While the Toronto Blue Jays have gotten off to a disappointing 5-6 start — and have had more than their share of injury trouble in the early going — there has been one undeniable bright spot for the team.
After dropping upwards of 40 pounds, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is looking like the player who was the consensus top prospect in the game just two years ago. The 22-year-old has burst out of the gate with a .378/.521/.595 line and become the focal point of a Blue Jays lineup that has been short on consistent producers.
We are just 11 games into the new-look Vladdy era, but the combination of his strong results and body transformation could be the harbinger of a breakout campaign. Here’s a summary of what his hot start has shown us:
Guerrero Jr.’s value will always live and die with his bat, but that’s just fine for the Blue Jays when he’s posting a wRC+ over 200. While it’s pretty unlikely that will hold up considering he’s sporting a .462 BABIP, even his xBA of .314 and xSLG of .517 are awfully impressive.
The biggest offensive question surrounding the young first baseman has traditionally been whether he can elevate the ball enough to take advantage of his mammoth power, and so far he’s looked better in that regard, posting a 10.7 launch angle after managing a 4.6 mark in 2020 and 6.7 in his rookie year. As a result, his groundball rate has come down to earth.
While that’s a good sign for the Blue Jays, the sample needs to be put in context, and Guerrero Jr. has had success getting his groundball rate under control for 11-game spans before.
Similarly, he’s had 25 batted-ball samples (he’s at 28 in 2021) with similar launch angles:
What we’re seeing is a good stretch where it looks like Guerrero Jr. is addressing his biggest issue with the bat, but it’s far from unprecedented, and we need to see more before it becomes clear that his launch-angle issues are behind him.
Perhaps more impressive than the way he’s hitting the ball are the pitches he’s taking. We’ve traditionally thought of Guerrero Jr. as having solid discipline — especially compared to his father — but he entered the season with a pedestrian track record in that area at the major-league level.
In 2021, it looks like that might be changing.
Once again, this isn’t totally unprecedented. In Guerrero Jr.’s rookie season he put together an 11-game stretch with a walk rate of 19.5 per cent, but this is still one of his most significant peaks.
What we’ve seen thus far is a more patient Vladdy, who is keeping the ball in the air. Those are good signs, but a large percentage of his production has come from a barrage of singles he’ll be hard-pressed to keep up. His isolated slugging of .216 is approximately the same as what he produced last year (.199), meaning a massive power breakout — even with its odds improved thanks to better selectivity and launch angle — is far from a given. On the concerning side, he’s also posted a contact rate (66.3 per cent) that’s well below what he’s shown in the previous two years (77.0 per cent), although, once again, that dip isn’t out of line with some stretches he’s had before.
Even though there are a couple of holes you can poke in his early season performance, the Blue Jays have to be happy with the progress they’re seeing — especially because it isn’t limited to Guerrero Jr.’s bat.
At this point in the season, it is impossible to make confident statements about players’ defensive production based on data. Even so, we don’t need defensive metrics to tell us that Guerrero Jr. looks more dynamic in the field than he did last year. This play alone should do the trick:
In 2020, the chances of Vladdy getting vertical and robbing a ball travelling at more than 100 m.p.h. were slim to none. Now, plays like this are within the realm of possibility.
One area where he seems to have improved that’s more consistently useful than catching rockets is stretching out for the ball. During the second game of the season, he made waves with this attempt at the ball, even though ultimately his foot came just off the bag.
Just over a week later, he made a similar play, this time doing just enough to stay with the base and record the out.
On Tuesday, his impressive stretch for the ball might have been the difference between an out and a base runner on a game-ending, bang-bang play that required video review.
Although it’s far too soon to know what Guerrero Jr.’s defensive ceiling is, he’s more experienced at first — and more athletic — than he was last season. That bodes well for his ability to make a positive defensive contribution, even if his leatherwork will never be his calling card.
Considering the amount of weight Guerrero Jr. lost in the off-season, it’s not surprising that his speed has improved — but the extent of that improvement is significant.
Last season, Guerrero Jr. ranked 36th among first baseman in sprint speed, behind names like Carlos Santana, Brandon Belt and Eric Hosmer. This year he’s third among his peers and with a total that compares to athletic outfielders like Austin Meadows (27.1 ft/s), Hunter Renfroe (27.1 ft/s) and teammate Randal Grichuk (26.6 ft/s).
Last year’s version of Vladdy simply isn’t scoring on a play like this:
Guerrero Jr. is never going to become a base-stealing machine, but it doesn’t seem like he’s going to be a liability anymore. That’s a meaningful difference for a player who topped the leaderboard for the most negative baserunning value (minus-6.6 runs) in his rookie season.
Just 11 games into the 2021 campaign, it’s already apparent that Guerrero Jr. is a more complete player than he’s ever been. By transforming his body, He’s turned his bat-only profile into a bat-first profile that allows him to make modest, but consequential contributions on the bases and in the field. He’s also gotten off to an outstanding start at the plate, albeit one where his gains need some time to crystalize before they can be considered new norms.