DUNEDIN, Fla. -- A few degrees stand between Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s underwhelming debut and his overwhelming potential as one of baseball’s most talented hitters.
How Guerrero finds those extra degrees of launch angle is a mission that now involves the player, hitting coach Guillermo Martinez, and the club’s strength and conditioning staff.
The expectations placed on Guerrero in 2019 couldn’t have been higher. Manager Charlie Montoyo thought they were unfair, and how couldn’t they be? A .772 OPS as a 20-year-old would be a brilliant debut for anyone not named Vladimir Guerrero Jr., but for the sport’s No. 1 prospect with generational upside and the hopes of a franchise squarely on his shoulders, it shifted the conversation to ‘What held him back?’
Simply put, Vladdy got tired.
“When he was fatigued, it caused him to search for more power, which caused him to jump at the baseball,” Martinez said. “When you jump at the baseball, you don’t create time and you have to speed up everything. That caused him to pull balls into the ground.”
As a rookie, Guerrero averaged a launch angle of 6.7 degrees, according to Statcast. Of 406 MLB hitters who put 100 or more balls in play last season, that ranked him 372nd. It’s possible to have too much launch angle, of course, but he clearly needs to improve from his current average.
Doing so would help Guerrero hit the ball harder, too. His average exit velocity (89.4 mph) ranked him 142nd out of that same group of 406 hitters, but he should have every opportunity to rank among the league’s best when he’s driving the ball instead of beating it into the ground.
Fatigue can effect a batter’s posture, cause them to drop their shoulders and elbows too early in their swing, or any other numbers of things not conducive to hitting baseballs long distances. Most importantly for Guerrero, though, it cuts off his lower body.
“It takes the legs out of it,” Martinez said. “When he really starts understanding his body and how to create power without searching for it, I’ve always told him that he’s a hitter first who tends to hit for power. He’s not a power hitter. I want him to be a hitter with power.”
Guerrero’s legs are built thick for power, too, so it’s important he uses them.
Montoyo joked earlier in camp that he’ll have Guerrero doing pushups any time he hits a ground ball in batting practice, and the topic is clearly on the hitter’s mind, too.
“I’ve been working with Guillermo a lot on the launch angle,” Guerrero said. “Last year, there were a lot of balls that hit at the wall. This year, hopefully, I’ll put them in the air so they go out.”
The Blue Jays are encouraged that Guerrero has taken the first step, which is simply learning. He’s well aware that he ran out of gas in late 2019, and has admitted it openly. This entire process, though, has shone light on what the Blue Jays meant last season when they said that they wanted him to work on his routines.
Turning one offseason of improved conditioning into a long-term routine is another piece to the puzzle. Guerrero’s conditioning isn’t just about weight, either, just as his launch angle isn’t just about swing mechanics. Once all of these align, though, ground balls turn into line drives and line drives turn into home runs.