DUNEDIN, Fla. – The trick to finding answers in numbers during this big-data age is in identifying what’s a cause and what’s a symptom, and the off-season gave Vladimir Guerrero Jr. a chance to do precisely that.
His 2022 campaign was of the calibre most 23-year-olds dream about – 32 homers, 97 RBIs, an .819 OPS, top percentile rankings in the categories that matter, including 94th in hard-hit percentage, 96th in average exit velocity and 99th in max exit velo, plus a Gold Glove to boot.
Who wouldn’t take a 3.9 bWAR and 132 OPS+ to the bank?
Yet the brilliance of his MVP-level 2021 for the Toronto Blue Jays made that feel disappointing. He’d already shown that he’s capable of more and he arrived at spring training a year ago intent on pushing that stat line up another notch. That instantly viral and oft meme’d line about the trailer and the movie followed him around the whole damn season.
“The biggest thing for him and I’ll compare it to 2021, he let the game come to him versus him going after the game,” said Blue Jays hitting coach Guillermo Martinez. “Hitters have to understand that every year is different and when you go chasing numbers, you start chasing pitches, I guess he just put himself in a hole and it was tough getting out of it. …
“We had a lot of conversations but it’s so tough to actually see those things throughout the course of the season, especially when things are not going the way you want them to go. But you’re not getting out in the off-season, so him being able to sit back and actually think about that, he realized, I was trying to do too much, and the by-product is those types of results.”
Again, worth pointing out an overwhelming majority of players sign up for “those types of results” in a heartbeat. For Guerrero, though, the underlying numbers behind that stat line were cause for introspection, with a chase percentage that spiked from 24.5 per cent to 30.5 per cent, leading to an 11-per-cent increase in contact on those out-of-zone swings.
Making more contact more often on bad pitches, especially while being pitched down in the zone far more often, is a pretty bad recipe.
So while there was much attention paid to his drop in launch angle from 9.4 to 4.3 degrees, the lowest of his four seasons in the majors, and a spike of nearly seven per cent in groundball rate, from 45.6 to 52.3 with a corresponding drop in fly ball rate, those were symptoms, not causes.
Hence, the all-star first baseman said this year his focus will be on “pitch selection, definitely,” and replied with one word, “anxious,” when asked why last year he expanded his usually tight zone.
“Last year I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Guerrero said Friday in comments interpreted by Hector Lebron. “As a ballplayer, you want to get better every year. You guys know the numbers that I put up in ’21. Last spring training, I came here trying to put up even better numbers and I think that affected me a little bit. This year I’m coming in with a plan, I’m going to trust my talent, I’m going to keep working hard and hopefully everything goes well.”
A dominant Guerrero clearly makes the Blue Jays lineup all the more treacherous. And that he’s not only identified a more disciplined approach as a priority, but also strategized ways to manifest it, underlines how intent he is about the adjustment.
While he won’t have longtime teammate and close friend Teoscar Hernandez slugging in the cleanup spot behind him, the revamped Blue Jays order will still carry plenty of thump. Brandon Belt, if he regains form, would make some sense in the four-hole, fellow lefty swinger Daulton Varsho has tremendous power that could be leveraged there while Alejandro Kirk also filled the role capably for a significant chunk of 2022.
To that end, Guerrero vowed that “if they’re going to walk me, if they’re going to pitch around me, then I’m going to take my walks this year.” But tempering his elite bat-to-ball skills can be easier said than done.
“When you can kind of cover every part of the zone and then a little bit above or below it, it’s enticing to go after some of those pitches,” said manager John Schneider. “Shrinking the zone is going to be a priority for him – and everybody. Understanding that the way our lineup is going to be balanced out, it doesn’t always have to be him that’s getting the big hit. It could be him getting a guy over. It could be him drawing a walk. When he’s locked into that mindset, he gets really dangerous and those mistakes get hit really far.”
Guerrero believes the adjustment for him is more mental, in not forcing things at the plate by controlling his intense determination and competitiveness. He spent the winter working on such an approach and that discipline was reflected when he was asked: if 2021 was the trailer and 2022 was the movie, then what would 2023 be? He replied, “this year I’m not going to say anything. You guys have to watch.”
Martinez is among those most eager to see the next episode.
“Like anything in life, you just continue to learn more about yourself, learn from your experiences and continue developing as a human being,” he said. “That’s what he’s doing right now in the cages, in his work, and hopefully it just translates to the game. I’m pretty sure it will.”