The key to Vlad Jr. getting back to 2021 form

February 17th, 2023

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- In four years, we’ve met three different versions of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

In 2019, we saw Guerrero arrive with the hopes of a franchise on his broad shoulders, his youthful energy spilling into the shortened ’20 campaign as the Blue Jays chased a brief taste of the postseason ahead of schedule.

In 2021, the prophecy was fulfilled. Only the incredible Shohei Ohtani blocked Guerrero, who launched 48 home runs with a 1.002 OPS, from winning the AL MVP Award that season. This was a superstar, a generational talent at the plate and the type of player who moves the game of baseball forward.

Then, a year ago, we met a version of Guerrero trapped in the middle.

Guerrero’s 32 home runs and .819 OPS -- not to mention a Gold Glove Award -- made for a fine season. Most Major League players would frame that season’s jersey with the accomplishments listed underneath on a gold plaque. For Guerrero, though, “fine” is a disappointment. He has already been capable of truly great things on the baseball field, and at age 23, there should be years more to come.

To his credit, Guerrero recognizes this. It was telling on Friday in Blue Jays camp that Guerrero, who often speaks more broadly and says that he needs to work hard on all facets of his game at once, was direct and precise when asked what needs to change. This is about pitch selection, period, and that will be his primary focus in the coming weeks.

“To be honest with you, it’s more mental,” Guerrero said through a club interpreter. “It could be live pitching. It could be soft toss. It could be on a tee. You have to be prepared mentally. For example, if I want to go the other way, I’ll make sure the ball is outside. If I want to pull it, I’ll make sure the ball is inside. It’s all mental.”

Guerrero has clearly been thinking about this. When asked about his 2022 plate appearances, without taking a moment, Guerrero immediately said that he’d been too “anxious,” trying to recreate that near-MVP season.

That’s exactly what opposing pitchers want, though, especially veterans who have been pitching in the big leagues since Guerrero was a teenager. They know how to exploit a young hitter who is trying to do too much, and that’s exactly who Guerrero was for much of 2022. His natural gifts allowed him to still produce, but so much more is possible.

“Last year, I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Guerrero said. “As a ball player, you want to get better every year. You all know the numbers I put up in ’21. Last Spring Training, I came here to try putting up even better numbers and I think that affected me a little bit. This year, I’m coming here with a plan and I’m going to trust my talent.”

For Guerrero, trusting his talent will need to get back to the key words we read so many times in his scouting reports.

When Guerrero was the No. 1 prospect in baseball, MLB Pipeline handed him their first 80 grade for hitting that they’d ever issued. That represents the top of the 20-to-80-grade scouting scale, a truly elite ranking that is reserved for players who come around once or twice in a generation.

We’re talking about hitting, though. That’s contact, not necessarily power, and it’s what the Blue Jays want Guerrero to get back to.

“We want his mind to be on being a hitter,” manager John Schneider said. “Before he’s a 48-homer hitter, he’s just a good hitter. With swinging at the right pitches, I think that will even out the balls in the air and the balls on the ground. He’s aware of those numbers. The work that’s done and will continue to do will translate.”

Since Guerrero was 17, it’s been clear that home runs would come naturally. He’s built to punish baseballs, so that never needs to be at the front of his mind. As long as Guerrero is making consistent contact and working counts -- another gift of his -- then 40-homer seasons should roll in annually.

Recognizing this is step one, and it’s a big step. Implementing it in Spring Training or batting practice is another step, while doing it in live games against the best pitchers on the planet is another one entirely. He’s done it before, though, and he plans on introducing everyone to the Old Vladdy once again.