I must admit, the idea occurred to me watching Vladimir Guerrero Jr. the other day. There has been patient exuberance among Blue Jays fans for the arrival of Guerrero Jr. since he signed as a 16-year-old in 2015. Since then we have witnessed him torch minor league pitching and continue his ascent towards mount MLB. His bat has always been projected as advanced for his age and given his exploits last year, and Vlad Jr. came into the season as a consensus pick for the best prospect in baseball. In fact MLB Pipeline gave him their first ever 80 hit tool.
However, since arriving on April 26, his numbers - probably good for a 20-year-old - have been less than stellar. As of September 21st, he’s slashing .276/.346/.443 with a .789 OPS and 100 wRC+. This by no means is a terrible season as he’s only 20, but its also nowhere close to the hype he had generated coming in as baseball hottest prospect. Its also a bit disappointing considering the success Acuña Jr. and Tatís Jr. have had as 20-year-old rookies.
So I decided to take a look at all players who had age 20 rookie seasons for position players and see where Vlad Jr. ranked. Overall there have been 1164 players who’ve had at least one plate appearance in their age 20 rookie season. However, an overwhelming majority of those players were around for a cup of coffee. Only 234 of these position players had more than 100 plate appearances. That itself is a pretty small group considering we’ve had 148 seasons of major league baseball.
In order to get a meaningful sample size, I decided to only look at players who played about two-thirds of their rookie season. I narrowed it down by 400 plate appearances. That narrows it down to just 52 players and the only three players who had strong rookie seasons but missed out due to the cut off are Giancarlo Stanton (396 PAs), Fernando Tatís Jr. (372 PAs) and Bob Horner (359 PAs). Tatís Jr. missed out this year due to his injury, and its a shame as he was on pace for one of the most historic rookie seasons in history. In only 84 games, Tatís Jr. hit .317/.379/.590 with 22 home runs and a 3.6 WAR which without the cut off places him 14th all time among age 20 rookie seasons. In fact, if he were available for the full year, he was on pace to crack the top five seasons of all time.
Without a doubt, the greatest age 20 rookie season was put up by Mike Trout in 2012. Trout produced an eye-popping 10.1 WAR, 167 wRC+, hit 30 home runs and stole 49 bases. No matter how you slice and dice it, Trout comes ahead of the pack.
So who are some of the other successful rookie seasons and where does Vlad Jr. rank? As we’re only concerned with his offense, we decided to ignore WAR for this exercise. Vlad’s 110 wRC+ ranks 20th all time among players with at least 400 plate appearances. Here’s a list of top twenty five players by wRC+ in their age 20 rookie seasons.
Top 25 seasons by wRC+
|1939||Ted Williams||Red Sox||149||677||31||131||145||15.80%||0.281||0.327||0.436||0.609||0.464||156||7.1|
|2018||Ronald Acuna Jr.||Braves||129||555||4||71||61||7.00%||0.095||0.318||0.375||0.412||0.362||114||3.7|
|2019||Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||Blue Jays||118||492||15||51||68||9.30%||0.167||0.276||0.346||0.443||0.336||110||0.7|
Ten of these top 25 players are already in the Hall of Fame. There are five current players of which Trout is a shoe in once he hangs his cleats. Carlos Correa has a shot as well if he keeps his current level of production. This puts Vlad Jr. in pretty good company. He’s 20th overall in wRC+, 12th in BB%, 14th in ISO and 17th in On Base Percentage.
Another interesting thing I found while conducting his exercise was that never in baseball history has there been a season where more than two 20 year olds had 400 of more PAs. This shows how hard it is to come up and succeed at this level, especially when you’re just out of your teens.
Not all 20-year-olds hit the ground running; of the bottom twenty seven from the set of 52 players, Hall of Famers like Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Hank Aaron, Sam Crawford, Alan Trammell, Ray Shalk and Roberto Celemente had a worse wRC+ than Vlad Jr.
Of course Vlad Jr. still needs to figure a few things out. His ground ball rate is high and he is a below average defender. But by no means this is a bad season, and we can hope that things will only get better from here.
This was a fun exercise for me and I learnt a few things. First, Mike Trout will probably end up as the great player of all time. Second, although it seems like that teams are bringing up more and more young players quicker than before, coming up and succeeding as a 20-year-old is as hard in 2019 as it was in 1916.
Third, the distribution of best offensive seasons is random, five best seasons were 2012, 1939, 1916, 1956 and 1932. There’s no one era that dominates the list. Fourth, I’ll reiterate, its a shame that Tatís Jr. got hurt or 2019 would have cracked top five, or even top three seasons. Tatís Jr. is a special player and we’re lucky to watch him, Vlad Jr. and Acuña Jr. Fifth, maybe, just maybe Vada Pinson should be in Cooperstown. Sixth, 1987 is the only year in major league history without a 20 year old rookie and finally, 2010 was the last time MLB had two 20 year old rookies with over 400 PAs, and the last time it happened before that? 1978.
Azam Farooqui is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @DRCoverwRC