Matt Chapman probably owes Matt Olson a finger or two from the two Platinum Gloves and three Gold Gloves that Chapman won as a third baseman with the Oakland Athletics. Olson, after all, won a pair of Gold Gloves at first base himself before the A’s traded him to the Atlanta Braves.
“I was pretty spoiled with (Olson). Two Gold Gloves… he definitively saved me some errors,” Chapman said this week. “So, I had a high standard coming when I joined the (Toronto) Blue Jays and I guess the best thing I can tell you about any first baseman is sometimes I have to make plays where I can’t get my feet set or where I just have to catch it, get rid of it… and I’ve never thought twice with Vladdy.
“I think he has the ability to win a Gold Glove. I really do.”
I mean, let’s see about that. But Vladimir Guerrero Jr.‘s All-Star vote totals suggest he is already one of those perennial fan-favourites whose popularity can sustain the odd hit to his offensive statistics. He is a superstar in the minds of the paying and viewing public; a citizen of the game.
So even though at this point Guerrero’s not on anybody’s shortlist for American League Most Valuable player in 2022, he is still front of mind and it’s not a bad time to think about his evolution as a first baseman. Remember: Guerrero was only nominally a third baseman when the Toronto Blue Jays signed him out of the Dominican Republic — the Blue Jays asked him what his favourite position was when they started scouting him, other than “batting,” — and was moved across the diamond even though post-Josh Donaldson the Blue Jays really didn’t have a set option at third.
We know why, of course, but remember how Guerrero still took grounders at third, how he went into this off-season telling people he still wanted to play third — sheesh, some of us even fell for the Freddie Freeman blather?
Now here’s a guy with a defensive pedigree — Chapman — suggesting Guerrero can be an elite defender at first. I wonder how Vladdy, Sr., feels about that notion?
Especially in his early days with the Montreal Expos, Vladimir Guerrero, Sr.’s calling card was his throwing arm as much as his hitting. I mean, one of the rites of spring for beat reporters covering Senior was to stand by the fence near the outfield wall during workouts and watch him unload no-hop throws to home plate. He’d move close to the fence at times and, yes, you’d swear you could hear the sssssszzzzt! as the ball cut through the air.
Junior’s arm is more game-maintaining than game-changing, but he’s shown something else as 2022 has gone on: an aggressiveness and creativity in putting on plays behind base-runners. Twice this month we’ve seen him call for plays behind runners at first. Tuesday, he snapped off a throw to Bo Bichette at second base after stepping on first base to retire Jackie Bradley, Jr., on a ground out. Christian Vazquez had half-assed a few steps around the bag at second and had to lunge back for the bag, staring incredulously at Guerrero as he started to dust off. Wednesday, with runners on first and second, Xander Bogaerts motioned toward Alex Verdugo at first when he wandered off base a little too much.
“That’s Vladdy’s call… Not us (the dugout),” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “It’s him. Plays like that are huge because they can get you out of jams. Vladdy has an intelligent way of seeing the game. That’s him. That’s his hard work.”
Bench coach John Schneider managed Guerrero at both single-A and double-A, at a time when the organization was incorporating shifting system-wide. Schneider remembers how Guerrero — a third baseman, then — would pepper him with questions about the hows and whys of the shift. Schneider said that Guerrero got to the point where even at double-A he took the on-field lead in positioning, showing an ability to remember hitters and tendencies even at a young age. Schneider would start to move his infielders… but Guerrero was already where he needed to be and often directing teammates.
Schneider thinks that the perspective Guerrero gained playing third base sometimes helps him visualize things on the other side of the diamond. Guerrero? He’s not certain. Through interpreter Hector Lebron he’d rather talk about the extra work he puts in along with the rest of the infield. But the pride is evident. Asked whether opposing players give him good-natured jibes when they’re passing time at first base — it is the most social position in the game — Guerrero shrugs and says that it has started to come up. “We don’t talk about the details, though,” he said, before adding:
“I’m always ready. I’m always ready. If I see I can get you out, I’ll try to get you out.”
Schneider said the Blue Jays’ other infielders are on notice.
“Vladdy is an aggressive guy in the field and that’s something Charlie doesn’t just like, it’s something he encourages,” said Schneider. “And it’s not just the plays he makes behind the runners. It’s what it puts in the mind of the other team, like when they’re taking their secondary leads. That little bit of uncertainty, those few feet less, they can save you runs.”
Chapman paused for a minute when he was asked whether Guerrero’s proficiency has come as a surprise.
“I don’t want to say ‘yes’ in the fact that I didn’t think he was that good, because I knew when I came over here that he was athletic and had good hands,” Chapman said. “The thing that impresses me is the quickness of his feet. He has the ability to pick low throws… he hangs in there on the tight throws… and he’s fast enough that he can play far away from the bag.
“He can get there. He doesn’t need to flip the ball to the pitcher too often. Just go to the bag himself.
“He’s just super athletic and he’s always looking to get better.”
Guerrero goes into this weekend’s series against the Tampa Bay Rays second in defensive runs saved by Major League first basemen, and has the same UZR rating as — wait for it — Olson. Guerrero is tied with a bunch of first basemen in Outs Above Average, including Freddie Freeman. You can still parse defensive statistics to fit a narrative but this much is clear: in addition to being an All-Star, he’s a good enough first baseman for a championship-calibre team. He’s very much a Guerrero at the plate — comparing his offensive numbers to those of Senior is a staple graphic for any visiting broadcast — and he might also be realizing the game-changing defensive strain in the bloodline.
“Especially the way the game is now, a lot of guys hit their way to the Majors and while Vladdy probably thinks he’s a hit-first guy, he has instincts for the game,” said Chapman. “Really good instincts. He’s a confident guy. This whole infield has a really high confidence level right now, and it’s going to get better.”