Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Is (Finally) Hitting His Stride

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When Vladimir Guerrero Jr. arrived in the major leagues in 2019, he was one of the most hyped prospects in baseball history. The Toronto Blue Jays’ wunderkind arrived with a No. 1 ranking on various top prospect lists, of course, but it went deeper than that. Even the MLB’s own writers wondered, “Is Vlad Jr. the best prospect ever?” It wasn’t an unreasonable question, given Guerrero’s dominance of the minor leagues and what scouts like to call “pedigree.” He’s the son of Hall of Fame outfielder Vladimir Guerrero.

 

 

Despite his talent and family history, Vlad Jr.’s first few years in the bigs didn’t justify the buzz. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t setting the league on fire, either. Going by FanGraphs’ adjusted Runs Created stat (wRC+), Vlad Jr. was about five percent better at helping his team generate runs than a league-average hitter as a rookie, then 12 percent better in 2020. In other words, he was a good hitter, but not the kind of smashing superstar people had predicted. At least not yet.

In 2021, that’s all changed. Vlad Jr. is one of the most valuable players in the sport so far this year. He has registered 3.5 wins above replacement (essentially, over what a typical minor league callup would get the Jays). He has reached the league’s most elite tier by doing some of the same things his dad used to do, but also by charting his own course as a hitter. Here’s how the two compare.

Yes, Vlad Jr. has his dad’s pop at the plate—maybe even more.

MLB didn’t have high-tech cameras to tell us exactly how hard Vlad Sr. hit the ball during his career (which lasted from 1996 to 2011), but suffice it to say: He hit it very hard.

In that time, Vlad Sr. made nine All-Star Games, was named the American League MVP in 2004, and established a resume that made him a second-ballot Hall of Famer in 2018. (He finished just 15 votes shy of making it in 2017.) He wrapped up his career with a .318 cumulative batting average and 449 homers, cementing his status as one of the best hitters ever.

Vlad Jr. is continuing that tradition. This year, he has hit 18 homers while posting a .330 average and a 1.089 OPS, a league-leading figure. Compare Vlad Jr.’s numbers to Vlad Sr.’s during his 2004 MVP campaign, and Junior looks pretty good so far. Going by Baseball Reference’s OPS+ statistic, Vlad Jr. has been twice as good as the average hitter in 2021. Vlad Sr. was “only” 57 percent better than the average hitter the year he won MVP.

They’re pretty similar in the field, for better and (mostly) worse.

Vlad Sr. was one of the worst fielders of his generation. During his career, he was worth 10 wins below replacement level as an outfielder. That made him one of the 30 most harmful defenders in baseball during the years he played, despite the fact that he was mostly a designated hitter (and therefore not playing in the field) by the last few years of his career.

Even so, he did make some rifle throws:

Vlad Jr., like his dad, is extremely bad at defense on the whole. He’s been worth -1.5 defensive WAR over his first three years. The Blue Jays played him at third base when he was a rookie, then moved him over to first base the last few seasons. Despite some solid plays, he has been pretty bad without a bat in his hand.

It’s not that his defense doesn’t matter; he’s just such a good hitter that he remains an MVP-caliber player anyway. And by placing him mostly first base and also using him as a non-fielding designated hitter, the Jays are able to ensure that his defensive limitations don’t become too much of a liability.

The big difference between father and son: How they go after pitches.

Vlad Sr. was his era’s defining free-swinger. He rarely encountered a pitch he didn’t like. Across his career, he swung at 58 percent of the pitches he saw, including 46 percent of balls out of the strike zone. Those were by far the highest rates of any of the great hitters of his time, with only a few lesser hitters swinging more frequently overall. Vlad Sr. swung at balls in the dirt and hit them as if he were playing cricket. Sometimes it worked:

Vlad Jr. is much different in this regard. He swings at about 47 percent of the pitches he sees and only 29 percent of non-strikes—career figures that are dropping this season. After not drawing many walks in his first two years, he is now taking a base on balls in about 15 percent of his plate appearances—twice as often as Vlad Sr. took them in his MVP season.

That’s part of the brilliance of Vlad Jr. He’s his father’s son; you can see it in how joyfully he plays the game and how much power he swings with. But he’s following his own path in major league baseball, and it might just lead him to his own MVP season.

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