Slumping Vladimir Guerrero Jr. trying to finish Blue Jays season on high note

Joe Siddall and Jamie Campbell discuss the Toronto Blue Jays having a tighter leash on Vlad Guerrero Jr. playing a new position, and how the game mean more now down the stretch.

In his first plate appearance Monday night, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. swung underneath a slider and lifted it into the twilight Buffalo sky above right-centre field. That’s where a couple New York Yankees outfielders lost it, letting a lazy fly ball drop between them as Guerrero motored into third with a triple.

In his second plate appearance, Guerrero chased a 2-2 breaking ball well below the zone and hit a chopper down the left field line. New York’s third baseman was positioned too far from the bag and couldn’t get to it, letting a ground ball with a .210 expected batting average get past him and into the left field corner as Guerrero cruised into second with a double.

Maybe a little luck was all he needed. Because in his third plate appearance, Guerrero got a 1-0 changeup on the plate and barreled it to the wall in left, trotting into second base with a true, line drive double. His next and final time up, he drew a walk.

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Reaching base in all four of his plate appearances, three of them via extra-base hit, Guerrero had the kind of game many in baseball expected to be common when he forced his way to the majors last season at the age of 20 as one of the best prospects anyone had ever seen.

But those games haven’t been common at all. Guerrero entered the night mired in a slump, batting .191/.267/.309 over his last 20. Those three extra-base hits nearly matched the four he had in 23 games prior.

He was trying everything to get out of it. Batting gloves on one plate appearance, off the next. Attacking the first pitch at times, trying to work a count at others. For a few games, he adopted a Rafael Devers-esque breathing technique between pitches, trying to refocus himself with a deep inhale-exhale before stepping back into the box.

None of it was working. And frustration was mounting. Sunday, he came to the plate with one out and a runner on third in the sixth inning of a one-run game. The infield was drawn in. Guerrero laid off two tough pitches to get ahead, 2-0, then got the middle-in heater right-handed power hitters like him love to turn on. Here’s what happened:

With no fans in the stands, you could hear Guerrero cursing to himself on the broadcast. You couldn’t hear him two pitches later, when he grounded out softly to third and failed to score the runner. But his body language when he got back to the dugout said it all:

The pitch Guerrero missed is the type he should absolutely crush and the one he bounced out on is the type he shouldn’t ever be offering at. But if you’ve watched the Blue Jays at all this season you know that’s not how it’s been going for him. For one reason or another, Guerrero’s struggled greatly to be the same player in the majors as he was in the minors. And he’s coming up on two straight years of it.

“I always go back to the expectations that were set for him after such an unbelievable offensive year in 2018,” says John Schneider, Guerrero’s minor-league manager who’s now in the majors with him on the Blue Jays staff. “It’s different competition. He’s being pitched differently. But I think that once the dust settles, hopefully this year, but maybe not, maybe into next spring, you’ll see a little bit more of the Vladdy that we saw a couple years ago.”

It will probably have to be next spring. Because with only six games remaining in the Blue Jays season, it will be near-impossible for Guerrero to raise his numbers to the level many expected from him as a sophomore. Even after a big game Monday, Guerrero’s batting .249/.324/.437 with a 107 OPS+. That’s fairly similar to his numbers last season, when he hit .272/.339/.433 with a 106 OPS+.

To be fair, this strange season is only 60 games, making it difficult to contextualize any player’s results. Maybe Guerrero would take off with more runway to figure things out. But a small sample’s the only sample we have. And if you put his first two seasons together, you get a 106 OPS+ over 733 plate appearances, suggesting he’s been exactly what he’s been — a slightly above-average MLB hitter.

To be clear — that alone is a feat. There are players older than him who were only just drafted this June. Guerrero’s one of only six players 21 or younger to play 30 MLB games this season. League-average MLBers his age are uncommon.

But Guerrero’s graded on a curve. He was baseball’s unanimous top prospect coming into the 2019 season and, fair or not, will carry the expectation baggage that comes with that for all his days. He hit .331/.414/.531 over more than 1,200 plate appearances as a minor-leaguer, drawing a walk more often than he struck out. He didn’t meet a level he couldn’t dominate until he reached the highest one. Being slightly above-average is disappointing when there’s so much evidence you could be exceptional.

And some of Guerrero’s underlying statistics still are. His average exit velocity and hard-hit rate are each within the top-10 per cent of MLB hitters. He’s responsible for three of the 16 hardest-hit balls in play across baseball this season and only five players have hit a ball harder than him. He’s barreled 80 balls with an exit velocity north of 95 mph, the seventh-most in baseball. Mike Trout — the best player in the game — has 78.

But it’s not only about how hard the ball comes off your bat — the direction matters, too. Guerrero’s groundball rate is 54.7 per cent, 10th-highest among all qualified hitters. League average is 42.6. Now, that stat isn’t everything. Juan Soto’s groundball rate is 53.5 per cent and DJ LeMahieu’s is 58.2. But those players have been able to sustain strong seasons in spite of it. Guerrero hasn’t.

And it’s not like he’s getting beat on particular pitches. He’s been generating groundball contact all over the zone:

It’s just difficult to create much offence when you hit the ball into the ground that often. Particularly when you have Guerrero’s 19th percentile sprint speed. He’s not running out any infield singles. Considering the ubiquity of defensive shifts in today’s game, and the fact the league is hitting .228 on ground balls this season, it stands to reason that Guerrero could get much more out of all that exit velocity by hitting the ball up and over the infield rather than down and into it.

Of course, Guerrero knows that. Everyone knows that. And it’s not as simple as just swinging up at the ball to keep it off the ground. That’s a good way to pop up elevated fastballs or miss breaking stuff down in the zone. Pitchers aren’t trying to give you perfect pitches to drive. The key is developing an approach that allows you to keep the bat in the zone as long as possible and make good contact with an array of pitches in a variety of locations. At least that’s what the Blue Jays are preaching.

“Too much, I think, has been made of getting the ball in the air with him,” says Dante Bichette, the Blue Jays major-league coach who saw Guerrero’s minor-league career up close as he progressed through Toronto’s system with his son, Bo. “Listen, we all know 27-degree launch angle, 105 exit speed, is damage on the pull side. Here’s the problem with that. We can’t just go, ‘hey, do this because that’s the most damage.’

“Pitchers spend their whole life pitching around you doing that. They don’t practice throwing that ball you can launch. They practice it on the corners and busting you up and in and fooling you. So, to me, instead of just creating one approach, one swing, we’ve got to go back to making adjustments.”

To that end, some of Bichette’s work with Guerrero this season has focused on getting him out of a mindset in which he’s trying to lift the ball. One way he’ll do that is by setting up a pitching machine to attack the inner half of the plate with high velocity. Then, he’ll tell Guerrero to “catch the ball deep.”

As a general rule, all Blue Jays hitters are trying to let the ball travel as long as possible before starting their swings this season, which has been a focus of a revamped, club-wide two-strike approach. But Bichette feels the concept is particularly valuable for Guerrero, who needs to get his swing path on a plane with the ball early in order to create the line-drive contact that gets the most out of his high exit velocities.

“It kind of cleared his mind of all the, ‘Hey, I’m trying to get the ball in the air,’” Bichette said. “And it just made him hit line drives back through the middle in batting practice and be the hitter he can be.”

The hitter Bichette believes Guerrero can be is one who sprays line drives all over the park, occasionally lifting them over the fence because the ball comes off his bat at such a high rate of speed. In the prime of his 14-season MLB career, Bichette flirted with batting titles, hitting .340 in 1995. He believes Guerrero can do even better and flat out win one.

But he also knows what Guerrero’s body language looks like when he’s feeling his best. He’s smiling, laughing. He’s taking adversity in stride. He isn’t wearing his frustrations like he has been lately.

Maybe, in that regard, a night like Monday can help. There’s nothing like seeing the ball drop in, even if it’s between a couple outfielders who lost it in the twilight. This strange season being what it is, Guerrero pulled his batting average and on-base percentage up by a dozen points apiece Monday. He added 30 points to his slugging percentage. He took his OPS+ and wRC+ from below league average to above. That has to feel good, too.

He won’t have enough time to reach the numbers his track record and potential suggest he’s capable of. But he does have a week — maybe more depending on how things go in the playoffs — to end the year on a high note. And an off-season to refocus on his conditioning, keep making the adjustments and try to be better in year three.

“Like any hitter, you’re going to go through ups and downs. But what doesn’t go unnoticed from us is the work that he does every day,” Schneider says. “And give him credit, man. For all the expectations and the pressure and the hype and all that kind of stuff, he really handles it well. He continues to go about his day the same way.”

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