DETROIT — Does this swing remind you of anyone?
Same name on the uniform. Same number, too. But different era than the days when Vladimir Guerrero Sr. was diving down to line pitches at his shoelaces onto the outfield grass. It was the elder Guerrero who made a Hall of Fame career out of picking up hits like those, which is why Detroit Tigers third baseman Jeimer Candelario said this to Guerrero’s son when he reached third base a batter later:
“Man, that was just like your dad.”
And maybe that’s what he needed. Because since that hit Friday night, Guerrero has four more, including the first grand slam of his young career Saturday in a 7-5 Toronto Blue Jays win over the Detroit Tigers.
“He’s having good at-bats now,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “That’s the Vladdy that we know. That’s what he can do. And that’s what we were waiting for — everybody was waiting for. He’s looking good at the plate now. And that’s a good sign for us.”
Of course, Guerrero Jr. is expected to exhibit much more discerning plate discipline than his father, possessing a key eye for the strike zone that allowed him to walk 151 times against 139 strikeouts over his minor-league career. But Junior’s been struggling of late, entering this series batting .192/.292/.273 with 14 walks to 21 strikeouts over 113 plate appearances since he was hit on the left hand by a 95 m.p.h. Gerrit Cole fastball in mid-June.
Throughout the slump, Guerrero’s tinkered with his batting stance, adjusted his approach, and expanded the zone far more often than Blue Jays coaches would like. You could see the frustration on his face after every strikeout, every pop up, and every hard-hit ball that went straight into the ground, where outs are almost a certainty in today’s MLB.
It got so bad recently that Teoscar Hernandez, himself only 26 and fewer than 300 games into his MLB career, pulled Guerrero aside to have a word.
“He was trying a lot of things. He was thinking too much. And we talked about getting him back to the way he swings. The way Vladdy Guerrero Jr. is,” Hernandez said. “He looked defensive at the plate. I told him to swing hard the way he always swings. To be more aggressive.”
The hit above, which came in the second inning of Friday night’s 12-1 Blue Jays molly whopping of the Tigers, isn’t really the way Guerrero Jr. swings. It’s the way Guerrero Sr. swings. But the 20-year-old’s next four plate appearances, which produced a pair of singles and two hard-hit outs — each fly ball carried an expected batting average of over .500 — looked much more like the player who was baseball’s top prospect entering the season.
“That was his best game in, I’m going to say, about a month,” Montoyo said prior to Saturday’s game. “He looked good at the plate, good at-bats, and, of course, base hits.”
So, naturally, another base hit came in Guerrero’s second plate appearance Saturday, as he worked a full count after falling behind 0-2 on a pair of called strikes before lining a tough Daniel Norris change-up into left. And then, in the fifth inning, he came back up to the plate with the bases loaded and did this:
First-pitch slider for a tough strike. Second-pitch sinker way inside for a ball. Third-pitch sinker on the inner half for four RBIs. He got every bit of it, lining the ball 441-feet over the left-centre field wall at 108 m.p.h. It was his fifth hit in eight plate appearances. The fourth time in that span he’s put a ball in play at 99 m.p.h. or harder. Oh, and it tied a ballgame.
“I was just looking for a good pitch to hit. First pitch, he threw me a good slider. I took it. Then he threw the fastball kind of low and I put good contact on it,” Guerrero said through Blue Jays interpreter Hector Lebron. “It was a good pitch to hit. He gave me my pitch and I hit it pretty good.”
Two innings later, with the Blue Jays now up by two after Brandon Drury’s go-ahead shot, Guerrero made his fourth trip and contributed this absolutely bonkers plate appearance:
That the result was a called third strike shouldn’t shroud the impressiveness of the process. Guerrero fouled off seven — seven! — pitches from Tigers reliever Buck Farmer, batting away everything from 96 m.p.h. fastballs at the letters to a 90 m.p.h. changeup down-and-in to an 84 m.p.h. slider on the outside corner.
“I was just trying to keep battling, you know?” Guerrero said. “And, well, I guess he won the battle. But that’s okay. I had a great at-bat.”
Guerrero disagreed vehemently with the called third strike on the 13th pitch of the at-bat, although it appeared to just touch the outer black and was consistent with how home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi had ruled the strike zone all night for both teams. A game of centimetres, that. But what matters most is this is the kind of discerning, relentless, grind-it-out plate appearance Guerrero’s capable of — and the kind we haven’t seen from him throughout his slump.
He might just be coming around. Time will tell. But the swings Guerrero’s taken in Detroit have been much better than the ones he was taking the six weeks prior. And it all started with the kind of base hit his old man made a living on. A fitting turning point if there ever was one.
After the game, the home run ball sat in Guerrero’s locker. He said he was going to give it to his dad, as he does with all the mementos from his month’s old career. As he spoke about his night, he wore a baby blue t-shirt with a cartoon image of himself on it before the phrase “EL MUCHACHO TIENE PODER.”
“The boy has power.”