A new defensive metric was released this week, and in what should come as a surprise to no one, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Blue Jays didn’t score so well.
If feels like a long time ago already that we were all clamouring for Vladimir Guerrero Jr’s MLB debut.
As the teenager was brutalizing minor league pitching throughout the 2018 season, it was pretty obvious that his bat was ready for the next challenge. However, the Blue Jays frequently discussed how the rest of his game needed work in the minor leagues, and even if we were rolling our collective eyes at the excuses back then, there was and is some truth to the idea. Even after his first nearly-full MLB season under his belt, Vlad Jr. is still very much a work in progress at third base.
In fact, there was a never measurement introduced to the world of baseball statistics on Wednesday, thanks to the folks over at Baseball Savant. It’s called ‘Infield Outs Above Average’, and it helps to determine what kind of value big leaguers bring to the infield on defence. Topping the list were some of baseball’s best glovemen such as Javier Baez, Nolan Arenado, Andrelton Simmons, Nick Admed, and more.
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And in what should come as no big surprise to Blue Jays fans that watched much of last season, Vlad Jr. came in dead last out of 139 qualified players.
Maybe it’s not fair to say that his coming in last was expected, but I don’t think many of us would have been shocked to see his name near the bottom of the list. I also think that if we’re being fair to the 20-year-old, that was more or less what he was set up for last season, at least in terms of his defensive development. The fact is, it was his bat that pushed him to the big leagues at such a young age, and we should have been prepared for the needed growth at the hot corner.
The encouraging part was that he did show improvement as the season went on, but he couldn’t do enough to recover enough to change his overall ratings. According to FanGraphs, he posted a UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) of -9.4. By comparison, Arenado (as the top 3rd baseman according to the new metric) was worth +10.3 during the 2020 season, which is a pretty staggering difference. As for another metric, baseballreference.com had Vlad Jr. as a -0.2 according to their dWAR measurement, and Arenado was a +1.1.
When we look at how this new defensive metric is measured, again, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Vlad struggled. It’s a complicated formula, but here’s the short summary that Baseball Savant provided:
• How far the fielder has to go to reach the ball (“the intercept point”)
• How much time he has to get there
• How far he then is from the base the runner is heading to
• On force plays, how fast the batter is, on average
Guerrero Jr’s biggest issue (from my vantage point), was when he had to charge the baseball, and his poor rating here makes sense. He showed off a very strong throwing arm while at third base, but it was clear that he needed to work on his footwork, his timing, and even his mobility. It’s well summed up here by MLB.com’s Keegan Matheson as well:
The good news is that Vlad Jr. has taken that challenge seriously since reaching the highest level, and he made some pretty solid gains last year. He’s regularly been working out with the infield coaching instructors, and it sounds like he’s working to get in better physical shape ahead of next season, which won’t hurt either. From all accounts, he wants to be a third baseman rather than moving to first base or having to DH, and he appears committed to making the necessary improvements in order to stick at the hot corner.
So, what should we take away from this newfound knowledge? Well, for those of us that were watching last season, I don’t know that there were any great revelations in the report (other than how well Cavan Biggio rated, maybe), at least in terms of Vlad Jr. That said, if we remember that he’s still just 20 years old, that his glove wasn’t really ready for the big leagues, and that he’s making steady improvements, it shouldn’t really bother anyone either.
If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t put money on Vladimir Guerrero Jr. becoming a Gold Glover at third base at the MLB level. However, with a lot of lessons and experiences behind him from his rookie season, and a new understanding of what it takes to thrive in the big leagues, I don’t think you’ll see him at the bottom of the list a year from now.