How Vladimir Guerrero Jr. put it all together in an MVP-calibre 2021 season — and why he hasn't yet reached his ceiling

Home run celebrations are a form of personal expression on the baseball field, which is why Toronto Blue Jays third base coach Luis Rivera is generally down for whatever his players want when he congratulates them on the turn home. Over the years there have been high fives, low fives, fist bumps and a variety of salutes, and all he asks is that his players follow one simple rule. “I tell them I’m not going to make a fool of myself with stuff I don’t feel comfortable doing,” he says, which speaks to his appreciation for the one gesture he’s done more often than any other this season.

Thirty-five times and counting he and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. have greeted each other not by slapping hands but by raising index fingers to their lips, the universal sign for quiet. It’s an intriguing choice given how loud the 22-year-old slugger’s play has been this year, and how it’s drowned out those who took shots at his physique and questioned his talent when he didn’t immediately meet impossible expectations and stomp the majors upon his 2019 arrival. “He wanted to do that because he wanted the critics to be quiet and let him play,” says Rivera. “It’s something that is very personal and I respect that.”

The gesture is the closest thing to a public I-told-you-so from Guerrero, the ebullient emergent superstar who is the driving force on this Blue Jays team. “It’s basically just to let my work do the talking,” he says in an interview interpreted by Hector Lebron. “In this business, there are always negative people with negative thoughts, people talking about things that they probably never thought I was going to do, or things like that. I let my work do the talking.”

Given how absurd some of the discussion around him got last year — with suggestions he should have been optioned after a slow start or that he was an overhyped bust despite posting a .791 OPS as a 21-year-old in the majors — he’d certainly be within his rights to call out the haters. But when asked if he ever thought that chatter was unfair, he shakes his head. “You know what? That made me stronger,” Guerrero replies. “All those negative thoughts and all the talk of the past few years, I used that as a positive, positive energy to work very hard and to show everyone what kind of ballplayer and what kind of person I am.”

Game by game, at-bat by at-bat, Guerrero’s mighty swing is delivering the message, which is why emphatic MVP chants greeted him every time he stepped to the plate during the club’s emotional 11-game, 10-day midsummer Toronto homecoming. Were it not for Shohei Ohtani’s astonishing two-way exploits, there’d be little debate over the American League prize, and it’s noteworthy that during an all-star game that largely revolved around the Japanese sensation, it was Guerrero who delivered in the moment with a majestic 468-foot home run, earning him the nod as the night’s MVP.

Afterwards, he joined in the praise for Ohtani, rightly saying, “He’s out of this world, he’s not from here, he’s unbelievable.” In the game, though, he’d demonstrated on the national baseball stage that similar accolades also apply to him. The two matchup again this week in Anaheim when the Blue Jays visit the Los Angeles Angels, and only one is on a team with something still at stake this season.

“He wants to win a Gold Glove.”

Getting to this point for Guerrero is the result of his well-documented off-season workouts, which have helped him shed 42 pounds since he reported to summer camp at 282 pounds last July. While playing all 60 games of the pandemic-shortened season, he arrived early every day to work himself into better shape, no simple task when trying to maintain strength and energy for the daily grind. Then over the winter in the Dominican Republic and on visits to the Blue Jays’ player development complex in Dunedin, Fla., he focused on his agility, flexibility, explosiveness and endurance. Guerrero fully committed to it, too, changing his entire lifestyle.

“I like to compete so I took the workouts as a challenge,” he says. “Now, on the other hand, the sacrifices that I had to make were obviously the food. I had to cut down going to my favourite places. In the Dominican I like to go to the beach to relax, eat there. I had cut all that stuff to make sure that I was going to be ready for business.”

The thing he misses most?

“Definitely the rice,” Guerrero says. “There are some dishes that you have to eat with rice, but I cut that. Instead of rice, I’d eat salad and seeing everyone else eating rice is kind of hard, you know? But those are things I had to do to get better and I did.”

Integral as they’ve been to his boffo .318/.412/.635 batting line, complemented by 35 homers, 87 RBIs and 61 walks against only 78 strikeouts, the physical changes are only part of his development into one of the sport’s most dominant hitters. He’s refined and honed his routines before the game, spending more time scouting opposition pitchers and doing cage work. He focused his approach at the plate to stay up the middle, rather than getting pull-happy in search of power only to routinely roll over the ball the way he did all too frequently in 2020. He tirelessly worked on his defence at first base, and not merely to become adequate: “He wants to win a Gold Glove,” says Rivera, who is also responsible for the club’s infielders.

Perhaps most significant of all is the accountability that drove every step, beginning at summer camp last July, when he apologized to his teammates for falling out of shape during the COVID-19 shutdown. He acknowledged then that his preparation wasn’t good enough and promised to be better as he struggled through the consequences of letting himself go.

“Sometimes you don’t realize you need to make a change until it kind of hits you in the face,” says coach John Schneider, who followed Guerrero through the farm system to the Blue Jays. “We didn’t try to force that on him in the minors but we tried to make him very aware of how important all that stuff was. And it was a combination of him figuring that out and then him tackling it head on.”

Adds Rivera: “This is really important because he felt guilty when he started looking around at summer camp, everybody else was in great shape but him. He felt, ‘This is my fault. This is all my fault.’ He apologized to people, and that’s being accountable. But at the same time, he’s also got to be responsible for his actions. He decided that he was going to take the bull by the horns and get after it. We talked to him about that after the season last year. The first thing he had to do was take care of his body so he can let his talent flow, like he is right now. He did that. He worked his ass off during the off-season and you see the result.”

“This is something all of us knew he was capable of. It’s not really that surprising, honestly.”

Another motivating factor came from Guerrero seeing similarly gifted peers like Juan Soto, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. lap him in performance. While the numbers he put up in 2020 were more than respectable, especially given his age, his recognition that he was underperforming his abilities and what he envisioned for himself was crucial. With a natural presence and engaging personality that made him a centre of clubhouse life in addition to his uncanny hand-eye co-ordination, innate discipline and brute strength, the Blue Jays were, to some degree, destined to revolve around him and what he brings to the table.

“Last year, I’d probably say he was an average big-league hitter,” says outfielder Randal Grichuk. “It’s not Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and what everybody expects, but that plays in the big-leagues. For him to be able to say, ‘I need to go home, I need to lose weight, I need to get after it and come back and be the type of guy that I could be’ — the team’s counting on it, right? We wouldn’t be in the situation we are in now if it wasn’t for him putting that work in during the off-season and having those at-bats that he’s having this year and being able to play the defence he’s playing.”

Guerrero’s initial growing pains underline the importance of patience with young players. There’s a case to be made that the immediate ascension to stardom by the likes of Soto, Acuna, Tatis and even Blue Jays teammate Bo Bichette skewed the perception of what transitions to the majors look like for elite talents.

More often than not there are ups and downs and as Schneider alluded to, Guerrero likely needed the big leagues to show him what he didn’t know. “It’s not that he was immature in the beginning – he’s actually a very mature person – but at the end of the day, he’s still 20 years old right?” says Blue Jays hitting coach Guillermo Martinez, who also worked with the phenom as he was tearing through the minors. “With experience, he’s just getting better and understanding himself and how to get ready for a game.

“In the minor leagues,” Martinez continues, “he just wasn’t focused in his preparations. He’s a different person from ’19 to ’21 in terms of the preparation, understanding who’s pitching, watching video, having conversations with the coaches and just having fun. Honestly, you should see the routine that he has in the cage. Going from ’19 with no routine to dominating in ’21, understanding how people are going to attack him and adjusting his routine to that, is pretty impressive.”

That routine begins in the weight room with Scott Weberg, the Blue Jays’ head strength and conditioning coach. From there it’s off to the batting cage with Martinez, where Guerrero will do some tee work, take some flips, watch some video of the opposing starter to prepare for that repertoire, and maybe take some reps against the high-velo machine if he’s not feeling totally comfortable at the plate. “My main thing is to try to hit the ball back up the middle, stay in the middle,” says Guerrero. “That’s the key here.”

His impact has helped the Blue Jays become the third-most productive offence in the majors through the first week of August, and he’s credited the lineup’s depth for helping him stay disciplined at the plate, allowing him to trust that if he walks, those behind him will do the damage.

Bichette laughs at the idea that the rest of the lineup gives Guerrero comfort, saying, “Vladdy does that for everybody, whether he realizes it or not.

“This is something all of us knew he was capable of,” Bichette continues. “It’s not really that surprising, honestly. He can do something special every time he goes up there.”

Adds George Springer: “He’s very well grounded as, essentially, a kid. He understands himself. He understands what’s happening. He hasn’t changed one bit from the first day I met him to now. It’s fun to watch.”

And the way he’s doing continually leaves those around him in awe.

“He separates himself in the box, literally, by controlling the at-bat the entire way,” says Martinez. “As a player, you can easily want to be the hero. He will be the hero many times. He’s okay with taking the walk. He understands how people are trying to pitch around him. It is amazing how he uses the whole field. He can hit a double down the left-field line. He can hit a double down the right-field line. If there’s a tough pitcher and they have a shift, he can hit a single to the right side of the field and he can drive the ball to the middle of the field at any point. And if they’re not pitching to him, he’s taking his walk. He’s under control the entire time.”

Guerrero’s improvement at first base isn’t as flashy as his performace at the plate, and that’s led to his leap on defence going overlooked, and perhaps underappreciated. While the eye test tells a pretty clear tale, a more objective measure comes from the imperfect-but-useful measure of Defensive Runs Saved, which calculates defensive performance relative to league average. Last year, in 299 innings, Guerrero’s DRS was minus-4. This year, in 736.2 innings, he’s at zero, a monumental gain when you factor in the disparity in workload. Statcast’s Outs Above Average shows a similar gain, from minus-three to zero, and for further context, back in 2019, when he was at third base, his OAA of minus-20 ranked 260 out of 261 qualified players. If he can maintain a similar trajectory, a Gold Glove down the road may legitimately be in the realm of possibility.

Most telling, though, are Guerrero’s reactions when he’s unable to scoop a ball in the dirt or corral an errant throw. “You can see that it bothers him, that he feels like he let someone down, which is fine,” says Rivera. “I want him to feel that way, not like, ‘Oh, you threw it in the dirt, it’s your fault, it’s not my fault.’ Those are the guys you want out there, that care for their teammates, because those are the guys that are going to make the three other guys better.”

So even in the midst of a remarkable season, one that’s up there with the best years franchise giants Carlos Delgado, Jose Bautista, George Bell and Josh Donaldson ever put up, there’s still the possibility of more from Guerrero, with the glove and, yes, even at the plate.

“There are always going to be opportunities with Vladdy to maximize his power, his bat speed,” says general manager Ross Atkins. “As great as the adjustments he made this last off-season were, [how can he continue] to push that forward and not rest on, ‘Okay, this is good enough for where I want to be,’ but just continuing to think about ‘How can I get better?’”

“I can’t really tell you if I’m going to get better than this, but all I can assure you and everyone is that I’m going to keep working very, very hard to try to get better.”

That’s a tantalizing vision for the Blue Jays. Were it to become reality it would force the franchise to figure out how to lock him up long-term, a commitment that will likely have to dwarf the $150-million, six-year deal that lured Springer north. A similar decision point will likely soon come with Bichette, as well, and how the team navigates potential megadeals with both pillars while continuing to add finishing pieces to the roster will be a complicated challenge.

Having already dealt with more than his share of expectations, and with hoisting the franchise at least partly on his back the way it was long envisioned, Guerrero knows better than to get too far ahead of things. He’s finally found himself as a big-leaguer, establishing his place among the new generation of players taking over the game. This is a time to enjoy the journey, not chase the destination.

“I’m a fast learner,” Guerrero says. “Here, you really have to work very hard, stay focused on your routine, all the work, and just put in everything so that it goes the way you want. That was, for me, the difference. I learned the process very quick and it’s just paying off right now. I can’t really tell you if I’m going to get better than this, but all I can assure you and everyone is that I’m going to keep working very, very hard to try to get better.”

Rivera now sees in Guerrero someone who is comfortable — physically, offensively, defensively and with where he’s at in his game.

“I’m so happy and I’m so proud of him that he didn’t let his career go somewhere else instead of grabbing it,” says Rivera. “He knows the expectations that were put on him. He’s very, very mature about handling everything that is thrown at him. He continued to be the same guy. He wasn’t afraid; he wasn’t complaining about all the expectations that people were putting on him. You know what he did? He went, ‘Okay, this is what people expect from me? I expect that from me, also.’”

All he’s done since is deliver on all that potential — with a finger to the lips for everyone who doubted him.

Photo Credits

Winslow Townson/Getty Images; Aaron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images; Winslow Townson/Getty Images; Cole Burston/Getty Images.