Why Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is a few tweaks away from living up to his immense upside
A look at how the young Blue Jays slugger can break out during a shortened 2020 season
The spread of the novel coronavirus has altered the perception of time. Days feel like weeks, weeks feel like months, and a year might as well be years ago. You can be forgiven, then, if you've forgotten about the ink spilled around this time in 2019 concerning the Toronto Blue Jays and their reluctance to promote third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who at the time was one of the top prospects in baseball. The Blue Jays, driven by their desire to lock in an extra year of team control, would soon change course, with Guerrero debuting on April 26.
What followed was a successful rookie and age-20 season that may have underwhelmed relative to the hype Guerrero received prior to his promotion. He hit .272/.339/.433 with 15 home runs over 123 games. His 106 OPS+ was better than the figures posted by Hank Aaron, Manny Machado, and Gary Sheffield in their first seasons, and within shouting distance of those of Justin Upton and Eddie Matthews, among others. That isn't bad by any means.
We're spending some of this downtime highlighting what certain players can do to take the next step, and for Guerrero the answer is obvious. And no, we don't mean his defense. (He has ample arm strength for third base, but lacks good range; he'll likely move across the diamond, or to DH, at some point in the coming years.) Rather, we're talking about Guerrero's geometry.
Fundamentally, the most important things a batter can do are mind the strike zone and hit the ball hard and often. Guerrero showed he can do all that in 2019. He took a walk in nearly nine percent of his plate appearances, and he had a chase rate that fell in line with the league average. He made contact as often as the league-average hitter, and did so while posting an exit velocity that was nearly two miles per hour better.
In those respects, Guerrero did what a hitter is supposed to do. Where he came up short, and where he can improve and unlock even more of his offensive upside, is in angle.
Guerrero barreled balls about as often as Manny Machado and Justin Turner did last season, but his average launch angle was 6.7 degrees, and theirs were 13 and 17.6 degrees, respectively. That's notable, seeing as how both Machado and Turner outhit Guerrero, particularly in the power department. What that means, essentially, is this: Guerrero is too prone to hitting the ball into the turf. He ranked 17th in baseball in groundball percentage, just ahead of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kevin Newman, or two hitters who are less physical in nature.
Watching Guerrero, you can see the potential for so much more. He's innately skilled, with a fast bat, strength, and a good feel for contact. He can hit the ball where it's pitched, and he can hit for power on the outer half. Indeed, Guerrero actually did produce most of his power on pitches away. When it came to pitches inside, he was too prone to swinging down on the ball.
Take a look at a few examples:
Now, take a look at a few of his swings on balls away:
Anyone with a keen eye should not be surprised by this graphic:
Swinging down on the ball is frowned upon these days, especially for hitters who possess as much slugging potential as Guerrero does. That isn't to say he can't be a successful hitter without making wholesale changes to his approach on inside pitches. Yandy Diaz, among others, has found success with a similar average launch angle. At the same time, "Yandy Diaz" isn't what people envisioned from Guerrero, and it stands to reason that the Blue Jays have and will continue to work with him to make those tweaks heading forward.
The reward is simply too rich to ignore, and Guerrero's talent is such that it would be unwise to discount or dismiss his chances of fulfilling it. All the hype about how he could turn into one of the game's best hitters was for a reason. That reason was evident last season, at least in a sense, and should be again in the future. Manifestation just takes a little time, now and then.
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