TORONTO — Months ago, when Ross Atkins, the general manager of the rebuilding Toronto Blue Jays, was facing persistent questions as to why the club’s top prospect, the extraordinarily talented Vladimir Guerrero Jr., was not going to start the season in the majors, he often referred to a need for the teenager to improve his "routines."
The terminology was purposefully vague. Routines could extend to plenty of things, from how many groundballs Guerrero takes before a game to how much video he watches of the opposition’s starting pitcher to when he goes to sleep at night. It was easy to direct follow-up questions towards defence, preparation, practice.
But the truth of the matter — aside from the obvious service time considerations that incentivized the Blue Jays to delay his debut in order to gain an added year of contractual control — is Guerrero wasn’t in strong enough shape. He hadn’t spent the winter properly conditioning himself to withstand the rigours of a full MLB season. His body composition at the beginning of spring training left him at a higher risk of injury, particularly to the tendons and ligaments connecting the bones and muscles in his lower half that were carrying around his weight in games.
Now, after a 2019 season in which Guerrero posted above-average offensive numbers in his first 123 games as a major-leaguer yet still disappointed considering the undeniably elite potential he possess, the rhetoric has shifted. And it has a lot to do with Guerrero himself admitting at the end of 2019 that he was tired, that he was dissatisfied with his first MLB season, and that he needs to commit to arriving at spring training next year in better shape than he did this February.
"Vladdy has talked about it. And I’m certainty comfortable talking about that. We’re being very clear. He knows he has to come in in overall better condition," Atkins said Tuesday during a series of media availabilities marking the end of his club’s 67-95 season. "And he has a plan to do that. He is committed to it. We have helped him construct it. It’s really clear. It’s a very clear plan that if he executes — and if we execute, we’ll be accountable for that as well, if we can do that together — he’ll be at a much better place."
So, is there a particular goal weight in mind that Guerrero will endeavour to lean out to by the beginning of spring training?
"I don’t want to just give you a number, just because he’s 20-years-old," Atkins said. "It’s not as much about the actual number as it is about his overall body composition and the overall range of motion and the overall strength. But it would be significantly less than what he reported at last year."
Exactly what weight he reported at last year isn’t something the Blue Jays have said publicly, but you’re safe to assume it was considerably higher than the 250 pounds the club re-listed him at in March after not updating his weight from the dubious 200 pounds it was cited as for years.
And, really, the number’s beside the point. You can walk around at six-foot-two, 235 pounds with a muscular body composition and be a strong athlete. Or you can walk around at six-foot-two, 235 pounds with a body fat percentage over 30 and struggle to compete. What matters is your proportion of muscle to fat, your mobility, and your capacity to withstand the stresses of 162 games in 186 days. There is no one ideal body weight for every person, every athlete, or every ballplayer.
But it’s safe to say Guerrero’s is well below what he turned up weighing in Dunedin, Fla. this spring. And just when Guerrero turns up next season will be another factor the club is heavily invested in over the coming months. If Guerrero’s plan is to better condition himself, the best environment for that to occur is undoubtedly at the Blue Jays facility where he has access to all of the club’s resources — strength coaches, nutritionists, physical therapists, etc. — that can help him achieve that goal.
Of course, Guerrero’s from the Dominican Republic and it would be unreasonable for the Blue Jays to suggest he not spend substantial time at home with his family, including his two daughters. But it does sound like Guerrero will be spending much more time in Dunedin this off-season than he did last.
"The more time he’s with us, the better. We’re working towards that. He’s committed to that," Atkins said. "And really, we’re not working towards it. It’s going to occur. He’s going to spend significant time with us."
It certainly helps that Guerrero’s on board with the plan coming off a season when many of his offensive statistics — particular his power numbers — weren’t only initially below the standard he’d set for himself as a minor-leaguer, but declined as the year wore on.
After hitting six home runs in May, he left the yard only nine times over the remainder of the season, going his final 27 games without one. Three of the eight hardest-hit balls across MLB in 2019 came off his bat, and five of the hardest 24. But for a player with such preternatural ability for barrelling the ball, his average exit velocity (89.4-m.p.h.) and hard-hit rate (38.4 per cent) were underwhelming, falling right around league average.
His season was not an unlucky one, as his expected statistics on batted balls all fell below his actual results, suggesting he experienced favourable results for his quality of contact. And he demonstrated a concerning tendency — in today’s era of frequent infield shifts — for putting the ball on the ground, posting a 49.6 per cent groundball rate, nearly seven points higher than the league average.
As the season wore on, fatigue and frustration clearly set in. Guerrero expanded the zone more often than he had in the minors, leading to a 30 per cent chase rate on the season. His playing time was also intermittently interrupted by scheduled days off, which were a direct response to his conditioning. By contrast, Bo Bichette, a 21-year-old rookie, didn’t miss a game from the time he was called up in July until his season ended due to a concussion two months later.
"We could see that he was tired from time to time. And that’s why he played less," Atkins said of Guerrero. "And I think, based on his reporting weight, we did expect some level of that."
So, lessons were clearly learned as to what it takes to compete at the highest level. And it’s important to remember 2019 was the first year Guerrero’s struggled at the plate in his young life. He had an .808 OPS as a 17-year-old in rookieball in 2016; he finished his next season at high-A, putting up a .944 OPS in a league where he was nearly five years younger than the average player. Last season he struck out only one more time than he walked and posted an insane 1.073 OPS at the highest levels of the minor-leagues.
Of course, he never changed anything about his approach to the game — what reason did he have to?
The hope now for the Blue Jays is that 2019’s adversity was instructive and motivating in every aspect of how he prepares to compete. That it showed Guerrero that he wasn’t properly conditioned for a six-month season; that he wasn’t doing everything he could to compete against the overpowering velocity and sharp breaking stuff of the best pitchers in the world; that he wasn’t doing enough to adjust and counter the coaching staffs on the other side, who were armed with the best tools and resources to identify and exploit flaws in his approach.
"It’s about education. We can’t force anything. And Vladdy’s gotten to that point. He understands the things that we have been emphasizing," Atkins said. "And not just from a negative standpoint, but what they mean from a positive standpoint. The upside of putting himself in the best possible position. I’m confident he understands why.
"When you wake up and perform at such an elite level, reflection’s less necessary. And he just didn’t perform at the same level that he had over the course of his minor-league career and amateur career, and felt different. So, reflection occurred. And maturity occurred."
What that all leads to months from now — both in terms of the physical condition Guerrero’s in at the beginning of spring training, and the production he’s able to provide in his sophomore season — remains to be seen. But it will be one of the most important tipping points for this club as it tries to emerge from the rebuild wilderness its currently navigating through. Anyone can recognize Guerrero’s tremendous potential. Now he has to show he’s willing to do the work to realize it.
"The thing about Vladdy that’s so encouraging and so impressive is he was never out of a game, offensively. He might have had an at-bat or two where he lost the fight a little early. But never for the entire game. And that is incredible to see for someone who is 20-years-old," Atkins said. "He was up with the game on the line a lot. And we always felt great about him being up with the game on the line."