Pitchers beware: Vlad Jr. has found his zone

June 19th, 2021

After two years in the loading stage, the Era is undeniably here. And it’s here because of a trait you might not expect from the son of the free-swinging Vlad Sr.

For anyone not aware, Guerrero is challenging the lead in all three American League Triple Crown statistics and his Baseball Reference page is splattered with the black ink every hitter wants. It’s the future many predicted, if only delayed by the immense expectations that come with being MLB’s top prospect with a perfect 80-grade hitting tool.

Guerrero had prodigious raw power while he tore up the Minor Leagues; that was obvious just from watching him swing. But evaluators were arguably even more excited about Guerrero’s eyes. He finished his Minors career with more walks (151) than strikeouts (139) and was on base about 41% of the time, showing he was way more than a slugger swinging from his ankles. It’s that strike-zone recognition and discipline that’s fueling Guerrero’s ascendance, summed up best by two huge trends.

Guerrero’s chase rate on out-of-zone pitches, 2019-21
Entering Friday
2019: 28.9% (47th percentile among MLB qualifiers)
2020: 24.6% (64th percentile)
2021: 20.7% (86th percentile)

Guerrero’s % of “poor contact,” 2019-21
Entering Friday
2019: 63.2%
2020: 65.0%
2021: 53.1%
Poor contact: Topped into ground, popped up or weakly hit

That’s a simple way of summing up how a hitter got better at an extremely difficult thing, of course, and there’s more to it than simply "don’t swing at the bad pitches." For all the swinging Vladimir Guerrero Sr. did in his day -- “good” pitches and “bad” -- he still carried a career .379 OBP, and walked nearly as much as he struck out.

Rather, it’s more like Guerrero has realized his own strike zone, and he’s making pitchers come to him. He’s taking the bat off his shoulder (well, more like ripping it off his shoulder, with terrifying ferocity) on his terms and, per Statcast’s pitch-tracking data, you can make a case that he's the Majors’ best decision maker at the plate.

Highest total run values from swing/take decisions, 2021
Entering Friday
1) Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (TOR): +40
2-T) Nick Castellanos (CIN): +24
2-T) Jesse Winker (CIN): +24
4) Shohei Ohtani (LAA): +23
5-T) Rafael Devers (BOS): +22
5-T) J.D. Martinez (BOS): +22

The swing and take leaderboard assigns run values to every pitch a batter sees, based on whether it was a ball or strike, whether the batter swung at it or took it, and what ultimately happened if he put it in play. If it's a pitch right down the pike, you get marks for swinging and crushing it. If it's a "pitcher's pitch" just off the corner, you also get credit for laying off. Peruse the full leaderboard here, and you’ll see it’s a list that nearly all of this year’s best hitters populate.

Guerrero is dominating that leaderboard, especially in the “heart” area -- pitches that are more than one baseball’s width inside the strike zone. But even all heart-of-zone pitches aren’t created equal; each hitter has his own hot and cold zones. Through Guerrero’s first two seasons, his hot zones were down and in, and out in the belt-high areas where he could extend his arms.

Meanwhile, Guerrero’s colder zones were where a lot of young hitters can struggle: down and away (where right-on-right breakers tail off) and up and away (the high-heat zip code). So check out where the majority of his swings have shifted to in 2021:

There’s the heart of the zone, and then there’s the true heart of the zone, and that’s where the heaviest red boxes have migrated. Guerrero’s swing activity is concentrated most where any hitter wants to swing: belt-high or center-cut toward the top of the zone (where his swing path can meet the ball and launch it), and down-and-in. Guerrero is leaning out less for swings that wouldn’t produce more than an infield grounder, if they made contact at all.

That’s given Guerrero more chances to see the juicy pitches. Nearly all of Guerrero’s Major League-best 22 homers have come off pitches in those belt-high hot zones we showed you above. And let’s not bury the other lede here -- the weight Guerrero lost and his renewed focus on strength and flexibility are likely helping helping him crush the damage pitches, too.

Guerrero has pounded pitchers when they offer him something he likes, launching them for more barrels -- the best types of batted ball for extra-base damage.

Guerrero’s barrel-per-batted ball rate vs. pitches in “heart" of zone
Entering Friday
2019: 9.6%
2020: 13.3%
2021: 18.3%

What does all that good contact mean? No one besides co-homer leader Fernando Tatis Jr. has taken advantage of juicy pitches more than Vlad.

Highest SLG vs. pitches in “heart” of zone
Min. 75 PA ending on “heart” pitches, entering Friday
1) Fernando Tatis Jr. (SD): 1.036
2) Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (TOR): .970
3) Brandon Crawford (SF): .949
4) Salvador Perez (KC): .871
5) Nick Castellanos (CIN): .869

No one doubted Guerrero’s ability to punish mistakes when he was gobbling up Minor League pitchers in New Hampshire and Buffalo. Now it seems like Guerrero’s 2019-20 struggles will represent nothing more than a brief hesitation, in the grand scheme of things. He’s found his hot zone, and his discipline is making pitchers enter that territory. And it’s pretty clear that’s the last place any pitcher wants to be.