Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the Hype Machine, and Draft Cost

Every season, there’s another can’t-miss top prospect. This year, that honor has been bestowed upon Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who ranked third on last year’s list. Not only does he find himself atop the 2019 mountain, but he’s the only prospect graced with a 70 (out of 80) Future Value grade, which equates to a 5.0 to 7.0 WAR and a top 10 overall player. That’s pretty incredible. Essentially, Guerrero is expected to be elite, a near surefire superstar, and the hype has predictably spread to fantasy leagues.

Before I continue, I’ll share my quick thoughts on Guerrero based solely on his stats, since I have never actually watched him play. My personal opinion is moot, though, as the overarching conclusions could be applied to any top prospect drafted in fantasy leagues.

Guerrero’s minor league performance is undoubtedly wow-worthy. He certainly appears to be a lock to be a future all-star and elite hitter. I’m most impressed by his walk and strikeout rates. He has walked at a double digit clip at nearly all his minor league stops, and has paired that with a strikeout rate that never exceeded 13.4%. Heck, in his first taste of Triple-A as a baby 19-year-old, he walked more than he struck out, and posted an absurd 7.8% strikeout rate. That’s insane enough.

Even more insane is that he posted such plate discipline marks while displaying lots of power. His ISO marks sat above .200 at every stint in 2018, while his HR/FB rate was in the high teens at Double-A and mid-20% range at Triple-A. So we have a 19-year-old who walks, doesn’t strike out, and hits for power. Yes, I completely understand the hype, and I do think it’s justified. My Pod Projections like him just fine as well.

But let’s bring this back to fantasy baseball.

As you may be aware, the 2019 Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational is happening as I type this, and probably will continue for the next couple of weeks since it’s a slow draft with a four hour pick timer. Guerrero’s ADP in the 21 leagues is 43.8 as the 43rd player and 30th hitter off the board. He was selected as early as the 31st pick and as late as the 52nd pick. This is crazy.

The inspiration for this article came via the chat room of the league I’m in, #15. In our league, he went 51st, one pick earlier than the latest pick. Immediately following his selection, the following messages were sent:

Owner 1: I was *praying* Vlad made it back to me. Sad at work right now.
Owner 2: I almost took him in the third
Owner 2: i’m PUMPED to get him in the fourth
Owner 3: Currently the 2nd latest snag of him in all the drafts
Owner 3: went 52nd in one
Owner 2: ill take it
Owner 4: I almost took him

If you weren’t able to follow, Owner 2 selected Guerrero and shared his excitement getting him in the fourth and that he even strongly considered drafting him in the third.

I questioned the selection and was responded with:

Owner 2: cause he’s a generational talent
Owner 2: might work might not

And there’s the rub. Because he’s a generational talent, cost doesn’t matter.

If you’re a stock market investor, you might realize the similarities between “investing” in players during your fantasy drafts and investing in public companies by purchasing its stock. Investing in a top prospect regardless of cost is akin to having bought a startup Internet company during the dotcom bubble in the late 1990s or the cryptocurrency bubble recently.

During each bubble, investors weren’t really investing, nor were they calculating the intrinsic value of their potential investments. Instead, they were speculating and praying that the investments they just purchased that had already run-up in value based on hopes and dreams would continue to be purchased at higher and higher prices by other investors who blindly bought without estimating the investment’s value. It worked for a while, until it didn’t. Lots of people made lots of money and then lots of people lost lots of money.

Just like stocks and cryptocurrency, everything’s got a price. If you overpay for an asset, you’re likely going to end up with a loss. You wouldn’t pay $10,000 for a share of Amazon would you (it’s currently trading for $1,600 and change)? Even if you love the company, buy everything through the website, and expect strong sustained growth over the next five years, that doesn’t justify paying any price the market asks. This same concept can be applied to fantasy drafts and auctions.

Now, let’s discuss three specific reasons why drafting Guerrero as early as he has been going is a major mistake:

This Will Be His Age 20 Season

He’s only going to be 20 years old! I just ran the FanGraphs leaderboard for age 20 seasons going back as far as their database can. There were a total of just 91 qualified seasons…since 1871. That just shows you how rare it is for a 20-year-old hitter to make it to the Big Show and play a full season.

The average wRC+ for the group sat at nearly 104, which while mediocre, is actually quite impressive considering their age. For a 20-year-old to enjoy above average offensive performance is pretty amazing.

The last hitter to play in the Majors in their age 20 season was Manny Machado back in 2013. Do you remember what he did? He posted an acceptable .325 wOBA with 14 homers over a full season. He was most certainly an elite prospect, but that was no elite performance and obviously unworthy of a top 50 pick.

Before Machado was not-human Mike Trout, who posted an are-you-kidding-me .409 wOBA, launched 30 long balls, and even stole 49 bases, because why not. Then there was Alex Rodriguez back in 1996, who posted an even more ridiculous .443 wOBA with 36 homers. These two worked out.

Since 1970, 17 20-year-olds played a full season. They averaged about a 109 wRC+, but just 12 homers. Just two hit more than 30 homers (those I named above), one more hit more than 20, and 11 failed to hit more than 10 dingers.

It’s not easy transitioning from top prospect to top 30 fantasy hitter. The odds are heavily stacked against 20-year-olds to deliver close to that type of value.

He Has Only Recorded 128 Triple-A Plate Appearances

Though I have yet to read an exhaustive study confirming this, I always felt like it’s easier for pitchers to reach the Majors and succeed with less minor league experience than hitters. In other words, pitchers are better equipped to skip Triple-A or spend minimal time there before jumping to the Bigs, without sacrificing effectiveness upon arrival. Hitters, on the other hand, need that Triple-A experience, or they risk getting eaten up by Major League pitching.

Guerrero only spent 266 plate appearances at Double-A, which isn’t out of the ordinary, but his Triple-A experience comprises just 128 plate appearances. Sure, he dominated during his time there, but doesn’t small sample size apply to minor leaguers the same way as it does Major Leaguers?

Let’s see how he performs in his second tour of duty at the level first to help determine his readiness to clobber Major League pitching.

We Don’t Know When He’ll Actually Be Called Up

The assumption is that Guerrero will be called up a couple of weeks into April, in order for the Blue Jays to delay his arbitration and free agency. This scenario means it’s almost guaranteed Guerrero buyers will have to fill his lineup spot with a replacement for at least a couple of weeks. So Guerrero will rack up at least 50 or so fewer plate appearances than an alternative full-time hitter at a similar ADP, which isn’t ideal.

But what if he isn’t called up in a couple of weeks? What if the Jays want to ensure his defense is up to par and keep him down there longer to continue working on it? What if he gets off to a slow start at the plate and doesn’t force his promotion like we all assume he will? Suddenly you’re looking at a May or even June debut. You just spent a top 50 pick on a player who is only going to play 83%, or worse, 67%, of the season. Does a top 50 pick sound like a good price to pay for such call-up date risk?

So if you pass on Guerrero at his 44 ADP as I’m advising, who can you potentially select instead? Turns out, the guy going right after him makes for a perfect alternative.

Anthony Rendon qualifies at the same position, has hit over .300 the last two seasons, and has knocked at least 20 homers and racked up between 176 and 194 runs + RBI in his four full seasons. Isn’t that like literally Guerrero’s upside this year? That’s what you’re hoping for as an owner, right? You can’t realistically expect better, can you?

So please, enjoy the Guerrero hype and get pumped to see him hit in the Majors this year when he does make his debut, but divorce your excitement about his future MLB prospects from your redraft fantasy league. While I cannot guarantee that Guerrero won’t earn his top 50 pick, or even turn you a profit, the risk/reward at that cost is poor. A top prospect, even a so-called generational talent, still has a price. Everything does.

Think you can beat a Tout Wars Champion? This is your chance! Join the “Beat Mike Podhorzer” league, an NFBC 12-team mixed format eligible for the $125,000 grand prize. The online draft takes place on Fri, Mar 8 at 9 PM EST. Full details here.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

Actually, Guerrero’s expected average performance — not his upside — matches that of Rendon, according to Steamer, The Bat and ATC. His upside is far greater than that.

3 years ago
Reply to  evo34

…Based on small MiLB samples. Is “upside” measurable or speculative?

3 years ago
Reply to  evo34

Yeah, this is the kicker to me. His “upside” is Troutian. His “average” is Rendon. That’s why he’s going so high in drafts. It’s remarkable that he’s going as high as he is, sure, but I’m not sure the hype is unwarranted.

3 years ago
Reply to  hebrew

If we’re giving Vlad Jr. credit for an infinite ceiling, we should acknowledge his corresponding lack of floor.
The floor for a 20 year old rookie not yet in MLB is basically zero. Rendon’s floor is still probably above average. Donaldson is a big risk with almost MVP upside and you can get him a few rounds later at the same position. Don’t get me wrong, I love Vlad Jr. (and gambling), but I slightly prefer Rendon.

3 years ago
Reply to  docgooden85

Is his floor really much lower than Rendon’s? I don’t think so, I’d love to see proof.

3 years ago

His floor is zero until he is actually in the major leagues (minor league stats don’t count in fantasy), and there is no guarantee about when that happens. Once he’s in the league, he is still a higher risk to slump or suck for a while just because he has never played MLB and is 20, and lacks the several-year track record of consistent success of Rendon.

3 years ago
Reply to  docgooden85

So, uh, evidence? Has a player who raked this hard ever delivered 0 in the MLB (given almost no one has raked this hard, I don’t think so)? Every player’s floor is literally 0, but realistically Vlad is basically a lock to deliver at least a little value in 2019 (barring injury risk that applies to every player, a risk likely much lower for Vlad).

3 years ago
Reply to  hebrew

His upside is not Troutian—he might not steal 49 bases in his career, and he certainly won’t in a season. His upside and obvious comp is Miggy.