CLEVELAND – Last week, as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. prepared for the Home Run Derby, the reaction of his teammates was telling.
These guys see dozens of batting practice homers every afternoon. They hit homers off big-league pitching every night. And yet when Guerrero Jr. took the field at Rogers Centre to prepare for Monday night’s derby, many of his teammates and coaches followed.
The likes of Justin Smoak, Freddy Galvis and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. could have been in the clubhouse, resting or preparing for the game ahead. Instead, they made their way to the Blue Jays’ dugout where they watched the youngest contestant in derby history prepare.
They weren’t disappointed. Swing after swing sent John Schneider’s offerings over the left-field wall. At one point, those observing Guerrero Jr. lost count.
"That was ridiculous," said Schneider, who managed Guerrero Jr. at double-A last year before joining the Blue Jays’ staff as major-league coach. "How many in a row was that?"
"After eight I was like ‘holy [crap]."
From the dugout, Guerrero Jr.’s teammates were just as impressed.
“We had a lot of fun,” Gurriel Jr. said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “We told him to go out there, have fun and do the best he can.”
Of course, it’s one thing to go deep with a few teammates watching at your home park. When Guerrero Jr. faces off against Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman on Monday night, the pressure will increase considerably. With that in mind, Schneider and Guerrero Jr. attempted to replicate derby conditions as accurately as possible in their practice sessions Tuesday and Thursday.
"It’ll be different during the derby when you’ve got a bit more going on compared to 4 p.m. in the afternoon here," Schneider said on the field at Rogers Centre last week. "But I can put it where I want it for the most part and his swing covers more than just that one spot so if I’m off a little bit, he shouldn’t have a problem."
While hitters take dozens or even hundreds of swings per day during the season, they rarely swing intensely for four consecutive minutes. In the derby that’s a requirement, so those two practice sessions allowed Guerrero Jr. to get used to the physical demands he’ll face Monday. Meanwhile, Schneider has to pace himself from the mound.
"The biggest thing is the timing aspect," Schneider said. "The ball lands, I go. The ball lands, I go."
The Montreal-born Guerrero Jr. will become the fourth Canadian-born player to participate in the derby, joining Larry Walker, Jason Bay and Justin Morneau. He’s the 11th Blue Jays hitter to hit in the derby, and the first since Josh Donaldson in 2015. Alex Rios made it to the final round of the 2007 derby, only to lose to Vladimir Guerrero Sr., 3-2.
Now 20, Guerrero Jr. has eight home runs of his own since debuting at the major-league level. After a two-hit game Sunday, he finishes the first half with a respectable if unspectacular .249/.328/.413 batting line.
This year’s field also includes Alex Bregman, Joc Pederson, Pete Alonso, Carlos Santana, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Josh Bell. A back injury to Christian Yelich cost the MLB’s home run leader a chance to compete in the derby, but it may help Guerrero Jr.’s chances of advancing past the first round.
Regardless of who he’s facing, Guerrero Jr.’s stamina will be tested.
"It’s so tiring for the hitter," Schneider said. "Watching it every year you get into the second and third rounds and those guys are gassed. That’s a lot of swings in four minutes. For me, it’s four minutes of throwing. For him, it’s four minutes of violent swings."
If those early practice sessions are any indication, Guerrero Jr. could leave a lasting impression in Cleveland. Plus, he has the chance to leave a little richer.
"It’s kind of a big deal," Schneider said. "It’s a million bucks to the winner. Like anything, you want to go into it prepared."
The best tip Schneider received this week? Before their practice sessions, Guerrero Jr. told his long-time coach where he prefers those BP pitches. Now the former minor-league catcher knows where to aim.
"Belt high, middle-in," Schneider said. "See you later, ball."