Derby champ Guerrero ignites offense with homer in 1st at-bat

July 15th, 2023

TORONTO -- The T-Mobile Home Run Derby’s over, but  didn’t hear the bell.

In his first at-bat since being crowned the Derby champ on Monday in Seattle, Guerrero launched a Statcast-projected 426-foot shot to left field to open the scoring in Friday’s 7-2 win over the D-backs. There it all was again, the grand choreography of his home run trot.

Immediately, we saw the answer to the question that Blue Jays fans have been asking with hope and 29 other teams have been asking with fear: What if the Home Run Derby wakes up Vladdy?

“He carried over what he was doing in Seattle,” said manager John Schneider. “I thought his at-bats were great. It’s always good to jump out and take the lead, and hopefully this gets him on a little roll.”

That roll was already starting to pick up some quiet momentum before the break, too.

“I’ll say that before the Derby, in that previous series, I was starting to feel pretty good at the plate,” Guerrero said through a club interpreter. “When I start feeling comfortable at the plate, things are going to get better.”

Guerrero had a brief burst of power from late June into early July, homering four times in 10 games, but that’s the closest we’ve seen to that 2021 version of Guerrero both he and the Blue Jays have longed for. To see the slugger with just 14 home runs and a sub-.800 OPS 89 games into his season is jarring, but he didn’t exactly light the league on fire in '22, either (32 HR, .819 OPS).

It’s all a matter of expectations, too. Put Guerrero’s numbers on most players in the league, and they’d call it a great season. But he isn’t most players.

Friday’s long ball looked more like the old Vladdy, and it even had shades of his Home Run Derby performance on a soft, inside pitch, much like what Schneider was feeding him in Seattle. The discourse around Guerrero has been that the All-Star Game and Derby crown could “fix his swing” or “unlock his power stroke,” but this is about something much more difficult to measure.

Guerrero has hit the ball hard all season, creating some underlying figures and expected stats that scream “his numbers should be better,” but they haven’t been. What you saw in Seattle, and again as Guerrero was mobbed in the dugout on Friday, was the 24-year-old as his loose, natural self.

At the most basic level, he is at his best when he’s enjoying himself. That, more than any swing logistics, is why the Derby was so valuable for Guerrero, who seems to be holding on to the strategy he deployed in the event.

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

Later in the game, Guerrero extended his arms to turn on an outside slider and keep the seventh inning alive with a single. followed Guerrero with a double and kept the line moving with a single, bringing across four more runs’ worth of two-out offense. It was another glimpse of what this offense is capable of. Like Guerrero himself, the flashes have been mesmerizing, but not consistent enough.

“That’s who we are. We’re very aggressive,” Guerrero said. “At the same time, we’re trying to get some walks, but right now everything is going well. We’re going to continue to be that way.”

That five-run seventh inning, just after the Blue Jays’ former No. 1 prospect Gabriel Moreno tied things up with a home run for the D-backs, is exactly the type of inning Toronto has needed this season, too. The team has felt stuck in tight games at times, unable to find fifth gear and use its talent to pull away in the final frames.

As Vladdy goes, though, so do the Blue Jays.

“We’ve been saying it all along. I still think this, and everyone in the clubhouse will tell you the same: that our best baseball is in front of us,” Schneider said. “It’s really good to get off on that note tonight and I hope we can keep this rolling. We trust the guys in there with any situation and we’ve had a weird go of it for a while with runners on base, but hopefully tonight’s a good little start.”

This is the last “fresh start” of 2023. There are 70 games left in the regular season, and nothing would change the trajectory of the Blue Jays more than Guerrero extending the Derby.