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Are pitchers already scared of Vlad Jr.?

@AndrewSimonMLB
April 30, 2019

For years, Angels fans watched opposing pitchers try -- often unsuccessfully -- to pitch around Vladimir Guerrero. The 2004 American League MVP Award winner made a habit of crushing far-flung pitches during his six seasons with the club. Over the next three days, beginning on Tuesday night, those Halos fans

For years, Angels fans watched opposing pitchers try -- often unsuccessfully -- to pitch around Vladimir Guerrero. The 2004 American League MVP Award winner made a habit of crushing far-flung pitches during his six seasons with the club.

Over the next three days, beginning on Tuesday night, those Halos fans will get the chance to watch the Hall of Famer’s son, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., for the Blue Jays in just the second series of his young big league career. The question is whether Angels pitchers will be similarly reluctant to challenge him over the plate.

The younger Guerrero’s debut on Friday was one of the most anticipated in baseball history. The 20-year-old held his own, going 3-for-12 with a walk over three games in Toronto, but what stuck out more than his results was how carefully A’s pitchers worked him.

Were pitchers scared of Vlad Jr. before he ever played a game?

Lowest zone rate, through Sunday
Min. 50 total pitches (418 hitters)
1) Giancarlo Stanton (NYY): 35.8%
2) Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (TOR): 37.3%
3) Miguel Andujar (NYY): 38.5%
4) Daniel Palka (CHW): 39.0%
5) Nicky Delmonico (CHW): 39.6%
MLB average: 48.1%

Statcast also provides a more in-depth view with its “attack zones.” These include the “heart” of the zone (the best pitches to swing at), the “shadow” zone on both sides of the border, the “chase” zone beyond that, and the “waste” zone, where batters almost never swing.

In that same group of 418 hitters, through Sunday, Guerrero had seen pitches in the heart of the zone at the lowest rate (13.7 percent), and in the shadow zone at the fourth-highest rate (52.9 percent). For the most part, A’s pitchers weren’t wild against him. They were cautious.

Now, it’s important to note that this data is from three games -- compared with a full season for other players -- and just about anything can happen in three games. Certainly, no sweeping conclusions can be drawn, and it’s possible the Angels will attack Guerrero much differently.

Still, nothing about the A's approach to the young star jumps out as fluky.

• Of the 10 Blue Jays hitters who saw at least 20 pitches in the series, Guerrero had easily the lowest zone rate. The next lowest belonged to Rowdy Tellez (44.2 percent).

• Overall, A's pitchers were in the middle of the pack in terms of zone rate over the course of those three days, ranking 18th-highest in the Majors (47.7 percent). For the season, Oakland has had no trouble finding the zone, ranking seventh entering Monday (49.3 percent).

• While a three-day sample invites a lot of random variation, Guerrero’s zone rate from Friday through Sunday was the eighth lowest of 92 MLB hitters who saw at least 50 total pitches during that time. Among those with a lower rate were Khris Davis, Freddie Freeman and Kris Bryant.

It’s especially striking to see a prospect arrive in the Majors and immediately get the star treatment, with no initial challenge to make him prove he’s dangerous.

Typically, a low zone rate for a hitter means that pitchers fear him, or know they can get him to chase, or both. In 2018, the group of regulars with the 10 lowest zone rates included sluggers such as Bryce Harper, Javier Baez, Stanton, Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, and Nelson Cruz.

Looking at how other highly regarded hitting prospects who have debuted since the start of last season have been pitched right away, Guerrero stands out from the pack -- with one major exception.

Zone rate in first three career games
Shohei Ohtani (LAA): 60.8%
Ronald Acuna Jr. (ATL): 59.2%
Michael Chavis (BOS): 56.1%
Carter Kieboom (WSH): 50.0%
Gleyber Torres (NYY): 49.1%
Pete Alonso (NYM): 47.7%
Fernando Tatis Jr. (SD): 46.5%
Juan Soto (WSH): 44.0%
Guerrero (TOR): 37.3%
Eloy Jimenez (CHW): 30.0%

Jimenez would have been the top hitting prospect in the Minors if not for Guerrero, having posted an OPS over .900 in each of his past three seasons. It makes sense that pitchers would give him a wide berth initially, much like they have with Guerrero. Jimenez, currently on the injured list, also has one of MLB’s lowest zone rates for all of 2019 (41.1 percent), although he has encouraged that with a 34.8 percent chase rate (MLB average: 27.2 percent).

For his part, Guerrero chased 10 of the 32 out-of-zone pitches (31.3 percent) that he saw against the A's, yet all but three of those were right on the edge of the zone. He also turned two of those swings into base hits, including a ninth-inning double in Friday’s debut that set up a Blue Jays win -- after Guerrero had seen a couple of similar pitches called strikes earlier in the game.

Of course, hitting chase pitches runs in the family.

The elder Guerrero’s career has been immortalized in Cooperstown. Vlad Jr.’s is just beginning, and over time, opponents will make clear how they view him.

But if that first series is any indication, MLB pitchers might have been dreading his arrival as much as Toronto fans were looking forward to it.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.