Vlad Jr. fever, the clutch factor and MLB's next big thing

The baseball world waits impatiently for the arrival of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. With each homer, with each day ending with a batting average north of .400, the impatience grows. Yet the Toronto Blue Jays make us wait -- and that's fine.

With Ronald Acuna Jr. now occupying a corner locker in the Atlanta Braves' clubhouse, Baby Vlad has ascended to the top of the charts in the prospect ranking business. He's as flashy a prospect as you'll ever see. His namesake father is one of the most exciting players ever to grace a big league ballfield and, come the end of July, the walls of the plaque room in Cooperstown, New York. And younger Guerrero seems to have the same flair for the dramatic and the same capacity for spectacular actions on the field.

A big part of this -- the anticipation, the lofty prospect ranking -- stems from the simple fact that Guerrero is so young, only 19, born six months before the theatrical release of "Fight Club" in 1999. Nothing gets the collective fan's motor running like the onset of a prodigy.

But the thing that has been spurring so much attention on the decision-making process of general manager Ross Atkins and the Toronto Blue Jays has been Guerrero's so-good-they-don't-look-right numbers. Through Wednesday, he was hitting .417/.465/.701 with 11 homers, 18 doubles and 53 RBIs in only 48 games. That's not even the best part: Guerrero was walked 18 times and struck out only 21.

Any time a player is putting up numbers like that, you know he's going to have some fun splits, so here's this: Guerrero's OPS is over 1.000 against both righties and lefties, at both home and on the road, in both April and May, with two outs and runners in scoring position and against older, more experienced pitchers. The context has not mattered. Baby Vlad keeps shaking his rattle.

All of this is unfolding in the Eastern League, where the average hitter is 24.3 years old, according to baseball-reference.com. So what in the actual heck are the Blue Jays waiting on?

I get it. I'm impatient too. I watch every team on a quasi-regular basis because it's the responsible thing to do given my professional responsibilities. But watching the Jays this season has been, quite frankly, a bit of a chore. It's the oldest team in the majors and falling rapidly out of any hope for even wild-card contention. With old teams, the sense of a coming turnaround is hopelessly dulled. It's just not very interesting to watch, perhaps contributing to Toronto's MLB-worst 11,064-fan drop in per-game attendance.

Guerrero goes a long way toward addressing all of that, so you know the temptation to promote him has to be omnipresent for Atkins and his staff. That's why you have to admire the discipline the organization has shown in this matter.

The reasons Atkins has given for the wait have been repeated a number of times in recent weeks. Guerrero needs to work on his defense. There isn't a spot for him at third base on the big league roster, the domain of Josh Donaldson. The Jays don't want to make Guerrero a 19-year-old designated hitter. Atkins is adamant that service time is not what's at play here.

Any team, on a near daily basis, has to evaluate itself as an organization that balances both the short- and long-term needs of the operation. The calculus is constantly changing, but the bottom line is that the better your chances are for short-term achievement, the more your decisions are based on maximizing wins in the current situation. Otherwise, you give the big picture more weight in the assessment.

For Toronto, the reality is that the odds for a 2018 postseason push are becoming too long to drive the Jays' decision-making processes. This is why Toronto's situation is different than that of Acuna's Braves and Juan Soto's Washington Nationals.

In my system, the average wins the Blue Jays have been getting in season simulations has dropped from 87.4 on April 20 to 75.3. With each day, the postseason odds decline. At the moment, Toronto has a 6 percent shot at the playoffs. The high-water mark was 43 percent. And remember, what we're almost certainly talking about here is Toronto's chances to play in the coin-flip game at either Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park. It's not that you don't try to do it, but these aren't the circumstances in which you want to employ short-term thinking.

So the core question for the Jays right now is not, "Can Vladimir Guererro Jr. help us now?" It is, "How do we set ourselves up for Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s best seasons?"

The first question is pretty easy: Guerrero's bat would help any big league club right now. The second one is oh-so complicated. But as the next two months unfold, Atkins' task is going to be smoothing the transition to the next successful Blue Jays era, one that doesn't have to be that far off, with Guerrero, Bo Bichette and others rising through their system.

First and foremost, Toronto needs to get Donaldson healthy and keep him that way. He has been about league-average this season with both the glove and the bat, but is a player projected to post five WAR this season. He's in his walk year and the Jays must showcase him for the trade deadline, at which point Toronto would likely eat money in order to extract whatever prospect value they can in the trade market.

Donaldson would be a premium rental for a contender -- Atlanta? St. Louis? -- especially if Toronto eases the cash burden. Toronto also has lucrative walk-year starting pitching in J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada. That's where Toronto's focus has to be right now.

It's Donaldson's ongoing presence, along with Toronto's vanishing contention hopes, that really seals this situation for Guerrero. If the Jays had summoned him a month ago, even to DH in place of fading slugger Kendrys Morales, it might have made sense. But that was then. The Blue Jays have to act according to where they are now.

Guerrero likely will be in the big leagues at some point in 2018. If Donaldson, who is battling another calf injury, ends up on the DL, maybe it happens in the next few days. Maybe it happens in early June, after the cut-off for Super-2 eligibility, a soft deadline that may not drive Toronto's thinking, but it is a thing that could save them millions in arbitration down the line. Maybe it happens after the trade deadline. Maybe it doesn't happen until next spring. One way or another, it will happen.

We can wait. And while Toronto fans, those still going to games anyway, might be mollified now by the arrival of Baby Vlad, they'll be even happier when he's mashing in the middle of the lineup for a contending Blue Jays team a few years from now.

What the numbers say

The Cubs' clutch factor

When it comes to tracking the game on a daily basis, I love catch-all metrics that can lead you toward trends and deeper numbers. Wins above replacement is obviously the ultimate catch-all metric, but another I like is the "Clutch" rating at Fangraphs. Clutch is an overall measure of a team's situational success, and while the number in and of itself might not be easy to translate into concrete terms, it does point you in certain directions.

Here's how Fangraphs defines its Clutch metric: "The difference between a player's total WPA/pLI and their WPA/LI defined above." So you can see why it hasn't exactly caught fire with the masses. In a nutshell, it's a measurement of how teams and players improve (or hurt) their chances to win based on success (or lack thereof) in certain situations.

That brings us to the Chicago Cubs. When I refer to a team's situational performance, it's usually based on the Clutch metric. It's often a good explanation for why a team's win-loss record deviates unusually from its underlying metrics. To date, the Cubs have a National League-best run differential of plus-82 but still are just six games over .500, four games behind the Central-leading Brewers. Chicago is on pace to win 90 games, but it "should" be on pace to win 105.

There's never just one explanation for something like this, but the Cubs have been dead last in offensive Clutch for much of the season, despite all the focus Joe Maddon has put on having his hitters improve situationally. Clutch is backed up in splits from baseball-reference.com, where Chicago ranks last in high-leverage situations. (As compared to how they do overall.)

The good news is that this is a portrait of what the Cubs have done and an explanation for why their win-loss record is disappointing. It is not particularly meaningful for what Chicago can do going forward. Through that lens, we can observe that the Cubs are the National League's second-highest scoring team.

This profile is why, as much as anything, I still view Chicago as the favorite in the NL Central.

Since you asked

How Brewers have sustained success

The Milwaukee Brewers were one of baseball's best stories during the 2017 season, jumping from 73 wins in 2016 all the way to 86, while hanging in the playoff race until the final week. Milwaukee was one of seven teams to improve its win total by at least 10 games. In fact, Minnesota (26), Arizona (24) and Houston (17) all had greater increases, while the Dodgers matched Milwaukee's 13-game uptick.

Each full season of the divisional era (since 1969) has seen at least two teams, and as many as eight, achieve double-digit win increases. The yearly average is 5.6. Over the past decade, it's 6.1. So while notable, every year there are teams like the Brewers.

Way back in the 1980s, baseball writer Bill James introduced the concept of the Plexiglass Principle. That is, teams that see a large leap in wins from one season to the next tend to bounce back the other way in the subsequent campaign. These days, we typically describe this phenomenon as statistical regression.

From the period covering 1969 to 2016, there were 268 teams that had double-digit win improvements from the previous campaign. Those teams suffered an average decline of 6.6 wins in the subsequent season. The number of teams that continued to improve was just 74, or 27.6 percent.

The inclination of those following a surprise team is to hope for further improvement, perhaps through the risky path of free-agent splurginess. Either way, it feels like a time to strike while the iron is hot. However, if you're working from a one-in-four chance of continuing your upward trajectory, you better be careful.

That brings us back to the Brewers. By most accounts, Milwaukee was a nice story and a team with a bright future, but at the same time the Brewers' 2017 run was a little early for the team's rebuilding plan to be paying off so handsomely. Forecasts, including mine, saw a return to sub-.500 levels. If ever a surprise team seemed ill-advised to push back against those one-in-four odds, the Brewers seemed like it.

But don't tell that to Milwaukee general manager David Stearns. Stearns, one of those Ivy Leaguers running baseball teams these days, is as analytical as they come. Though he would never share what his staff's internal projections are or were, suffice to say those projections did exist. With his offseason plan, Stearns' projection model either told a different story than those on the web (or on my laptop) or he didn't care one way or the other.

"We think that we have a very well-rounded team. We thought we had a well-rounded team last year. We think that we have depth. So that put us in position at the end of last year to go into an offseason with an opportunistic mindset." Brewers GM David Stearns on Milwaukee's aggressive offseason

Here's how we know: In a two-day span in late January, Stearns traded for ex-Marlin Christian Yelich, then signed ex-Royal Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million free-agent contract. Suddenly, Milwaukee's roster featured two new best players.

The aggressive stance has proven justified during the early going of the 2018 season. Milwaukee has a four-game lead over Chicago in the NL Central and both of Stearns' splashy additions have paid dividends. Cain, in particular, sits in a cluster of National League position players who might make a run at the MVP award.

Stearns didn't know those outcomes when I discussed his offseason plan with him in Maryvale, Arizona, in mid-March.

When you make a leap like you did last year, do you enter the offseason evaluating yourselves as an 86-win team, or the team that the projection systems see?

David Stearns: "We evaluate ourselves based on the team we believed we were at the end of the season. We do that as objectively and comprehensively as we possibly can, taking into account that a number of our players did take steps forward. We think some of those, a number of those, are sustainable. But also understanding that players take steps forward and steps back all the time. We have to be cognizant that some of our young players who made significant steps in their development last year, it may be unrealistic to think that they may continue on that same trajectory. Having said that, we think that we have a very well-rounded team. We thought we had a well-rounded team last year. We think that we have depth. So that put us in position at the end of last year to go into an offseason with an opportunistic mindset."

How much is your approach at any juncture of the baseball calendar informed by the success you've had in getting players new to the organization to perform at higher levels, such as the work [pitching coach] Derek Johnson has done with the staff. Everybody had questions about your rotation last year, and now it's like everybody wants to attach you to every free-agent pitcher out there, all of which overlooks that the rotation was the strength of the team last year. How much can you base your decisions on the confidence you have in your organizational processes?

DS: "It's certainly part of our decision-making process. We believe that we can help players get better. We've had a lot of that over the last couple of years; that includes 2016 when we didn't have a lot of people paying attention to us, but we had a lot of players getting better. That's true at the minor league level, that's true at the major league level. The nice thing internally when you watch players get better, is maybe you can do a little bit of a better job determining whether that's sustainable, whether there were reasons why a player got better or whether there was some luck involved. For a number of our players that took steps forward, we feel there were real reasons, so we're inclined to believe that what we saw last year was an encouraging trend and to some extent a prediction of what is to come for this team."

In any context, Christian [Yelich] and Lorezno [Cain] are outstanding players. Put them on any team and they are going to stand out. Are there extra benefits for them joining a group of position players where you had a very productive lineup, lots of power and lots of speed, but lots of strikeouts as well? Those guys, other than just being flat-out good, have excellent bat-to-ball skills, so is there an ancillary effect here?

DS: "It balances our lineup out. And we know that. We felt at times last year when there were times we needed to put the ball in play and we struggled to do that. While our goal wasn't necessarily to cut down on team strikeouts -- our goal was to put a team together to score more runs -- one of the ways to do that was adding players of a slightly different profile to our lineup. Both of those guys do provide very quality bat-to-ball skills, they both work counts, they both get on base. It is a nice complementary skill set to add to what we currently have."

Coming right up

Will draft history repeat?

The annual MLB draft is this week, running from June 4-6. The Detroit Tigers own the top pick, followed by the San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds.

Since I can't really offer you any more insight on the top draft prospects than what I've read from ESPN's Keith Law and Baseball America, I decided to look at how these top-five drafting teams have done historically when picking that high, a task made easy with the draft database at baseball-reference.com.

Tigers: Detroit hasn't picked in the top five since 2004, when the Tigers took Justin Verlander No. 2 overall. That worked out pretty well.

The Tigers last had the No. 1 pick in 1997, when they took pitcher Matt Anderson. He finished minus-0.6 WAR for his 22 big league games. Other top-five picks: Pat Underwood (1976), Tony Clark (1990), Les Filkins (1975), Eric Muson (1999), Kyle Sleeth (2003) and Kevin Richards (1977). Hey, did I mention they drafted Justin Verlander? (OK, Clark was a good player too.)

Giants: San Francisco's last top-five pick was Buster Posey, taken at No. 5 in 2008. Nice. In 1997, they took Jason Grilli at No. 4. In back-to-back seasons, the Giants landed Will Clark (No. 2 in 1985, the last time Frisco has picked this high) and Matt Williams (No. 3 in 1986). And that's it. The Giants have rarely picked this high.

Phillies: Philadelphia has picked in the top five quite a few times, so I won't list them all here. They've had the top pick twice: Pat Burrell in 1998 and Mickey Moniak in 2016. The latter is currently struggling in high-A in the Phillies system. Philly has picked third on three occasions and done well each time: Larry Christensen (1972), Lonnie Smith (1974) and Mike Lieberthal (1990).

White Sox: From 1991 through last season, the only time Chicago picked in the top five was in 2014, when the Sox took starter Carlos Rodon at No. 3. In 1990, the last time Chicago picked fourth, they grabbed righty Alex Fernandez, who had a nice run.

Reds: Cincinnati will be picking in the top five for the third year in a row. They picked at No. 2 the last two years and while neither of those players has reached the majors, their status on prospect lists remains high: Nick Senzel (2016) and Hunter Greene (2017). Cincinnati has never picked No. 1 overall but they hit the jackpot at No. 4 in 1985, when that nabbed future Hall of Famer Barry Larkin.