Why Guerrero’s subtle adjustments could change Blue Jays’ fortunes at the plate

MLB columnist Shi Davidi joins Blair and barker to discuss what is keeping Toronto Blue Jays' first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. out of his peak form and what the Jays can do to get him back on track.

TORONTO – The least exciting way to bring home a run may very well be the bases-loaded walk, especially one in which the batter isn’t even tempted to swing at anything the pitcher offers up.

That’s how the Toronto Blue Jays scored their only run in Wednesday’s 5-1 loss to the Seattle Mariners, when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. kept the bat on his shoulder for five straight pitches from Marco Gonzales before trotting over to first base.

For a team that’s struggled to deliver big blows, it wasn’t exactly a riveting moment.

Beneath the surface, though, it was a plate appearance of wider significance for both Guerrero, who matched George Springer for team lead in RBIs at 21, and the Blue Jays. Gonzales nibbled around the zone, not only out of wise caution with last year’s AL MVP runner-up, but likely also because the 23-year-old is swinging at balls 10 per cent more often this year than last.

Consider this pitch chart from Guerrero’s 16th walk of the season.

Gonzales is clearly trying to exploit Guerrero’s eagerness to do damage. The Blue Jays, down 1-0 and trying take the lead, were desperate to put a crooked number up on the board. Guerrero stayed disciplined enough to not give in.

“Sometimes at the beginning of the season, I didn't have maybe the exact same plan that I had last year. Sometimes I tried to do too much myself, regardless of if we are doing well or poorly. I just took it on myself,” Guerrero said in an interview interpreted by Hector Lebron.

“Maybe I'm putting a little bit more pressure on myself, I guess, especially with runners in scoring position. But I'm seeing that already, so I'm trying to work on that and now I'm starting to take whatever they give me. I trust my teammates, whoever is hitting behind me, and if they give me the walk, I take my walk.”

Amid ongoing pressure to deliver at the plate and pile up all the runs this offence was expected to produce, what the Blue Jays collectively need more of is the type of sound approach Guerrero showed in that third inning.

More than most, Guerrero has been feeling the weight of the team’s troubles scoring, regularly straying from his zone in pursuit of extra bases.

This season, his chase percentage is sitting at 34 per cent, compared to 24.5 per cent a year ago. He’s also making contact with those pitches more often, at a 60 per cent clip versus 47.3 per cent in 2021, so he’s swinging at worse pitches and hitting them more often, which isn’t what you want.

In spite of that, Guerrero is still making some of the best contact in baseball, his average exit velocity of 93.5 mph in the top three per cent of the majors, his hard-hit percentage of 54.6 in the top two per cent and his maximum exit velo of 117.9 in the top one per cent.

The pitcher’s mound and infield positions remain incredibly scary places when he’s at the plate.

But because he’s expanded his zone – and is so talented that he can still hit bad pitches ridiculously hard – his average launch angle has dropped dramatically, from 9.6 degrees a year ago to 4.1 now. That in part helps explain why in the 11 games since hitting his seventh homer May 5 at Cleveland, he’s gone 48 plate appearances without an extra-base hit amid a 15-game hitting streak.

“It’s more about the pitches I’m swinging at,” said Guerrero. “Like instead of me seeing a good pitch and hitting it back up the middle, I'm just trying to yank it, trying to pull it. That's basically what it is. I've just got stay in the strike zone and through the middle.”

An example of that came in the eighth inning Wednesday against Paul Sewald. Down 0-2 in the count, Guerrero shot a 93.2 mph fastball away to right field for a base hit.

He employed a similar approach Monday night on a third inning single to the right side on a Chris Flexen cutter. Given that Guerrero often points to being at his best when he’s staying up the middle, the base hits could perhaps be taken as leading indicators that he’s getting right.

“Kind of,” he said, grinning at the suggestion. “The sign is when I hit it out to right field. That's when you are going to see that I’m right.”

The challenge, of course, is maintaining the necessary discipline at the plate to force pitchers into his happy zones.

A fierce competitor who is happier going 0-for-4 in a win than going 4-for-4 in a loss, Guerrero understands the responsibility on his shoulders. That the Blue Jays haven’t hit around him has magnified his below-expectations start, although it’s important to note 99 per cent of players wish for a .284/.368/.470 batting line as a peak, where for Guerrero it’s a quiet stretch.

Still, he knows he’s missed pitches to hit and he’s allowed it to affect him in the box.

“It's more trying to do too much and I guess being a little bit anxious,” Guerrero explained. “For example, if I got a pitch that I'm maybe looking for and I hit it foul, sometimes I get very anxious because I really want that pitch again to try to hit it the way I should've hit the previous pitch, which I fouled off. So, it’s a combination. I'm trying to do a little too much and getting a little bit anxious.”

In the sixth inning Wednesday, he was better in that regard. Check out his reaction here after he fouls off a 1-1 cutter from Gonzales that could easily have ended up in the seats.

He spat on a chase changeup on the next pitch before ripping a bottom of the zone change to third on the next pitch. It ended up an out, but Guerrero didn’t come out of his approach.

That process over results stuff may not be exciting. But for the Blue Jays to pull out of this extended cold streak at the plate, the turnaround will be rooted in such subtle adjustments.

Guerrero is trying his best to make it happen as quickly as possible.

“I think every game I'm starting to get better, especially controlling the strike zone,” he says. “I've been working hard with the hitting coaches and just feeling better. It’s working.”

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