A year ago, Jesús Aguilar looked like a long-term solution for the Brewers at first base. Now, the Tampa Bay Rays didn’t deem him worthy of a roster spot. Aguilar, who the Rays acquired from Milwaukee at the deadline for right-handed pitcher Jake Faria, was designated for assignment the day before Thanksgiving after a disappointing 2019.
Aguilar was expected to make just $2.5 million next year, but the Rays didn’t want to take a chance on him. That shouldn’t be surprising. $2.5 million for the miserly Rays is like $10 million for any other team, and this is the same team that non-tendered C.J. Cron after a 30-homer, 123 wRC+ season. The Rays also have plenty of other options at first or designated hitter including Nate Lowe, Ji-Man Choi, and Yandy Díaz, so of course Aguilar found himself as the odd player out.
Aguilar’s 2019 collapse was one of the more pronounced in baseball. After hitting .272/.352/.539 for a 134 wRC+, Aguilar’s power evaporated. During his time with the Brewers and Rays, Aguilar combined to slash .236/.325/.389 for an 88 wRC+. That 46 point drop in wRC+ was the third-highest in baseball behind Mookie Betts, who went from an MVP to an All-Star, and Khris Davis, who went from a .247 hitter to a not-.247 hitter. Aguilar did improve slightly during his time in Tampa, but that still wasn’t enough to save him.
When trying to find what went wrong, the first thing that stands out is the drop in BABIP. Aguilar went from a perfectly average .309 BABIP to .272. That his xwOBA of .334 in 2019 only represented a 24-point drop from 2018 would suggest that he was just getting inordinately unlucky. However, this bout of bad luck was at least partially self-inflicted. Per Baseball Savant, Aguilar’s hard-hit rate fell from 42.6 percent in 2018 to 37.7. That brought him from the 77th percentile to the 42nd. Aguilar also put more balls on the ground this year. His ground ball rate rose from 35.7 to 42.9, and almost all of those came from his fly balls.
In 2018, so much of Aguilar’s success depended on his ability to mash fastballs. When Jeff Sullivan wrote about Aguilar at FanGraphs in June of last year, he noted that Aguilar had vastly improved his contact rate on fastballs in the strike zone.
Against fastballs in the zone in 2017, Aguilar made contact when swinging 74% of the time, which ranked him in the 6th percentile. Against fastballs in the zone in 2018, Aguilar has made contact when swinging 88% of the time, which ranks him in the 59th percentile.
According to pitch values, Aguilar’s 24.5 runs against fastballs ranked 11th in the majors in 2018. This year, though, his contact rate on fastballs in the zone fell to a more pedestrian 83.1 percent and his production on heaters was roughly average (0.4).
It wasn’t all bad news for Aguilar. His plate discipline improved even if his contact on fastballs fell. He swung at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone, and swung at more pitches inside the strike zone. It’s precisely the improvement one would want to see from a power-hitter with an already decent walk rate. Aguilar’s walk rate did rise slightly, but his quality of contact fell. Any improvement he made was masked by worse contact.
The Rays may have been scared off by Aguilar’s step back, but he’s still an intriguing option for teams that need help at first or at designated hitter. The Rockies are an obvious fit. Colorado first basemen combined for -1.1 fWAR and a 77 wRC+. The Rockies are currently looking at a first base corps of Daniel Murphy, an average-dependent hitter who couldn’t hit at Coors, and Josh Fuentes, a 40 FV prospect who struck out 35.7 percent of the time and posted a 43 wRC+ in his first taste of the big leagues.
Royals first basemen combined for -2.9 fWAR, so even if Aguilar repeats his 2019, he might actually be an improvement over anyone else Kansas City can throw out.
The Blue Jays need a replacement for Justin Smoak now that Rowdy Tellez has quieted down. They’ll need someone to fill out an otherwise promising infield of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio.
Markets can be tough for right-handed slugging first basemen approaching 30, but Aguilar is solid defensively and there’s still a chance he can be a productive major leaguer again. Aguilar’s 2018 might not have been wholly indicative of the sort of player he is, but neither was 2019.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.