Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Will Be Just Fine

It's the weight of your expectations that needs to be trimmed.

Although I’m seldom one to give up the opportunity to quote the great Chuck D, it’s important to remember, when it comes to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., that one should still believe the hype.

When Vlad entered the league in 2019 as one of the most ballyhooed young players in recent memory, expectations for the second-generation slugger were absolutely lunar. Now, with nearly a full-season’s worth of games under his belt (he sat at 145 as of press time), the baseball world must take the time to congregate over its stat-sheets and dissect what has been a fascinating first season of ball for the kid. But, in doing so, they need also pay mind to the unique story he represents, and the North Star-like position he held in Blue Jays (and Canadian baseball) circles for the better part of three years.

To understand the magnitude of the hype, it’s vital to understand the role that folklore and legend had in drumming up the excitement for El K. Signed at the age of 16 to an enormous international FA contract, he was an All-Star in the Appalachian League at 17, and a Class-A (Midwest League) All-Star at 18. In March of 2018, he famously hit a walk-off home-run during a Blue Jays Spring Training game in Montreal, the city in which his Hall-of-Fame father is still very-much beloved.

Entering the 2019 season, Guerrero Jr. was almost universally acknowledged as the best prospect in baseball. There were articles published on MLB.com with quixotic titles, and media in Toronto who clamored – absolutely foamed at the mouth – for the young fella to make his appearance with the big club. He was elevated to the level of such recent super-prospects as Ronald Acuña, Jr. and Shohei Ohtani, and there was a ubiquitous belief that he was nailed-on for Rookie-of-the-Year. There was hand-wringing in media circles when Charlie Montoyo and Mark Shapiro – clearly intent on sopping up as much team-control time of the player as possible – sent him down to Triple-A after a solid 2019 Spring Training, citing ‘defensive issues’ and a further need to grow in the professional game.

And then there was his debut.

On Friday, April 26th, 2019, Guerrero Jr. debuted for the Jays in an evening tilt against the A’s. There was a level of excitement in Toronto sports circles that eclipsed – at least for a day – the playoff runs of the Maple Leafs and future-champion Raptors. MLB and Canadian sports media made it a spectacle, and Guerrero Jr. seemed to understand the gravity of the moment, famously walking into Rogers Centre on the evening of his debut while resplendent in his father’s beloved Expos pinstripes. That night, he was given a standing ovation every time he stepped to the plate. His second at-bat saw him send an absolute moonshot to the wall, caught by a leaping Chad Pinder in left. He led off the bottom of the 9th with a double to right, and after being pinch-hit, saw his team win on a Brandon Drury walk-off home run. The energy in Rogers Centre on that evening wasn’t quite Bautista bat-flip/Donaldson blitzing home plate on an Odor throwing error-levels of electricity, but it was as close as the franchise had seen since those halcyon days.

Equally as famous was his record-breaking Home Run Derby duel with the Dodgers Joc Pederson, which elevated Guerrero’s star even more in the eyes of the American baseball media – particularly important when considering how stars from Toronto tend to go overlooked and underrepresented in broadcast games and acknowledgment down South.

But, to quote another great – this time, Yogi Berra – ‘In baseball, you don’t know nothing’. And both the player and the fans quickly realized that they didn’t know quite as much about the game as they had perhaps initially thought. Guerrero Jr.’s 2019 campaign was an up-and-down affair, with nights like Aug. 2nd in Baltimore (3-5, 2HR, 4RBI) not nearly as frequent as his hyperbolic hometown fans had anticipated. It’s important to note that there are very, very few 20-year olds who can step into a regular MLB spot and immediately show themselves to be superstars. Indeed, not every kid at that age can be Alex Rodriguez or Mel Ott – or, to be more contemporary, Juan Soto or Mike Trout. Still, we were sold the idea that Vlad Jr. was on par with such legends, in pedigree alone, and so what was actually a respectable rookie season from a standard metrics standpoint (514PA/.272/.772/16HR/69RBI/52R) was still regarded as a comparative disappointment.

As the thorough audit of Guerrero Jr.’s rookie campaign was conducted, outlets pointed to a few key elements of his profile that didn’t seem to translate well into the big leagues. For one, he saw his K rate rise from 7.8/5.9% in parts of two seasons in AAA, to a bloated 17.7% in the Majors, which was amongst the bottom-100 in the game. His ground ball rate was regularly above 50%, reaching an ugly 60% in March and April, and 55% again in June. A rebound in August – where he hit .341 with 4 home runs – was aided by a .370 BABIP and an unsustainable 21% Home Run to Fly Ball rate. All the talk was about launch angle and unhealthy cuts at the plate, but there was also a more subtle and anxious discussion about fitness. A discussion that, at times, was aided by the comments of Guerrero Jr. himself.

Guerrero Jr. is built like a prototypical slugger, if a bit on the heavier side vis-a-vis his height, and yet suggestions of lacking fitness and perhaps a more immature approach to game preparation led to a great deal of consternation in Blue Jays media and fan circles prior to 2020. It actually got to the point where it was uncomfortable to watch and listen to, with a lot of soap-box grandstanding about the fitness of a world-class athlete from folks whose jobs involve a great deal less – shall we say – dynamic movement and herculean feats of strength. This isn’t to say that such concerns aren’t warranted, as the Blue Jays moving him across the diamond to first, and playing him more regularly at DH will attest. But that is to say that a multi-millionaire ballplayer knows when to make such adjustments and a multi-multi-million dollar baseball enterprise is likely to be the first and most important entity to point him in that direction.

Entering the 2020 season, expectations were still high, but it felt very much like the afterglow of a spectacular fireworks show. Abetted, of course, by the bizarre circumstances surrounding the COVID season, Toronto sports media was more reticent to heap Sisyphean weight upon the young slugger, instead choosing to go with the ‘player who made all the right changes and addressed preparation issues in the off-season’ narrative.

As the outstanding interview above showcases – and as Guerrero Jr. himself admits – the pressure and expectations coming into 2019 were, in a sense, ‘too much’. The weight of the Toronto and Canadian sporting spotlight is gargantuan, keeping in mind that The Six is the fourth-largest city-by-population in North America, and is the sports media epicentre of the nation. Players across all sports have seen themselves forged in the flames of such expectation – from Vince Carter in his famous first years with the Raptors, to NHL first-overall draft pick Auston Matthews, who has become a Toronto landmark in his first few seasons with the Maple Leafs. Guerrero Jr. was a natural to find such limelight, in large part because of the warm legacy that his father maintains from his days as perhaps the greatest Expo ever.

2020 hasn’t seen the start to the season that Guerrero Jr. – and the Jays – were hoping for. He is hitting .222 at the plate, with just 3 Home Runs, 6 RBI, and a measly 7 Extra Base Hits. There is talk about how his launch angle hasn’t changed, and about an abysmal 60.6% Ground Ball Rate. Vlad himself has talked about the need to continue to improve his fitness levels, which can be an impossible task in the midst of all the travel and double-headers in an MLB season. And it would be entirely fair to say that sweet-swinging Bo Bichette has, in a loud and large way, supplanted Guerrero Jr. as the lynchpin of the Blue Jays stellar young core.

But all this should be taken, once again, with not just an ounce of caution, but with a pound of understanding. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is all of 21 years old. When David Ortiz was that age, he was hitting .277 with 9 Home Runs in platoon duty with the Twins. Nelson Cruz was hitting .238 in Single A-ball. Edwin Encarnacion was hitting .232 with a 25% K rate in platoon duty with the Reds. Sure, none of these guys had the same level of hype coming into their rookie years as Guerrero Jr., but they are players whose profiles (if we want to talk body type and swing profile) very much fit that of ‘Vladito’, and they are all either sure-fire Hall of Famers or guys who should be in the conversation upon retirement. There are some 2020 metrics that suggest Vladdy has been having some unlucky trips to the plate, too – a .238 BABIP will undoubtedly correct itself, and a 45% Hard Contact rate portends better things.

All of this is to say that there is no guarantee that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will be ‘just fine’. None of us can predict the future, no matter how many predictive metrics we may develop and lean on as observable crutches. Baseball is littered with examples of players who were hyped to stratospheric levels, and who failed to make good on those expectations. But seldom do we see that failure in sluggers of Guerrero Jr.’s profile and skillset. Seeing a baseball and throttling a baseball 400+ feet isn’t a skill that simply goes away. Certainly it’s one that can be honed and refined through hours at the gym and well-coached tweaks to launch angles and swing rates, but it’s seldom something that a player just ‘loses’.

Chuck D may have told us to not believe the hype, but we’re human, and it’s something that we are innately fond of doing. When it comes to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., perhaps a baseball quote is more apt. Former MLB executive Gabe Paul famously stated ‘The great thing about baseball is there’s a crisis every day’. Right now, the middling performance of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. may feel very much like that selfsame crisis. But, as Mr. Paul said, there’s a crisis every day. There will be a new one tomorrow. And I have a feeling that one day – and one day soon – you needn’t be putting Vladimir Guerrero Jr.and ‘crisis’ in the same sentence.

Daniel MacDonald

Daniel is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (2014), and has carried his love of baseball drama and storytelling across oceans and continents. He remembers exactly where he was sitting and what he was wearing when Kerry Wood struck out 20. You can find him talking baseball and music on Twitter @danthemacs

3 responses to “Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Will Be Just Fine”

  1. Derek says:

    Ben Shapiro did what?!
    And also, a 17 percent K rate is great, and I’m surprised that was shown in a negative light. Nobody expected him to have a 6 percent K rate in the majors.
    All in all, great article! Here’s to hoping he can hit 70 homers AND .400 in a season

  2. Tom says:

    There’s no way 17% K% is bottom 100, right?

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