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June 14, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

Vladimir Guerrero

by Matthew Knight

Since his debut in 1996, Vladimir Guerrero has been one of the most exciting players in baseball - possessing the ability to hit for a high average with lots of power and wielding a breathtaking throwing arm. Despite an approach at the plate that can generously be described as not really what statistical analysts recommend, Guerrero has raked for over a decade. With his body slowly breaking down and the revelation that he's a year older than previously believed, we may be nearing the end of the run for Vlad the Impaler. Let's take a look back at his career and consider where it may be headed.

1993-1996: Storming through the Minors

Guerrero was signed by the Expos in March of 1993 after the Dodgers (who had signed his older brother Wilton in 1991) indicated some reluctance in signing him. He remained in his native Dominican Republic in 1993, hitting .333 in 105 at-bats for the Expos' Dominican League team. Guerrero returned to the Dominican League in 1994, hitting 12 home runs in 25 games before making his U.S. debut in the Gulf Coast League, where he hit .314/.366/.562 in 37 games.

Prior to the 1995 season, Baseball America ranked Guerrero the #4 prospect in the Expos organization and the #85 prospect in baseball. He spent the entire 1995 season playing for the Albany Polecats of the South Atlantic League, batting .333/.383/.544 in 138 games. He showed off his excellent speed/power game by reaching double-digits in doubles, triples, home runs, and stolen bases. In addition to leading the league in batting, Guerrero was voted the outfielder with the best arm in the league.

His outstanding 1995 season rocketed him up the prospect charts, as he was named the #9 prospect in baseball by Baseball America and the #7 prospect by the Spring Training Baseball Yearbook prior to the 1996 season. He began 1996 in high-A West Palm Beach, where he torched pitchers to the tune of .363/.388/.650 in 20 games before being quickly called up to AA Harrisburg. The promotion did little to slow him down, as he hit .360/.438/.612 in 118 games. He led all minor leaguers in batting and was named the Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year.

Guerrero finished 1996 with a late season call up to Montreal. He made his major league debut on September 19, batting sixth and going 1 for 5. He hit his first major league home run in Atlanta two nights later. Despite batting only .185/.185/.296 in nine games, Guerrero had made The Show for good.

1997-2003: The Montreal Years

The honors continued to roll in for Guerrero, as he was rated the #2 prospect in baseball by both Baseball America and the Spring Training Baseball Yearbook prior to the 1997 season. He had an injury plagued first big league season, missing the first month with a foot injury, then later missing time with a strained hamstring, and finally suffering a season ending hand injury after being hit by a pitch. Despite the injuries, he hit .302/.350/.483 and finished sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

Guerrero made good on his minor league promise in 1998, remaining healthy all season and hitting .324/.371/.589 while finishing 13th in the NL MVP voting. From 1998 until 2002, he was remarkably consistent, recording at least 101 runs, 34 home runs, and 108 RBI every season. During that stretch he averaged .325/.391/.602, won three silver slugger awards, was named to four All Star games, and never finished lower than 24th in the MVP voting (including two top-6 finishes). His all-around game was on display as well, as he tallied at least 10 outfield assists every season, reached double-digits in triples in 2000, and totaled 77 stolen bases in 2001 and 2002.

Despite his batting brilliance, Guerrero's game could be frustrating. He made at least 10 errors every season from 1997-2002 (including a high of 19 in 1999), was caught stealing 66 times in 180 tries (a miserable 63% success rate), and walked far less often than most people would have liked (only 210 unintentional walks from 1997-2002). Baseball Prospectus 2002 summarized Guerrero's place in baseball nicely:

"...He is the most exciting player in baseball; his actions in the course of a single game can range from daringly brilliant to aggressively foolish. Guerrero's numbers dropped last year as opponents took advantage of the fact that he's never seen a pitch he didn't think he could hit. Mock contraction drafts land Guerrero in Pittsburgh, where his play would immediately evoke images of Roberto Clemente, another visually spectacular right fielder whose production never quite matched his jaw-dropping play."

The toll of playing on Montreal's notoriously hard turf caught up to Guerrero in 2003, as he missed nearly two months with a herniated disc. When healthy, he hit like the Vlad of old, batting .330/.426/.586 and finished 17th in the MVP voting despite playing only 112 games.

Unfortunately for Guerrero, the back injury occurred just before he became a free agent for the first time, and he signed with the Angels for the relatively modest price of 5 years and $70M. While the Expos remained in Montreal for one last season in 2004, Guerrero's departure took with it any reasonable hope for a final playoff run.

2004-2008: Angels' Anchor

The Angels' faith in Guerrero was immediately rewarded thanks to his newfound dedication to trunk and core strengthening. He played in 156 games in 2004, hitting .337/.391/.598 and winning the AL MVP award. While a variety of ailments have caused him to miss time in every season since 2004, he has continued to produce when healthy, finishing in the top 14 in the AL MVP voting every season (with 3rd place finishes in 2005 and 2007), winning four silver slugger awards, and making four All Star teams.

Unfortunately, these accolades have obscured the sad truth that Guerrero is not the player he once was. His OPS has declined every year since 2003 (except for a slight increase in 2007), with 2008 marking his worst showing since his rookie season. His ISO and SLG have declined in a similar fashion since 2004, with both also reaching their lowest values since his rookie year.

Advanced metrics paint the same picture, that of a slugger who is gradually losing his power. His line drive percentage has declined steadily, from 23.0% in 2002 to 17.1% in 2008. Simultaneously, his ground ball percentage has increased, going from 41.8% in 2002 to 47.0% in 2008. While his fly ball percentage has remained relatively constant, his home run to fly ball ratio has declined from 21.4% in 2003 to 16.1% in 2008.

Guerrero's free-swinging approach, instrumental in making him the most feared bad-ball hitter of his generation, is not helping him make up for the lost power. Most players tend to take more pitches as they age, looking for a pitch they can drive and drawing more walks in the process. Guerrero has shown almost no change in his approach at the plate. He has not seen appreciably more pitches per plate appearance, averaging between 3.16 and 3.38 since 2002. His unintentional walk percentage has hovered around 6% since 2004, after reaching 9% in 2003.

Rather than becoming more selective, Guerrero has actually swung at more pitches out of the strike zone in recent years. From 2002-2005 he swung at 29.9-34.8% of pitches outside of the strike zone, while he has swung at 40.3-45.5% since then. At the same time, the percentage of pitches in the strike zone at which he has swung has declined from 90.2% in 2004 to 81.7% in 2008. The overall percentage of pitches at which he has swung has not changed significantly since 2002, but he has traded swinging at strikes for swinging at balls. While the percentage of time that he makes contact has increased since 2003, a testament to his still brilliant hand-eye coordination, his declining offensive numbers indicate that he is not hitting these balls as well as he once did.

2009 and Beyond

Although Guerrero's numbers have been in decline since he left Montreal, the Angels still picked up their 2009 option for $15M. Unfortunately, things have not gone well for him this season. Off to a distinctly uncharacteristic start, he was hitting .250/.314/.344 on April 15 when he tore a pectoral muscle and missed about six weeks. Many around the league had their doubts about his ability to come back from the injury, with one source wondering "How's he coming back in a month from a torn pec? When those offensive linemen get that injury in the NFL, they're out for the year."

Things have not improved since his return, as his season line currently sits at .260/.287/.344. The pectoral injury will likely limit him to DH duties for the foreseeable future. Given his poor defensive ratings in recent years this may not be a bad thing for the Angels. Said one scout, "He's a DH now, for me unless he plays in a small outfield somewhere. He looks incredibly strong. But he also looks uncomfortably thick. What you see now is not an athletic, running build. It's a softball-player build. ... And that won't serve him well in the outfield."

The pectoral injury and the off season revelation that he was born in 1975 rather than 1976 do not bode well for Guerrero's future. The recent market for defensively challenged corner outfielders suggests that Guerrero will likely earn far less than this season's $15M. As one team official told Jason Stark, "He could be a $1 million player in a year, with $4 million in incentives. He's a tough guy to commit to."

What does PECOTA have to say about his future? The forecast that was run in December (with the 1976 birthday) projected that he would remain in the majors through at least 2015, hitting 110 more home runs. The BP staff was kind enough to rerun his projections with the new birth date for me, and the results are much less favorable. He is now projected to be out of the league after 2013 (his age 38 season) and to hit just 69 more home runs.

According to baseball-reference.com, his most similar players by age (using the 1976 birthday) are Willie Mays (ages 23, 25-27, 29), Manny Ramirez (24, 28, 30-31), and Duke Snider (32-33). Mays and Snider are Hall of Famers and Ramirez looked certain to be one until his recent suspension, but what is troubling for Guerrero is that Snider never played in more than 129 games after age 30. Snider's production plummeted after his age 35 season, resulting in his retirement by age 38. Furthermore, Guerrero's new PECOTA comparables are littered with players who declined precipitously in their mid-30s: Jim Rice (#2), Bob Watson (#3), George Hendrick (#4), Javy Lopez (#6), etc.

If Guerrero's future follows the path that PECOTA believes it will and ends in a rapid decline, he will make for an interesting Hall of Fame candidate. While he has looked like a no-brainer Hall of Famer throughout his career, he will likely face the electorate short of any round number milestones like 500 home runs or 3000 hits. It is likely that his rate stats of .322/.388/.571 and the myriad All Star games, Silver Slugger Awards, and MVP votes will be enough to carry him into the Hall of Fame. However, his current 68.9 career WARP3, 48.7 peak WARP3 (best seven seasons), and 58.8 JAWS score fall well short of the right field positional JAWS standards of 87.9/52.2/70.1.

Vladimir Guerrero's free-swinging approach, awesome power, and incredible arm have made him a joy to watch for the last 14 seasons. Injuries and age have sapped him of much of these gifts, and he appears to be in a steady decline. As we savor the twilight of his career, Guerrero serves as a reminder of the beauty of baseball - that no matter your methods, if you can hit the ball well, you can become a star.

In addition to the sources cited in the text, this article made extensive use of the following: Jockbio for Dominican League stats and background information, Baseball-reference for minor and major league stats, and Fan Graphs for most advanced major league stats.

22 comments have been left for this article.

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