MASTER NOTES: Slow startin' Vlad

There’s a story, possibly apocryphal or misunderstood, about U.S. President Richard Nixon asking the Chinese politician Chou En-Lai how he thought the French Revolution had affected history and civilization.

Chou was said to have responded: “Too early to tell.” *

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. reached 41 big-league plate appearances (PA) on Tuesday of this week, going 1-for-4, with a late single that actually improved his BA to a disappointing .162 and the rest of his slash line to .244/.189, with no HR, no runs, no steals and 1 RBI.

Other early signs also don’t look great:

  • Guerrero does have four walks, which is in line with expectations from his minor-league career, but he also has 11 strikeouts, which definitely isn’t.
  • Of his 26 balls in play, 19 have been GBs, a 73% GB%.
  • He’s had just three LDs (11%) and four FBs (15%)
  • 14 of his 23 GBs and FBs (61%) have been softly or mediumly hit.
  • Yes, I know “mediumly” isn’t a word.

To be fair, Guerrero has hit into a little tough luck. His BA on hard-hit GBs is 12 points under league average. All three of his hard-hit flies and both of his hard-hit liners have been caught. If his balls-in-play had fallen at league-average rates, he’d have a couple more knocks and his BA would soar all the way up to ... .216.

After all the off-season and pre-season hype, owners who grabbed “Vladito” with a third-round pick or spent $20+ on him in auctions must be getting a little worried about his .433 OPS, in the same sense that the captain of the Titanic was “a little worried” about the water pouring in through the gaping hole in his hull.

The question now is whether it’s time to man the lifeboats and prepare to abandon ship, or to gamely stuff the hole with top hats and Lady Astor’s fur coats and sail on. To decide, it might be helpful to review some context. So I looked at eight other hitters in the Roto Era (1980-today) whose careers started at age 19 or 20, to see if a slow start after 40 PA is really always a thing. And you know what? We need to take it easy.

First, a research note: Any time you see a reference to a player reaching a particular milestone after some number of PAs, it means he reached that level in the game that ended with that number of PAs. So the milestone could have been reached a few PAs before it got recorded. For instance, if a player had a .29944 BA after 20 PA and got a hit his next time up, he would literally have crossed the .300 threshold after 21 PAs. But if he had four total PAs in the game, he’ll be described as having crossed the threshold after 24 PAs.

(I could have made this more precise by going into the Retrosheet box scores for all the games in question, but back off. I’m sailin’ a damaged ship here.)

See if any of these players’ stories seem familiar...

Player A played in 23 games in his first year, as a pinch-runner and often as a late-inning defensive sub, and didn’t reach 40 PA until his 21st career game, early the next April. After those first 40 PA, he had slashed .128/.150/.278, with 0 HR, 0 RBI, and no SB. All his hits were singles. He had struck out eight times and walked once. Player A didn’t get over a .500 OPS until 135 PA, and only snuck over the Mendoza line (.200 BA) after 156 PA. It took 325 PA to get past .700 OPS, and 389 PA to reach a .300 OBP. He played regularly the next season and finished it with a career-to-date line of .256/.307/.454 (.761 OPS) with nearly 30 HR and 100 RBI.

Player B was called up in early summer, and got to 42 PA in 12 games as a near-full-time player. His slash through those early PAs was the definition of “paltry”: .179/.238/.308, for a .546 OPS, with 1 HR and 5 RBI and a steal. He had just 3 walks against 9 K. Things got better, though. As Player B neared 400 PA, he had pushed his OPS past .850 with double-digit HRs and bags. And he finished the full year with all-star caliber numbers, including a BA over .300.

Player C started his rookie season as a full-time starter in the top part of the batting order. As a result, he reached 41 PA in just 10 games. But despite an impeccable pedigree, draft and otherwise, he got off to a very slow start: .194/.275/.389, for a .664 OPS, with 2 solo HR and 1 SB. Soon after, however, he erupted, and after 202 PA, he was slashing .277/.338/.484, with 10 HR, 23 RBI and 8 SB. His performance then began lagging, with his OPS finishing below .750, but with double-digit HR and SB.

Player D got a few games in his first season as a September expansion call-up, then reached 40 PA in mid-May of the following year. After his first 40, he was slashing just .184/.200/.342 (.542 OPS), with 2 HR, 3 RBI and no SB. Also, he didn’t draw his first big-league walk until the game where he got to 50 PA. He did push his numbers up as the season wore on, piling up over 60 hits (including 20 XBH) and double-digit walks through his 217-PA game, as his OPS nosed above .850. He ended the full season with a BA just under .300, an OBP around .330 and Slg near .470, and a resulting OPS over .800.

Player E didn’t attain 40 PA until April of his third season, after cups of coffee in his first two, including a first-year September callup, limited to pinch-running.  At the 40-PA mark, he was slashing .188/.333/.250, with no home runs and 2 RBI, but with 11 runs scored and 9 SB (and no CS). He also had 7 walks and kept drawing free passes until his OBP was all the way up into the .430s before leveling off and settling back to a still-impressive under .390. Meanwhile, the occasional HR plus regular doubles and triples pushed his Slg into the low-.400s, and his OPS, as a result, surged up over .880, before again settling back to just under .800.

Player F reached 43 PA after just 10 games, playing full-time after his call-up in early April. His slash over that early run was .231/.286/.333, with 1 HR, 2 RBI, and 2 early SB. His OPS peaked a few games later at .759, but then slid all the way down into the .500s before recovering to the low .700s by the end of the season.

Player G played regularly as a rookie, reaching 43 PA after just 12 games. At that point, he had slashed .250/.279/.525, with 2 HR and 6 RBI. Like Player C, G’s early .800 OPS was pretty much a peak for the season—it was powered by a SLG that climbed to .548 at PA 65, then declined steadily, finishing the year at .405. Player G did keep his .800-ish OPS through about 120 PA, as a steady supply of hits and walks drove up his OBP as his Slg fell, but eventually the hits and walks also declined, and he finished the year with a .686 OPS (.281/.405).

Player H hit the ground running after his June call-up: He reached 42 PA after 11 games and slashed .375/.366/.425 (OBP lower than BA because of a sac bunt). Again, though, the decimals started declining almost immediately. Player H’s BA fell below .300 after 112 PA, below .283 after 183 PA, and through .270 after 271 PA. His OBP, SLG, and OPS all followed the descent, and he finished the season at .264/.276/.354 (.630 OPS) with no HR.

Now, The Big Reveal

Did you manage to guess who any of these players were?

Player A was Cal Ripken.

Player B was Mike Trout.

Player C was Ken Griffey.

Player D was Vladimir Guerrero v1.

Player E was Tim Raines.

Player F was Roberto Alomar.

Player G was Harold Baines.

Player H was Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez.

What you might realize is that seven of these guys are in the Hall of Fame, and the eighth is on his way, and might be the greatest player ever. But look at how uneven their records were through 40 PA and then through the end of their first full seasons:

          |-- thru 1st 40 PA ---|-- end 1st full year--|
Hitter     BA   OBP   Slg   OPS     BA   OBP   Slg   OPS
Baines   .250  .279  .525  .804 | .255  .281  .405  .686
Pudge    .375  .366  .425  .791 | .264  .276  .354  .630
Griffey  .194  .275  .389  .664 | .264  .329  .420  .748
Alomar   .231  .286  .333  .619 | .265  .327  .380  .707
Raines   .188  .333  .250  .583 | .288  .383  .414  .797
Trout    .179  .238  .308  .546 | .306  .379  .532  .911
Vlad Sr. .184  .200  .342  .542 | .293  .339  .469  .807
Vladito  .162  .244  .189  .433 | ? ? ?            
Ripken   .128  .150  .128  .278 | .256  .307  .454  .761

Baines had the best OPS through those first 40 PA, but the worst OPS after his full season had ended. Trout was sub-.600 through 40, but ended up his first full campaign with a career OPS over .900. Most of these young players started with poor OPS levels, and finished with acceptable-to-superior levels. And of course, they all got far better still as their careers proceeded.

That’s the point. Some, indeed most, MLB hitting careers start slowly, but a hitter’s first 40 PA make for a ludicrously small number on which to base any analysis, especially trying to answer a “do I drop him” question.

So none of this should be taken as evidence that owners should hold Guerrero or trade him or stash him on reserve. Even just eight examples of the HoFers above makes clear that a young hitter who has a slow start has a very large range of outcomes possible. And at that, several of those outcomes will take months or years to occur.

That said, it does seem that the hype about Vlad Jr. was excessively optimistic, especially the “analysis” that said he was a sure thing to bat .325, win the AL batting championship, and hit 25 HR. The enthusiasm must surely be dampened already, and any owner holding him in hopes of a fast turnaround is taking a pretty significant gamble. But maybe not. He could do it.

To quote Chou: Too early to tell.

* It later turned out that Chou thought Nixon was referring to the 1968 student riots and other civil unrest in France four years earlier, not the French Revolution 183 years earlier. But it’s still a good story.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.