Over the years, there have been some contentious debates over who should be MLB Pipeline's Minor League Hitter of the Year. This year, the conversation took approximately as long as it took to say the name Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
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Sure, several hitters put up very good numbers across the Minors in 2018, but choosing the No. 1 prospect in baseball as this year's winner was as easy an award-winning decision as there will be this season.
It's easy to run out of superlatives when describing the season that the son of the Hall of Famer had, but some of the highlights:
• Led the Minors in batting average (.381)
• Led the Minors in slugging percentage (.636)
• Led the Minors in OPS (1.073)
• Set career highs in doubles, home runs, total bases, RBIs, average, OBP, SLG, OPS
• Has not gone consecutive games without a hit since July 20-21, 2017
"I was happy with everything that transpired throughout the season," Guerrero Jr. told MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez. "I go out there on a daily basis and work hard. I fully understand that I can only control what I do on the field, but have no control over what happens off the field."
MILB Video - Title: Guerrero doubles for final hit of season - Url: http://www.milb.com/r/video?content_id=2466118083
"My 'seat' from the third-base coaching box, I was always on high alert in case he yanked one my way," said New Hampshire manager John Schneider, who also managed Guerrero at Class A Advanced Dunedin in 2017. "It was a historic type of year. He hits the ball so hard, has such great barrel-to-ball skills, great feel for what pitchers are trying to do to him, makes adjustments from pitch to pitch.
"His work is so good, he's so convicted in what he's doing, and obviously he's confident. He's so talented and he's so smart in the batter's box. He's the best hitter I've seen in the Minor Leagues my whole life."
While Guerrero Jr. was easily the unanimous choice, there were other hitters whose performances warrant mentioning. Only prospects who spent at least half of the season in the Minors and appeared on a team Top 30 Prospects list were considered for this award.
• Rays first-base prospect Nathaniel Lowe won his organizational triple crown by hitting .330 with 27 homers and 102 RBIs across three levels.
• Astros outfielder Kyle Tucker finished with a .332/.400/.590 line in the Minors to go along with 24 homers, 93 RBIs and 20 stolen bases.
• White Sox outfield prospect Eloy Jimenez finished with a .337/.384/.477 line with 22 homers and 75 RBIs in 108 games.
• Mets first baseman Peter Alonso topped the Minor Leagues in RBIs (119) and shared the MiLB home run title with 36 long balls.
• Twins outfielder Alex Kirilloff led all Minor Leaguers with 296 total bases, hitting .348/.392/.578 with 20 homers and 101 RBIs across two levels of A ball.
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Still just 19 years old, Guerrero Jr. flirted with hitting .400 for much of the 2018 season. He was up to .410 in Double-A when the only thing that could stop him, an injury, sidelined him. A strained patellar tendon in his left knee in early June kept him out of action for five weeks, not to mention meaning he couldn't play in this year's Futures Game. He ended up at .402 when he was promoted to Triple-A Buffalo.
There, he "slumped," hitting just .336/.414/.564 to bring his average down to .381 for the year. He set those career highs in all of those counting stats despite playing in just 95 games and compiling 357 at-bats. He'll be heading to the Arizona Fall League to make up for some of those lost reps.
Callis: A history of hitting .400 in the Minors
"My move from Double-A to Triple-A was just another step closer to the ultimate goal," Guerrero Jr. said. "I feel baseball is baseball. The only thing that is different was better quality of players, faster players, faster pitchers and many players that have already made it to the bigs."
That streak of games without consecutive 0-fers, now at 135 games? The last Major League player to have a streak that long was Ichiro, who went 180 games from during the 2008 and '09 seasons. Guerrero Jr. managed this with a combination of an innate ability to barrel up the baseball and his incredibly advanced approach at the plate. He struck out just 9.3 percent of the time in 2018, while walking 9.1 percent. And while his average was lower in Triple-A, he actually upped his walk rate (11.7) and lowered his K rate (7.8) compared to Double-A, and he still has more walks than strikeouts in his career.
"It was certainly encouraging to see the consistency of approach and plate discipline as he moved up each level," Blue Jays farm director Gil Kim said. "What was most encouraging was to see the level of commitment to improving his defensive footwork and athleticism, and how he'd consistently challenge himself to be the best teammate, athlete and third baseman he could possibly be."
This wasn't a fluky year, one where he found holes and hit a bunch of flares. In 61 games with Double-A New Hampshire, he hit 83 balls with an exit velocity of 100 mph or higher, with a maximum of 120 mph. That came on a single to left Schneider remembers vividly.
"I looked at the third baseman, he looked at me," Schneider recalled. "We both had wide eyes. We were both thinking, 'Thank God that wasn't at one of us.'"
There are stories about Guerrero Jr. that border on myth: Getting thrown out at second on balls off the left-field wall that normally would be easy doubles but turned into outs because he hit the ball so hard -- in consecutive at-bats. Or the time in Hartford when he turned on a two-strike, 96-mph fastball down and in and hit it out of the park down the left-field line so hard that the umpire couldn't get in position quickly enough and initially called it a foul ball. The crew conferred and reversed the call.
"People shouldn't be able to do that," Schneider said. "Everything he hit was hard, almost everything was ridiculously hard."
"I was never trying to reach .400, I just went out there to give it my all on a daily basis," Guerrero Jr. said. "I was very selective in waiting on a pitch that I felt was my pitch and put good wood on the ball. I tried to use all fields, just put the ball in play. Now I will go home, continue to work hard in the next three weeks and come back ready for the Fall League, to continue on my ultimate goal and finish line, God willing."
Aside from the innate ability to hit, that's what separates Guerrero Jr., his tireless work ethic. He has a passion for the game that comes out both in how much fun he has playing the game and how willing he is to put in the time to become great.
"For as funny and loose and good as he is, he's very driven, focused and works hard towards what he wants to accomplish," Schneider said. "The cool part is he knows exactly where that line is. Let's stay loose, let's have fun, but at the same time, let's get our work done. He's a pro about it. He wants to be an All-Star and Gold Glover at third base."