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Saying goodbye to Jesus Aguilar

As he begins a new chapter in Tampa Bay, let’s remember the big man’s time in Milwaukee.

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Wednesday, July 31, 2019, 11:24 a.m. That’s when Jeff Passan broke the news that shook the baseball world to its core. The Milwaukee Brewers traded Jesus Aguilar.

Okay, most of the baseball world probably didn’t bat an eye at this news. However, it was bittersweet for Brewers fans. As a huge Aguilar fan, it was tough news to swallow, and despite the rumors connecting him to the Tampa Bay, it wasn’t something I was expecting. It marked an unceremonious and abrupt end to his Brewers tenure: a quick rise from waiver claim to National League All Star, followed by an ever swifter fall to a struggling bench bat who was shipped out for a potentially useful swingman.

While the end of this tale is an unfortunate one, it should be remembered as a feel good story. There was excitement, joy, and laughter along the way. An underdog found a new opportunity and made the most of it. This is the story of Jesus Aguilar, and to truly appreciate it, we need to start at the very beginning.

On November 13, 2007, the Cleveland Indians signed Aguilar as an amateur free agent. As he climbed through the minor league ranks, he showed flashes of impressive power. In 2011, he slugged 23 home runs in 126 games between Cleveland’s A and High A affiliates. He smashed 18 round trippers in just 58 games for Leones del Caracas during the 2013-2014 winter ball season. Aguilar would then mash to the tune of a .905 OPS and 149 wRC+ in Triple-A Columbus the following season, spending three brief stints with the big-league team that were sprinkled in throughout the year. In 2015, he took a step back, but he still put up a 121 wRC+ in his second season in Triple-A. However, he only received 20 plate appearances with the Indians. In 2016, he would go on a power binge, clubbing 30 home runs to secure the Triple-A home run crown. Cleveland remained unconvinced that Aguilar was a serious part of their future, and because he was out of options, they designated him for assignment. His Indians career was over after just 64 plate appearances, hardly an opportunity to prove anything at all.

MLB: JUL 26 White Sox at Indians
Aguilar never got much of a chance to prove himself in Cleveland.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images

January 31, 2017.

That’s the day Aguilar was claimed, right? No, it wasn’t. That was the day that the Milwaukee Brewers claimed utility infielder Ehire Adrianza off of waivers from the San Francisco Giants. However, he does play a role in this story. A matter of days later, on February 2, Adrianza was designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster for none other than Jesus Aguilar. David Stearns was enticed by his impressive power display at Triple-A, and the rebuilding Brewers had nothing to lose by taking a shot on the former top prospect.

Aguilar reported to Brewers camp, and from the very start, he raked. He blasted seven home runs in 26 games while posting a .452/.521/.855 slash. Sure, spring training stats mean very little, but Aguilar was making serious noise. He had caught the team’s attention. His performance was rewarded with a roster spot, marking the first time he found himself on an Opening Day roster.

Aguilar would enjoy a solid rookie season as Eric Thames’ platoon partner at first base. He hit 16 home runs and posted a 113 wRC+. However, Aguilar’s roster spot appeared to be in jeopardy heading into 2018 after the additions of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich led to plans of installing Ryan Braun’s as Milwaukee’s first baseman against left-handed pitching.

Oh well, no big deal, right? While Aguilar was solid in 2017, his production wouldn’t exactly be missed. Braun figured to be just as good, if not better, as Thames’ other half at the cold corner. Aguilar’s 1.0 fWAR would be easy to replace.

But wait a minute. Aguilar had shown flashes of his potential in his rookie year. He made hard contact at a 42.6% rate, nearly 10 percentage points higher than the league-wide rate of 33.3%. His barrel rate of 11.2% was well above average. Sure, he had a tendency to swing and miss, but perhaps more experience would resolve that issue? There was potential here.

Ultimately, the Brewers opted to hang on to Aguilar, which proved to be one of their best decisions of the season. His first big moment came on April 21 against the Miami Marlins. Called upon as a pinch hitter, he battled back from an 0-2 count to crush a walk-off home run on the 13th pitch of the at-bat.

A few days later, Thames would tear the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb. For the first time, the starting first base job on a big-league team was wide open for Aguilar. He seized the opportunity and ran with it. In fact, he emerged as one of baseball’s best hitters. At the end of the first half, he led the National League with 24 home runs despite spending the season’s first month as a bench player. His 160 wRC+, .995 OPS, and .324 ISO also ranked first among qualified NL players.

T-Mobile Home Run Derby
Aguilar’s elite performance earned him a trip to the All Star Game and a chance to participate in the Home Run Derby.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Aguilar’s monster first half earned him some much-deserved national attention. He was announced as a candidate for the All Star Game Final Vote. The Brewers launched the #WeBelieveInJesus campaign, and Aguilar would go on to demolish his competition in the vote, earning 20.2 million votes. That’s the second-most votes any player has ever received in the final vote. After failing to get a shot in Cleveland, Aguilar was an All Star. This was the moment at which he peaked in Milwaukee, having gone from a scrap heap waiver claim to playing alongside the game’s elites. He also accepted an invitation to participate in the Home Run Derby and was awarded the top seed.

In the second half, Aguilar faded from his first-half pace and settled in as more of a supporting character when Christian Yelich stole the show with his Bondsian run down the stretch. However, he still finished the season with a 134 wRC+, 35 home runs, and a 3.1 fWAR. While Yelich would go on to deservedly win the MVP, Aguilar provided several of the season’s most memorable moments, both with his on-field performance and his lovable child-like demeanor. Here’s just a few:

April 21 - When he hit the 13-pitch walk-off

The big man fell down 0-2 but fouled off pitch after pitch, eventually working the count full. On the 13th pitch of the at-bat, he launched a monster fly ball into right-center field to end the game and an epic plate appearance that lasted for seven minutes. One can’t help but wonder if the ball actually did hit the Toyota...

June 22 - When he defeated the Cardinals single-handedly

While the 13-pitch walk-off was an amazing moment, you could make the case that this was Aguilar’s greatest performance of that magical season. Jack Flaherty was carrying a no-hitter into the 7th inning, but the big man had other plans. He took advantage of his raw power, taking a cut that resembled a back-handed tennis swing on a breaking ball at the bottom of the zone. The baseball sailed into the Brewers’ bullpen to tie the game at one run apiece.

In the bottom of the ninth, Jesus would step up to the plate once again with the score still the same. He barreled up an 0-2 fastball from Bud Norris and launched it into the right field seats, sending the fans home happy as his teammates gathered at home plate to celebrate. The pitching deserved plenty of credit for holding the Redbirds to one run, but that night, Jesus was the offense all by himself.

May 13 - When he almost cried

After Freddy Peralta’s emotional debut in front of his parents on Mother’s Day, Aggy nearly let his emotions get the better of him.

August 25 - When he went up to bat with candy in his helmet

During Players’ Weekend, Orlando Arcia evidently snuck some candy into Aguilar’s helmet, and he smirked from the dugout rail as the slugger took his cuts against Jameson Taillon.

August 22 - When his belt broke

Just a few days before the candy incident, Aguilar encountered a wardrobe malfunction while holding the runner at first base. Fortunately, Arcia was able to supply a replacement belt.

September 7 - When Chase Anderson called him a campfire

Aguilar sputtered a bit in the second half. While he was still a roughly league-average hitter after the All Star Break, it was a far cry from his early-season heroics. However, he got to play hero once again when he smacked a go-ahead double in the seventh inning to lead the Brewers to a 4-2 victory against the Giants.

After the game, Chase Anderson noted that while Aguilar might not have been carrying the team day in and day out anymore, he remained an important part of the lineup and a dangerous hitter.

“He’s not a bonfire anymore. I would say he’s more like a campfire,” he told Todd Rosiak of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal. “He’s still hot though. The big thing for him is if he gets a pitch to hit, even with two strikes—you guys look at the numbers, with two strikes this year he’s been unbelievable—he puts the ball in play.”

September 30 - When he said they’ve got a problem tomorrow

Jesus had just launched his 35th and final dinger of the regular season to help the Brewers defeat the Tigers and force a Game 163 against the Cubs to determine the division winner. When asked about having to play the Cubs in a tiebreaker game, he delivered the most famous quote of the season.

“They know they’ve got a problem tomorrow.”

He was right. The Brewers defeated the Cubs 3-1 the next day to win the division.

October 13 - When he rode Wade Miley’s coattails

Wade Miley received a standing ovation from the Miller Park faithful for a strong outing in Game 2 of the NLCS. Aguilar, who left with Miley as part of a double switch, decided to acknowledge the crowd just in case they were actually cheering for him.

October 19 - When his bat woke up to help force a Game 7

As was mentioned previously, the second half saw Aguilar struggle at times. Fortunately, his bat returned when the Brewers needed it most. He collected three hits, including two doubles, to help the Brewers take Game 6 of the NLCS to keep their season alive.

His home run glare

As the 2018 season progressed, Aguilar developed his own home run celebration. After arriving back in the dugout, he would go lumbering toward the camera before giving the glare that became a signature element of Milwaukee’s highly-successful season.

His two-strike hitting

While Zeus will always be remembered for his power, he was more than just a one-dimensional slugger when he was at his best. He was also a tough at-bat, even when behind in the count. In 2018, Aguilar posted a .711 OPS in two-strike counts, which was 72% better than the league-wide OPS in such situations. Even more impressively, Jesus hit 17 of his 35 homers (48.5%) with two strikes on him!

While he’ll be mostly remembered for his 2018 season, Jesus provided some memorable moments in his debut season with the Brewers as well.

July 7, 2017 - When he led the Brewers to victory with two home runs, including a grand slam

Aguilar clubbed a go-ahead two-run shot in the fourth inning of this game, but he was far from finished. He would step up to the plate again in the seventh with the game tied at four. He worked a seven-pitch at-bat, launching a grand slam to straightaway center on a 3-2 fastball to give the Brewers the lead.

August 23, 2017 - When Zach Davies and Orlando Arcia wore his pants

Jesus Aguilar is a big man. Zach Davies and Orlando Arcia are not particularly big men. To illustrate the contrast, Davies and Arcia decided to try on Aguilar’s pants... at the same time. Eric Thames made sure to snap a photo.

Sadly, Aguilar’s time in Milwaukee did not end the way he wanted it to. He struggled mightily to open the season, losing his starting gig at first base and ultimately his roster spot. He managed just an 82 wRC+ and only hit eight home runs in 262 plate appearances.

However, the talent is still there. That same talent that he flashed throughout the minor leagues. That same talent that he put on display in Milwaukee. Now, it’s the talent that motivated Tampa Bay’s front office to take a chance on him. Aguilar’s xwOBA this season of .342 is about 40 points higher than his actual wOBA of .304. It’s only 16 points lower than last season, and it’s identical to his 2017 xwOBA. His .272 BABIP figures to trend upward. His average exit velocity of 90.1 miles per hour is a career-high. His hard-hit rate of 40.2% is only two percentage points lower than it was last year. He’s striking out less than ever (22.5%), and he’s drawing walks at a career-best 11.8% clip. In July, he finally started to look more like himself, slugging .574 with a 132 wRC+.

From Milwaukee’s perspective, the story perhaps had an underwhelming ending. However, for Aguilar, it’s not the ending to his story. Much like when he was cut by the Indians, it’s the end of just one chapter of the story, and now he gets to turn the page and begin a new chapter. He’s still a talented player. He’s getting a change of scenery, a chance to start fresh, and it comes with an exciting team that is also in the midst of a playoff chase.

The new chapter started on Thursday night, when Jesus Aguilar donned a Rays jersey for the first time. He went 2-3 with two walks. His first Rays hit left his bat at 105.8 miles per hour and was lined off the Green Monster at Fenway Park. His second base hit was scorched at a 107 mile per hour exit velocity.

Jesus figures to get consistent playing time in Tampa Bay at both first base and designated hitter, and he’ll respond by doing the same thing he did in Milwaukee: hit. Even with his struggles this season, he finished his Brewers career with a solid 116 wRC+, .352 wOBA, and .831 OPS. In his two-and-a-half seasons with the team, he provided 3.8 Wins Above Replacement, which ranks sixth among qualified Brewers position players since the start of 2017. He was a huge part of this team, not only on the field, but also as a highly-respected and fun-loving presence in the clubhouse.

Thank you, Jesus, for everything you contributed both on and off the field in Milwaukee. I wish you nothing but the best as you continue your career in Tampa Bay. Wisconsin will miss you, but we’ll always have the memories you made during your time here.

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Savant.
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