DUNEDIN, Fla. – The tendency is to think all the work Vladimir Guerrero Jr., put in during the off-season to improve his strength, conditioning, agility and flexibility was primarily aimed at helping him move better defensively.
Certainly, that was a big part of it, and Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo already says the soon-to-be 21-year-old third baseman already looks “lighter” as he patrols the hot corner.
The more significant payoff, however, may actually come at the plate, where the team believes fatigue and a lack of pliability may have contributed to a pedestrian average exit velocity of 89.4 m.p.h., that ranked in the 58th percentile, a below-average, hard-hit ball rate of 38.4 per cent that was in the 46th percentile, and a troubling groundball rate of 49.6 per cent.
Only 7.4 per cent of the balls Guerrero put in play were line drives, which isn’t at all what was expected.
“A lot of that had to do with him being fatigued at times, and him trying to do too much,” says hitting coach Guillermo Martinez. “There were certain pitches he would try to get to and he fought himself trying to get there. It caused him to jump at the ball – he collided with it and smothered the ball into the ground.
“Now, he’s in way better shape. He’s able to keep his legs underneath him, which allows him to stay behind the ball better. And the effort level when he attacks the baseball, it’s just a lot easier and puts him in a much better position to elevate.”
Imagining how much better is an interesting exercise for the Blue Jays, who are obviously looking for a lot more from Guerrero this season. Amid the incessant hype, immense pressure and unrealistic expectations placed on him last year, he still delivered a more than respectable rookie year, batting .272/.339/.433 with 15 homers in 514 plate appearances.
Fairly or not, though, it felt unsatisfying, especially given how Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr., took the game by storm as teenagers beforehand. Those who had followed Guerrero’s rapid rise through the minors described a hitting savant who would terrorize pitchers with his ability to barrel pitches anywhere in the zone, and lay off offerings outside of it.
Guerrero was that guy in spurts in the majors. At other times, he curiously kept beating the ball into the ground.
“It was probably a combination of (pitch selection and mechanics),” Guerrero says in comments interpreted by Hector Lebron. “There are some pitches you can’t really put in the air. But I’m working very hard on that and hopefully everything goes well this year.”
Among qualified batters, Guerrero’s chase rate of 31.6 per cent ranked 72nd, which isn’t bad, but also speaks to how at times he tried to force things at the plate. Compounding matters is how Martinez says the fatigue led his body to work inefficiently, with negative body movements keeping him from consistently putting his best swing on the ball.
“He put himself in bad position at times,” Martinez explains. “He’s mechanically sound, he’s way more aware of his body right now, and he’s going to be able to make adjustments. He has a better idea of what his body is doing.”
The dividends there are showing up in his infield work with third-base and infielders coach Luis Rivera, as well. On Saturday, the two continued to focus on footwork and first-step quickness at third base, seeking to bring some of that increased efficiency of movement at the plate to the field, too.
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“Definitely I feel great right now,” said Guerrero. “It’s a big difference right now in terms of taking ground balls when I want to attack the ball. The legs feel a lot lighter now. …
“Last year there were some balls that I couldn’t reach and now I’m getting there a lot quicker and a lot easier.”
While the chatter about an eventual move to first base for him continues – Montoyo didn’t completely dismiss the notion of some reps across the diamond this spring – Guerrero brushed off talk of a possible position switch, saying he’s focused on third.
Given his age, the Blue Jays would be foolish not to extend his runway, given most pro players his age are in the low minors, not carrying the rebuild hopes of a franchise.
In that regard, Guerrero admitted that “I really feel a lot more comfortable” this spring compared to last year, and Montoyo came to his defence by saying the expectation upon him in 2019 “was not fair, you know what I’m saying?”
“I get it, because he was the best prospect coming up to the big-leagues in a long time,” Montoyo added. “He did a good job.”
This year, though, there needs to be improvement, and for all the talk about Guerrero’s defence, that’s ultimately a very distant secondary concern to his bat.
If he’s bopping to his potential, all’s good.
“He’s working on that, hitting the ball more in the air,” said Montoyo, before quipping that, “he might do push-ups when he hits a ground ball during BP or something.”
The Blue Jays are counting on Guerrero’s winter of push-ups and meticulously planned workouts to keep that from being necessary.