Vladimir Guerrero Jr will be fine. Better than fine. There’s no reason to believe anything otherwise. There’s no way to sincerely doubt the vast reservoir of talent residing within the Blue Jays’ third baseman.
But the story of Vlad’s first half is one of disappointment. He’s treading water but, the thing is, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. And yet, with a .249/.328/.413 line and just 8 home runs in 253 plate appearances, it very much is. We’ve seen incredible promise and moments of brilliance but those memories are getting pounded into the ground like so many rolled over breaking balls away.
JOHN MINCHILLO / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
“He’s 20!”, you’ll say. And you’ll be right. But for a hitter who looked ready to be a big leaguer 18 months ago, the results have been vexing to say the least. If ever there was a player who didn’t need a lot of runway to adjust to the game’s highest level, it was the guy that hit .400 across three minor league levels, walking more than he struck out while hitting baseballs off hotels and into rivers all the while.
It just hasn’t translated to the big leagues. Yet. The “yet” is the thing but there’s no reason to not to be…mindful? What’s less than worried but still concerned? Mindful that it wasn’t supposed to be this way and mindful that, despite assurances from professional evaluators that He Is Fine, he’s trending the wrong way on several fronts at the moment.
He’s “scraping by” as a league average hitter, one who takes his walks (and gets happily pitched around) but, the results aren’t great or even good. Too many ground balls, too much weak contact. It’s a lethal recipe that doesn’t bode well in the short term.
Despite many pundits slapping “second half breakout candidate!” on Guerrero, there is reason for concern. Via the magic of Statcast, we can take a look at the state of Vlad Jr at this moment in time and come up with three big red flags.
Rolling expected wOBA is a pretty esoteric number, but it shows just how steep the downturn as been since his great month of May. A recent uptick after taking a bunch of walks before the break was nice but, overall, it’s a worrisome sight. No, wait, we’re being “mindful” of the greater trends.
Launch angle is punching bag term, one used with derision by those skeptical of baseball’s analytical overhaul. But for our purposes, it tells a simple story: Vlad Jr hits the ball on the ground a lot. Too much for any hitter, let alone an enormous lad capable of launching 91 home runs in the time it takes to sit through a typical MCU content marketing box office gambit. He’s big and strong and hits it harder than everyone else, why not just hit it up in the air and watch it fly over defenders and fences? Alas, a problem with one aspect of the above statement.
This is the one that is perhaps more troubling. The eye-popping exit velocities that typified Vlad Jr’s first trip through the American League quietly went away. No longer do we wee the triple digit lasers that sent tweets flying and infielders scurrying. Is there a connection to the time he was struck on the hand by a Gerrit Cole fastball? Could be! But it’s worrisome/something of which we should be mindful all the same.
We’re talking about a 70 hit, 80 power hitter whose current comparable players, if you go by Statcats’s batted ball metrics, include light-hitting catcher Martín Maldonado and Marlins create-a-player utility guy Brian Anderson. Looking at Vlad Jr’s outcome based stats, you are painted a portrait of a low-K, pound-it-into-the-ground contact hitter, evoking names such as Elvis Andrus and Hanser Alberto. Which…grim.
To say all is lost or that this is all Guerrero will ever be would be foolish. Insane, frankly. But there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of impatience when it comes to a player upon which all hopes rest. Expecting great things of a great player should not make one feel guilty. We can rightfully expect Vlad Jr to get better—and quickly—because truly talented, franchise-altering players should be capable of doing so.
Maybe he would benefit from simplifying things a little bit. Vlad Jr has always been able to hit every pitch but maybe, at this stage of his career in the big leagues, he could stand to not try to hit everything—inside and out, up or down and everywhere in between—and focus more on doing damage in a specific way. Zone up, be a dangerous but imperfect big leaguer first and then grow into the kind of unstoppable machine who menaces any pitch, in any zone, in any count.
Perhaps the home run derby, the performance that made a believer of so many, will reconnect Guerrero Jr with his inner slugger? No more slapping the ball around the infield, no more grounders in bulk - just pure unabashed violence, selling out for pull power knowing the skills and approach are there to tighten things up and become a complete hitter when the situation demands it. A swaggering killer that makes opposing pitchers question their scouting reports and wonder to themselves “just how am I supposed to get this guy out?”
It will come. But for the first time, it doesn’t feel right around the corner. Big derby performances help the legend grow but until real changes start showing up in real games when facing real big league pitchers, Vladimir Guerrero Jr will be the most famous five o’clock hitter in the world.
It will come. Maybe this week or maybe when his good friend finally lines up beside or or maybe it starts 2020 a new man and never looks back. It will come, please forgive me for not wanting to wait.