of season wRC+ projection
Approximate end of season total
The Bat X
Depending on which system you believe — and whether you think the projection systems are reacting quickly and strongly enough to Guerrero Jr.’s breakout — he could be right in the mix with recent MVPs.
He also could have the benefit of a good narrative on his side. Right now, FanGraphs gives the Blue Jays 58.5 percent playoff odds, which means that if they make it Guerrero Jr. could easily be seen as the difference for a team that had to fight for their playoff berth. When you add on the fairly accurate notion that Vladdy carried his club while high-priced star George Springer couldn’t get out of the starting gate, his case of being valuable to his team is strong — for the voters who prioritize that sort of thing.
There are two major issues facing the 22-year-old, though:
Defence and base running
The MVP race is usually determined by offensive numbers first and foremost, but with the rise of WAR, defense and base running metrics get serious consideration. Although Guerrero Jr. has improved drastically at this part of the game, being a first baseman is going to hurt him — even if he’s above-average at the position.
Among the recent MVP’s mentioned above only two (José Abreu and Freddie Freeman in 2020) played first base. Abreu’s case last year should give Guerrero Jr. the most hope because the Chicago White Sox veteran played sub-par defence at first and managed an attainable 166 wRC+.
In terms of base running, Guerrero Jr. has gotten significantly faster — and he’s fairly aggressive taking extra bases — but it’s hard to see him doing much better than treading water. Nothing Vladdy has done thus far indicates he can be like Paul Goldschmidt, or Albert Pujols in his prime, and create significant value on the bases with average speed and craftiness.
The Shohei Ohtani problem
There’s no doubt that Ohtani is the best story in baseball. Even though the Angels are a disaster, voters may want to reward his rare two-way excellence. It’s a valid premise, and if the Japanese star continues at his current pace there may be no stopping that train.
However, even with his pitching and hitting contributions combined, Ohtani’s WAR (2.0) lags behind Guerrero Jr.'s, and his high strikeout rate (28.7 percent) and relatively modest OBP (.323) make him a better bet to crash to earth.
The biggest worry with Ohtani is also his ability to remain healthy despite the unique way he’s being used. Baseball fans everywhere would be devastated to see him go down as he’s starting to realize his game-changing potential, but there’s a reason he totalled just 1.2 innings on the mound in 2019 and 2020. Even if he doesn’t get hurt, there’s also a risk of the Los Angeles Angels easing off the throttle with his playing time to be cautious, especially if they’re totally out of contention.
While the version of Ohtani we’re seeing now would probably take MVP honours, we might be looking at a different situation with him come September.
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