If there’s one thing I truly excel at — and that’s a pretty big “if” — it’s being way, way too early when deeming players ready for fantasy relevance. For a perfect example, I’d like to present as evidence the fact that I wrote this glowing piece on Jesus Aguilar over four years ago, back in April of 2014. Over the next three seasons, Aguilar picked up a whopping 64 total plate appearances in the majors, hitting .172/.234/.190 in this extremely limited sample.
Last season, Aguilar finally got a chance to show what he could do at the game’s highest level. While he hit quite well — registering a triple slash of .265/.331/.505 with 16 home runs — his playing time was still limited by a combination of the Brewers’ organizational depth and his own substandard defensive skills, as he picked up just 311 PA in 113 games. Eric Thames started 103 games at first base for the Brew Crew last year, leaving Aguilar to pick up the scraps where he could — he got 53 starts at 1B, with the rest of his playing time coming as a pinch hitter, or as a designated hitter in American League parks.
Coming into 2018, it looked like Aguilar’s path to playing time was as unclear as ever. Milwaukee’s outfield was so stacked that it appeared their first-base playing time would be split between Thames and Ryan Braun, leaving Aguilar as the odd man out again. However, when Thames went down with a torn thumb ligament in late April, Aguilar took full advantage of the chance to play nearly every day.
As of this writing, the 27-year-old Aguilar is hitting .309/.378/.564 with ten homers in 172 PA. He’s still a bit short of the playing time necessary to qualify for any leaderboards, but if he did qualify, his .397 weighted on-base average (wOBA) would currently be 12th in the majors. While it’s all too easy to point at his .353 batting average on balls in play and scream that the BABIP regression monster is on its way, there are also quite a few areas in which Aguilar’s production seems to be sustainable.
Let’s start with the obvious, which is that his plate discipline has taken a dramatic step forward this season. Whereas last year Aguilar posted an 8.0% walk rate and struck out 30.2% of the time, this year he’s improved those rates to 9.9% BB and 23.8% K. It certainly seems this improvement is legit, as Aguilar’s contact rates are much improved from last year as well, as his overall contact rate has risen from 68.8% to 74.8%, and his swinging strike rate dropped from 14.5% to 11.5%.
Even more encouraging is how his batted-ball profile is improving. Whereas last season Aguilar hit more grounders than fly balls at a 1.08 GB/FB rate, this season has seen him turn into a fly-ball launching pad, with a GB/FB rate of 0.61. This massive shift in batted-ball distribution is accompanied by a HR/FB rate that’s pretty much holding steady — 22.5% last year, 20.4% this year — and a hard-hit rate that’s doing the same thing (45.2% in ’17, 45.4% in ’18).
Throw in the fact that he’s replaced many of his softly hit balls (15.4% Soft in ’17, 10.2% in ’18) with medium contact, and it would be hard to not believe in Aguilar’s production. A quick check of his xstats confirms this, as his expected .303/.375/.604 is accompanied by a .340 xBABIP, which suggests there could be a smidgen of regression coming, but not nearly as much as you might expect.
Statcast is a fan of Aguilar as well, as his 93.6 mph average exit velocity is the 14th-highest rate among hitters with at least 100 batted-ball events. Of those 14 players, Aguilar’s 232.9 foot average distance ranks second behind only Joey Gallo’s 236.9 feet.
Of course, the one dark cloud hanging over all this glorious production is whether he’ll keep getting enough playing time to matter. Aguilar’s always been seen as a bit of a lefty-mashing specialist, but this year he’s been crushing righties as well, to the tune of a .315/.370/.550 slash. He pretty clearly doesn’t need to be on the short side of a platoon. Still, could that be where he ends up rest-of-season?
When Thames returns, the Brewers will essentially have two regular spots in the lineup for the combination of Aguilar, Thames, Braun, and Domingo Santana. Fortunately for Aguilar, Santana is looking like a bit of a bust — at least in the sense that he isn’t exactly forcing the Brewers to get his .260/.330/.373 slash and bad defense into the lineup on a regular basis.
Honestly, if the Brewers make the smart baseball move, the odd man out of the Aguilar/Thames/Braun trio would be Braun, who has scuffled pretty much all season and is currently sporting an unimpressive .232/.296/.417 slash. Unfortunately, he’s also making $20 million this year — plus another $19 million in ’19, and another $17 million in ’20. By comparison, Milwaukee has a grand total of $5.56 million invested in Thames ($5 million) and Aguilar ($557k) this season.
In a way, benching Braun would be admitting the team made a mistake in signing him to his current extension — as if there’s still anyone who thinks paying a slightly above-average player $20+ million annually through his age-36 season to play 1B/LF was a good idea to begin with.
Still, it’s encouraging for Aguilar owners (and Thames owners too, for that matter) to see that Braun isn’t playing every day even with Thames on the DL. Braun didn’t play yesterday, despite the Brewers playing with a designated hitter — Santana played right field, with Christian Yelich moving over to left, and Ji-Man Choi manning the DH spot. In fact, this was the second time Braun was benched in the team’s last three games against righty starters.
In my opinion, the biggest point to be made in favor of Aguilar maintaining regular playing time is the fact that the Brewers are currently in first place in the NL Central. First-place teams don’t just bench their most productive offensive player. Of course, there’s also a chance Brewers GM David Stearns makes a move to clear up this logjam. Even with Jimmy Nelson working his way back from shoulder surgery, the team is still in desperate need of starting pitching, as they have been all season — a need that is only amplified by the recent injury to Zach Davies. If Milwaukee ends up trading away some of their outfield depth, that will only help Aguilar.
In short, I don’t think I would be selling Aguilar. He and Thames have been the team’s best hitters so far this season, and Braun certainly isn’t a good enough defender to make a case for playing time on that merit. The fact that Braun is already losing playing time to the likes of Choi and Santana is an excellent sign. I do expect Aguilar to lose one or two starts per week when everyone’s healthy, but he’s simply playing far too well to lose more playing time than that.
Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.