Baseball's best hitter earns just 15% of the average MLB salary


Jun 7, 2021


Toronto Blue Jays star Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is among baseball’s leaders in virtually every offensive category. Yet he earns just 15 per cent of what the average player makes, and the pressure to keep up his torrid performance couldn’t be greater.

The 22-year-old first baseman’s dominance can be seen in the stats: Guerrero leads the league in home runs, on-base and slugging percentages, and advanced measures like offensive wins above replacement, or WAR. His batting average -- .335, as of June 3 -- and 45 runs batted in put him in line to be one of the youngest players to be selected most-valuable player, alongside greats like Johnny Bench and Cal Ripken Jr. And he could become baseball’s first triple crown winner in nearly a decade.

The son of Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, he will take home just US$605,400 this season, or about 15 per cent of the MLB’s average pay. But a salary of US$10 million or more next year may be in the offing if the young slugger can keep it up and take those stats to arbitration in the offseason. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger set an MLB salary record for a player in his first year of arbitration eligibility back in 2020 when he signed a contract for US$11.5 million after winning the MVP award.

Guerrero is part of professional baseball’s fresh-faced, youth movement, alongside San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. While both are the among favourites to win the MVP awards in their respective leagues, Tatis just signed a 14-year, US$340 million contract. Also just 22 and the son of another former MLB player, he will make US$1.71 million this season. But that will rise to US$36 million a year from 2029 to 2034.

The big payday for Tatis shows what could come for Guerrero, who earned US$579,300 and US$555,000 in his first two years.

His relatively low salary -- it’s just two per cent of what the St. Louis Cardinals pay Paul Goldschmidt, baseball’s top-earning first baseman -- speaks to the control MLB front offices continue to hold over a player’s early years. Guerrero is in the final season before he can seek arbitration. If he and the Blue Jays can’t agree on a new contract, they’ll have a hearing before arbitrators who will decide his fourth-year compensation.

For their first three years in the majors, MLB players essentially get take-it-or-leave-it offers, with many earning the league minimum, set at US$570,500 this year. Typically from seasons four to six, they get the right to seek arbitration if they’re not satisfied with a club’s offer. For Guerrero, that will be a chance to argue his worth. Players don’t qualify for free agency until after their sixth year of service.

Arbitration can be tricky, since panelists merely choose a winner, without disclosing much else. Fans typically look at baseball-card stats like batting average, homers and plate appearances. That contrasts with the more sophisticated metrics used by MLB front offices and agents, like WAR and weighted runs created-plus, or wRC+, a gold standard for offensive production.

And that’s where Guerrero could benefit if he stays as hot as he’s been. His production at the plate in stats like batting average and homers pairs nicely with the league’s top offensive WAR and wRC+.

Guerrero’s wRC+ is a league-leading 198. That means he creates 98 per cent more runs than an average player would in the same number of plate appearances.

What’s even more impressive, Guerrero’s success is coming in a year when batters are struggling to make contact and drive in runs. The MLB-wide batting average (.236) is the lowest in history, and hitters are striking out roughly a quarter of the time they step up to the plate.