‘Why I’m here’: Blue Jays’ Encarnacion imparting wisdom on Guerrero Jr.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr spoke with Hazel Mae after the win against the New York Yankees. Guerrero Jr spoke about what he saw on that pitch and how me made sure to keep the ball in play to score those two runs.

TORONTO — Edwin Encarnacion is standing by himself along the first-base line as batting practice unfolds during a recent afternoon at Rogers Centre. The former Toronto Blue Jays great is observing Vladimir Guerrero Jr. field ground balls near the bag and isn’t taking his eyes off the young first baseman.

Minutes later, Guerrero Jr. has finished his drills and is sitting on a blue bucket just to the left of the batting cage at home plate. Encarnacion makes his way over to his Dominican countryman and the two begin to chat.

It’s not a one-way conversation, though, in the way you’d probably expect from a 41-year-old retired star speaking to a 25-year-old. Instead, Guerrero Jr. is very much an active participant. Guerrero Jr. has known Encarnacion since he was a kid, but with the latter spending more time with the Blue Jays as part of his role as special assistant to baseball operations, the nature of their conversations has expanded. 

For example, they’ll touch on the topic of self-imposed pressure and how to navigate through the feeling of wanting to carry a team on your back.

“You’re gonna feel it, especially when you know you’re the guy,” Encarnacion said. “That’s when you got to think about it and take pressure out and control what you can control. Sometimes you [direct] your attention to things you can’t control and that’s why I’m here — to talk to him about that. Because it happened to me before.”

Encarnacion was an offensive pillar for the Blue Jays from 2012-16 — a five-season stretch in which he blasted 193 of his 424 career home runs. There were times during that period when Encarnacion was viewed as “The Guy” in the lineup and, as a result, he placed heightened expectations on his offensive performance. 

The three-time All-Star has noticed a similar tendency in Guerrero Jr., who’s been an enigma over the course of his five-plus MLB seasons. His immense talent and potential are unquestionable and that was proven by a monster 2021 campaign that landed Guerrero Jr. second in AL MVP voting. However, he regressed in each of the next two seasons and his early numbers in 2024 have been pedestrian — a fact underlined by his .715 OPS. 

Guerrero Jr. has shown flashes of intrigue, though. When the slugger is clicking at the plate he’ll take his walks — he’s drawn 14 this season compared to 15 strikeouts — and “stay inside the ball” as well as “more to the middle of the field,” according to Encarnacion. That formula is exactly what happened in Tuesday’s win over the New York Yankees when Guerrero Jr. drew two walks and collected a pair of sharp singles up the middle, one of which came with the bases loaded and drove in two runs. 

Results notwithstanding, Encarnacion notes he’s witnessed growth and maturity from Guerrero Jr.

“His mind is stronger,” said Encarnacion. “In this game you got to be like that and that’s what he’s been doing with his approach. He doesn’t worry — he knows it’s a long season. He doesn’t worry too much about if his hit total is low at the start of the season. He knows he has five months to recover.”

“He’ll just keep working,” adds Encarnacion. “He’ll keep doing his routine in the cage. And that’s what you need to do. Keep doing your routine, don’t change, and keep focused and you’re going to be right. That’s why I say he’s more experienced. Before, he wasn’t thinking that way.” 

Encarnacion has spoken to Guerrero Jr. about maintaining that level of tenacity and the messaging is being heard.

“The thing that he understands more is just keep working, keep grinding your at-bats,” Guerrero Jr. told reporters this week. “To not give up. Keep fighting. Keep swinging. The hits are going to come. He’s been excellent.”

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Encarnacion was around the Blue Jays during the club’s recent homestand and his role allows for him to share opinions and advice, both of which manager John Schneider says resonates with Blue Jays hitters. 

The unique career path Encarnacion travelled also lends itself to respect. He was traded to Toronto as essentially a salary dump from the Cincinnati Reds in 2009, was claimed on waivers by the Oakland A’s before being non-tendered, then re-signed with the Blue Jays before eventually grinding his way to stardom and a career that ultimately spanned 16 MLB seasons. 

“Eddie, you look at his career and where he ended and how he got there. I think sharing those insights with guys is really cool,” Schneider said. “And I think Vlad really respects him, one on one as a player. And there’s a lot of similarities there between the two of them.”

“[Encarnacion’s] quiet and knows when to say something or not,” the manager continued. “The success that he’s had at this level makes it easy to absorb what he’s saying. For anyone, really.”

Encarnacion has been preaching to Guerrero Jr. about the need to be continually thoughtful. Yes, he may feel a responsibility to carry the team at times, but it’s important to remember that five runs are never going to be produced by one single at-bat.

“You gotta be smart,” Encarnacion said. “You can’t do too much. You can’t think like that. You got to do it step by step and one by one.”

“I try to tell him what happened to me,” Encarnacion adds. “He knows. And he listens. That’s making him feel more relaxed and comfortable.”

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