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This 1 tweak would help Vlad reach potential

July 15, 2020

The Blue Jays’ Summer Camp has brought big news for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is shifting his focus to first base after a rough debut at third last year. Toronto is hoping that Guerrero’s improvement doesn’t come only on the defensive side. As the club tries to take a giant

The Blue Jays’ Summer Camp has brought big news for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is shifting his focus to first base after a rough debut at third last year.

Toronto is hoping that Guerrero’s improvement doesn’t come only on the defensive side. As the club tries to take a giant step toward contention during this abbreviated 2020 season, it also needs his bat to ascend from merely good to great.

One of the most hyped prospects that baseball has seen in years -- and carrying his father’s famous name -- Guerrero faced expectations that probably were unreasonable. He was supposed to be dominant, immediately, at age 20. Instead, he started slowly, went through ups and downs, and finished with numbers that were impressive in context but hardly spectacular on their face.

In 123 games, Guerrero hit .272/.339/.433. His park-adjusted 105 wRC+ was above league average (100), yet ranked a modest 86th of 137 hitters with at least 500 plate appearances. In a season when balls were flying out around the Majors, Guerrero’s 15 homers ranked below 68 different hitters who had fewer plate appearances, including young teammates Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernández and Rowdy Tellez. And among Blue Jays rookies (and second-generation MLB stars), it was 21-year-old Bo Bichette who stole the show with his torrid 46-game debut.

All that aside, there is every reason to still believe that Guerrero’s bat will be special. Here are five arguments for being bullish on Vlad Jr. in 2020 and beyond.

1) Patience pays off
In recent years, an impressive crop of instantly successful prospects has spoiled us. Ronald Acuña Jr., Cody Bellinger, Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr., among others, have hit the ground running at a young age, but those guys are the exceptions throughout history. Growing pains are more common, but the results are often worth the wait.

Take White Sox infielder Yoán Moncada, for example. A consensus top-five prospect just like Guerrero, he was below league-average at the plate and struck out 217 times in his first full MLB season in 2018. But Moncada made adjustments and in ’19 broke out into a top-15 hitter. Several years earlier, a 19-year-old rookie named Mike Trout had a .672 OPS in his first taste of the Majors, and that turned out just fine. And back in 1989, another ultra-hyped second-generation player (Ken Griffey Jr.) posted numbers nearly identical to Vlad Jr.’s: a 106 wRC+ and 16 homers in 506 plate appearances. He went on to the Hall of Fame.

There are no guarantees in baseball, of course. But Guerrero is one of only 24 position players in the past 70 seasons to even log 500 above-average plate appearances in a season at age 20 or younger. Time and history are on his side.

2) He’s shown flashes of greatness
Guerrero arrived in the Majors in late April and largely scuffled at the plate for his first two months. Then he had a 60-game run from June 24-Sept. 7 in which he hit .301/.379/.500 (134 wRC+), including .341/.406/.571 (159 wRC+) in August. In other words, there was a lengthy stretch during which Guerrero was in fact the hitter many people anticipated.

That leaves out the fact that Guerrero sunk back into a slump during a homerless September. But he also played more games (136) than ever before, and has openly admitted that fatigue played a major role in that. Even aside from any improvements in his conditioning, that shouldn’t be an issue with this season’s 60-game schedule.

3) He can absolutely destroy a baseball
Guerrero did not make solid contact consistently enough in 2019, with a 38.4 hard-hit rate that put him in the 46th percentile among Major Leaguers. But what he did do is demonstrate the capacity for elite exit velocity. Anyone who watched Guerrero’s breathtaking display in last summer’s Home Run Derby knows full well about the thunder in his bat, and that surfaced in game action, too.

Guerrero’s 29 batted balls with an exit velocity of at least 110 mph tied for 14th in the Majors, and no player matched his eight batted balls at 115 mph or higher. He was responsible for three of the eight highest individual exit velocities of the season: a 118.9 mph single, a 118.7 mph single and a 118.3 mph double. Combine that rare skill with the ability to put the bat on the ball (see below), and you have a truly dangerous mixture. Of the 25 hitters with the most 110 mph batted balls last year, Guerrero sported the fourth-lowest strikeout rate, higher than only Ketel Marte, Anthony Rizzo, and Rafael Devers.

4) He’s not a whiff-tastic hacker
For many young hitters -- especially in this age of rising strikeouts -- making enough contact against big league pitching is a significant hurdle. But as mentioned, that was not the case for Guerrero, who as a prospect became the first player to earn an 80 hit tool grade from MLB Pipeline, based on his “bat speed, strength, hand-eye coordination, advanced pitch-recognition skills and command of the strike zone.”

Guerrero posted a roughly MLB-average chase rate (28.9) with an above-average in-zone swing rate (69.4%), showing aptitude for going after the right pitches. He missed on 24.5% of his swings, a lower-than-average whiff rate. And his 17.7% strikeout rate was among the 50 lowest for a qualified hitter, in line with the likes of Xander Bogaerts and Freddie Freeman, and only about half that of K-happy sluggers such as Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge and Miguel Sanó. More contact means more opportunities for that powerful bat to do damage, and that bodes well moving forward.

5) He just needs a lift
There are several ways Guerrero could be much better at the plate in 2020, but one obvious one is to get the ball airborne more often. In 2019, roughly half of Vlad Jr.’s batted balls went on the ground, and those produced a mere .312 slugging percentage. A more precise measure here is sweet-spot rate, which is the percentage of batted balls falling in the optimal launch angle range between 8-32 degrees. (They accounted for 79% of MLB’s extra-base hits last year). Guerrero’s 30.9% sweet-spot rate was 36th lowest among 250 qualifiers -- far below his teammate Biggio, who led that group at 44.2%.

That issue leaves a lot of room for improvement, and Guerrero knows it. Back in Spring Training, he told reporters, “I’ve been working with [hitting coach Guillermo Martinez] a lot on the launch angle.”

Easier said than done, but as numerous big leaguers have shown in recent years, focusing on driving the ball in the air more can yield tremendous results. Guerrero appears to be a prime candidate for such a transformation -- he’s extremely young, preposterously talented, and capable of both making contact consistently and with nearly unmatched force.

Vlad Jr. already showed signs of putting it all together at the plate in 2019. Don’t be surprised if he makes ’20 a breakout bash.

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