Vladimir Guerrero Jr. looks poised for a big year for the Blue Jays, and history is on his side as far as the growth of young MLB phenoms.
For every Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, or Bo Bichette that bursts on to the big league stage from day one, there are hundreds of others who take a while to adjust to playing against the best players in the world. That’s been the reality for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. over his first two years as a Blue Jay. With a shortened season in 2020 he’s only been able to play 183 games so far, but there have been some valuable lessons learned for the former top prospect in baseball. With a renewed commitment to conditioning and overall fitness, the early returns are very encouraging thus far this spring.
Beyond simply getting in proper shape and learning that lesson about life in the big leagues, Vlad Jr. is now reaching a stage where other young phenoms have been before him, and it’s an exciting time. We have to remember that it’s not very often you see a player debut at the highest level at just 20 years old, and that’s exactly what the slugger forced the Blue Jays to do back in 2019. There have been mixed results over that time, with a MLB slash line of .269/.336/.442 with 24 home runs, 29 doubles, and 102 RBI across 685 at-bats to go along with some defensive adventures, but there have been positive signs even in the struggles.
If we’re looking at other recent examples of players who debuted at 20 or younger, you’ll see that not everyone starts out like Tatis Jr. or Bichette. In fact, I’d like to point you to two of the biggest names in the sport and compare how their careers started out.
2012 season (19 years old)- .270/.340/.477, 22 HR, 59 RBI, 26 doubles, 139 games
2013 season (20 years old)– .274/.368/.486, 20 HR, 58 RBI, 24 doubles, 118 games
2014 season (21 years old)- .273/.344/.423, 13 HR, 32 RBI, 10 doubles, 100 games
2015 season (22 years old)- .330/.460/.649, 42 HR, 99 RBI, 38 doubles, 153 games- *NL MVP*
Obviously it was a little different path for Harper than it’s been for Vlad Jr., as he debuted at a younger age and had a little more success to begin with. However, the point is that it took a few years for Harper to transform from a good player to a great one, and by year four at 22 years old that’s exactly what he’d become. He had more experience under his belt than Guerrero Jr. has at the moment, but the game has also shifted to a younger crop of players over the last decade as well.
Harper isn’t the only phenom we can draw a comparison to here either. In fact, as far as games played goes, I like this one a lot more.
2014 season (21 years old)- .291/.368/.444, 5 HR, 18 RBI, 12 doubles, 52 games
2015 season (22 years old)- .291/.341/.479, 18 HR, 77 RBI, 42 doubles, 145 games
2016 season (23 years old)- .318/.363/.534, 31 HR, 113 RBI, 42 doubles, 158 games
Here again, I recognize that Betts is a different type of player than Guerrero Jr. He added a ton of defensive value during his first three seasons (and still does today in L.A.), and stole his fair share of bases. However, the comparison is at the plate, and we can see that we didn’t see MVP-candidate Mookie until he had nearly 200 games of MLB experience on his resume.
I could cherry pick several other players to make my point, but I thought I’d turn to a former Blue Jay who entered the league with a lot of hype at a young age.
1993 season (21 years old)– .000/.500/.000 *two plate appearances in total
1994 season (22 years old)- .215/.352/.438, 9 HR, 24 RBI, 2 doubles, 43 games
1995 season (23 years old)- .165/.212/.297, 3 HR, 11 RBI, 3 doubles, 37 games
1996 season (24 years old)- .270/.353/.490, 25 HR, 92 RBI, 28 doubles, 138 games
1998 season (26 years old)- .292/.385/.592, 38 HR, 115 RBI, 43 doubles, 142 games
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Like Vlad Jr., Delgado took some time to find himself at the big league level, and also needed a defensive home. He was originally developed as a catcher at one time and also tried the outfield before he ultimately settled at first base where he’d play the bulk of his 17-year career. He finished as high as 2nd in AL MVP voting as a Blue Jay in 2003, and will be remembered as one of the best hitters in franchise history. That said, it took him a while to get going too.
I know that some folks are discouraged that Vlad Jr. has been passed by the likes of Tatis Jr., Soto, and even Bichette on the list of the best young MLB players, but it’s far too early to write the story of his big league career. Granted, he hasn’t realized the potential that the entered the league with, and there have been plenty of frustrations along the way.
However, based on the shape that he showed up to camp in and the way he’s torn the cover off the ball this spring, don’t be surprised if Vlad Jr. takes his rightful place as one of the most feared young hitters in baseball. For some guys, it just takes a little longer to get to that point, and he’s still just 22 years old.