'I'll just enjoy it and hit homers': At long last, Vlad returns to Derby

June 29th, 2023

TORONTO -- One of the best shows in baseball, at the T-Mobile Home Run Derby, is finally back.

Guerrero announced Thursday that he’ll participate in this year’s Derby on July 10 in Seattle, the night before the All-Star Game at T-Mobile Park. It’s something fans have been waiting on since Guerrero, as a rookie, set the all-time Derby record with 91 home runs.

Guerrero eventually lost to Pete Alonso in those finals, 23-22, but he hit a whopping 40 in an incredible second round against Joc Pederson. His first-round win that year came against now-teammate Matt Chapman, who was with the A’s at the time.

It turns out Vladdy isn’t the only Guerrero who wants to see him back in the Derby, as he explained the reason for his return Thursday, sitting in the Blue Jays’ dugout wearing a shirt that read “Mr. 91.”

“Definitely my family,” Guerrero said through a club interpreter. “My family has been asking me for the last three years to participate and they asked me again this year, so I said, ‘OK, if you guys want me to go, I’ll be there this year.’”

In 2019, Guerrero arrived at the All-Star festivities in Cleveland just 20 years old and 61 games into his MLB career with eight home runs. He was riding the wave of debuting as baseball’s No. 1 prospect in the midst of a franchise turning point for the Blue Jays, who were pivoting away from their older core and toward the cornerstones of today, including Guerrero and Bo Bichette.

Since 2019, Guerrero has watched on as Alonso won another and Juan Soto took the crown in 2022. This year’s competition will feature hometown star Julio Rodríguez, who will have the raucous Seattle crowd behind him, and Mookie Betts making his Derby debut. Few big league stars outside of Alonso, though, are built for the Derby as well as Guerrero.

Guerrero’s power numbers haven’t exactly shown up in games this season, though, with just 11 home runs over 78 games and a .796 OPS. His first home run at Rogers Centre didn’t even come until last week, on June 23, against the A’s. Perhaps this Derby is coming at just the right time, and Guerrero isn’t about to overthink this. He’s there to have a good time.

“No plan at all. I’m just going to go hit homers,” Guerrero said. “I’ll just enjoy it and hit homers.”

Over the past few years Guerrero has stepped aside from the Derby to preserve his health and swing in the middle of some long seasons. A year ago, he was dealing with a nagging left wrist injury and wisely decided against putting the stress of 100 max-effort swings on that injury. The stars have aligned this year, though, and both Guerrero and the Blue Jays will hope that this can kickstart a massive second half.

The raw power certainly hasn’t gone anywhere. Guerrero is second in MLB in hard-hit balls (95-plus mph) behind only Ronald Acuna Jr.

There’s one big factor from 2019 returning alongside Guerrero: his pitcher.

John Schneider was on the mound in 2019, serving up meatballs for Guerrero to launch. At the time, Schneider had just been promoted to an MLB coaching role after spending years climbing the ladder in the Minor Leagues. Schneider most notably managed Guerrero in 2018 with the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, where Guerrero hit .402 with a 1.120 OPS over 61 games, but now returns as Guerrero’s big league manager.

“He put on a good show last time,” Schneider said. “I think he’s a few years wiser and more mature with making the decision to do it or not do it. Hopefully he can pick up where he left off in Cleveland. He’s always had the knack for things like that and rises to the occasion.”