Gregor Chisholm: Blue Jay Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is making history in his first full season. The MVP trophy can wait
|Toronto Star 10 Sep 2021 at 18:44|
The expectations surrounding Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on his rise to the major leagues were almost unprecedented. Labelled the game’s top prospect and backed by a Hall of Fame father, he was a household name years before arriving in The Show.
There were never any debates about whether Guerrero was going to be a big leaguer. That much has been a given dating all the way back to when he signed with the Blue Jays as a 16-year-old for a cool $3.9 million (U.S.). Instead, the dialogue centred on how big a star he would eventually become.
A perennial all-star? The league’s most valuable player? A future in Cooperstown? Talk about pressure.
During parts of Guerrero’s first two seasons with the Jays, there were times when it all seemed a bit much. Not any more. With the finish line in sight for his first full 162-game season, he’s not only meeting some of those lofty expectations, he’s exceeding them.
On Thursday, Guerrero became the third player in American League history to hit at least 40 homers with 100-plus RBIs in the same season before turning 23, joining great Joe DiMaggio (1937) and Juan González (1992). More important, with a little more than three weeks remaining in the season, he also has a shot at becoming the youngest hitter to win the triple crown.
It has been accomplished just 12 times since RBIs became an official stat in 1920, and Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera is the only player to do it over the last 53 years after he led the AL with 44 homers, 139 RBIs and a .330 batting average in 2012.
Guerrero has a shot at first place in all three categories.
He entered Friday leading the AL with a .319 average, one back of Shohei Ohtani’s 43 home runs and four back of José Abreu’s 104 RBIs. A lot of the all-time greats never came close. Guerrero Sr., one of the top players of his generation, didn’t finish first in any of the big three across his 16-year career.
“The numbers we’re talking about are awesome, so I’m not going to say I expected this, but (I did expect) something close to it because we all knew this guy was going to be really good,” Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said Friday afternoon. “That’s why when he first came to the big leagues, everybody was there. It was like the playoffs when Vlad got to the big leagues, and rightly so because you can see what he can do and he’s still a young guy.”
This has a chance to be truly historic stuff. The youngest player to ever win the triple crown was Ted Williams in 1942, during his age-23 season. Guerrero doesn’t turn 23 until March. If he overtakes Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner’s .321 average, he’d have a shot at leading both the NL and AL in all three categories, something that hasn’t been done since Mickey Mantle in 1956.
In almost any other year, numbers like these would have resulted in an automatic MVP. This season, it’s expected that Guerrero won’t receive a single first-place vote. Not when the Angels’ Ohtani is the league leader in home runs and slugging percentage while also posting a 2.97 ERA as a starting pitcher.
If Ohtani was just an average player in both roles, this wouldn’t be an issue. But he was an all-star pitcher and is among the game’s most feared sluggers. With combined wins above replacement of 7.1 per FanGraphs, he has a comfortable lead over Guerrero’s 6.2.
There are a few examples of players winning the triple crown and falling short in MVP voting. Williams didn’t win after either of his historic seasons. In 1934, Lou Gehrig finished fifth despite leading the majors in average, homers and RBIs. A year earlier, Chuck Klein finished fourth after doing the same.
Guerrero is going to need a strong finish to avoid a similar fate, and the Dominican native might be up to the task. He went into a slump shortly after the all-star break, but has been locked in for the last couple of weeks. He entered Friday’s series opener in Baltimore batting .400 with six homers and 10 RBIs over his last 10 games.
“We have to remember it’s his first full year,” Montoyo said. “He’s learning now to get 400, 500, close to 600 at-bats. There are going to be ups and downs and you have to know how to manage that. He struggled for a little bit, but he made an adjustment and he’s back having great at-bats.”