Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s 2021 breakout contains a potent mix of foreseeable improvements and surprising developments.
It’s not shocking, for instance, that significant weight loss has led to more agility in the field and effectiveness on the bases. Similarly, while his superior plate discipline was never a given to appear at the MLB level, it's a trait he demonstrated in the minor leagues — and a skill that tends to improve with age.
A more unanticipated development is Guerrero Jr.’s emergence as an opposite-field powerhouse. Vladdy is currently slugging .868 on balls hit to the opposite-field, with a league-leading five oppo tacos. That might not seem particularly significant because the first baseman is doing everything at the plate, but it’s a major development in the context of his career.
Coming into 2021, Guerrero Jr. had just two opposite-field home runs in his career, and less than two years ago he told Alexis Brudnicki of MLB.com he had “no oppo power” — a notion reinforced by the fact that not one of his mind-blowing 91 Home Run Derby bombs that year went to right field.
As a rookie, he slugged .390 going the opposite way — 119th among 143 qualified hitters — and his hit spray chart looked like this:
This year, it looks like this:
Guerrero Jr. has taken a significant hole in his game and turned it into one of his greatest strengths as a hitter. That change has largely come as a result of his evolving hot zones at the plate. In 2019 and 2020, Guerrero Jr. was more of a low-ball hitter who preferred the ball down and in. He only made good contact on pitches on the outside third of the plate — usually the best ones to hit the other way — when they were at a perfect height.
This year it’s been a different story. For the first time, Guerrero Jr. is having success extending his arms and driving elevated offerings on the outer third — perhaps the best pitches for generating opposite field power.
His first home run of the season was a perfect example...
… as was this round tripper off Vince Velazquez.
Four of Guerrero Jr.’s five opposite-field home runs have come on fastballs in the upper third either in the middle or outside. For context, in 2019 and 2020, he only had two extra-base hits to right on fastballs in similar locations. One of them was a high flyball that clanged off Ender Enciarte’s glove.
The other was his first career triple, which wasn’t exactly spanked:
Although we’re dealing with a small sample, it’s clear that Guerrero Jr. has levelled up his ability to hit high pitches. Between 2019 and 2020 he collected just six extra-base hits on pitches in the top third of the zone, with just one of them clearing the wall. Just over one-third of the way through 2021 he’s already matched that total, with the aforementioned four opposite-field home runs.
Prior to this season, the general consensus was that Guerrero Jr.’s most intuitive route to a breakout campaign was some kind of swing or approach change that involved him significantly lifting his launch angle and avoiding grounders. The 22-year-old has made modest gains in that area, but his launch angle (7.2) is awfully similar to the mark from his rookie season (6.7) and his ground ball rate (50.3 percent) also nearly identical to what he produced when he first came up in 2019 (50.4 percent).
Instead of forcing something in that domain, Guerrero Jr. found a different avenue to make himself far more productive, one that even he might’ve considered far-fetched not long ago. Thanks in large part to improved success on elevated fastballs, he’s gone from a guy with “no oppo power” to a hitter who can tattoo balls to right — a development that makes his fly balls more dangerous, even if they aren’t more numerous.
Considering his age and talent level, maybe no improvement from Guerrero Jr. should come at surprise, but this one was hard to see coming — perhaps even for Vladdy himself.