For the past few years, a major piece of the future of the Blue Jays franchise as rested on the shoulders of Vladimir Guerrero jr. The team has several young players who look like they could be real contributors on a contender in Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel, Teoscar Hernandez, among others, and a strong farm system with more potential help on the way, but with the possible exception of Bo Bichette none of them can match Guerrero’s potential. Whether he achieves that potential will be perhaps the single biggest determinant of whether the current core can rise from fringe wildcard contention to pursuing actual championships.
About two years in, things haven’t quite gone to plan. At a time when other super-prospects like Fernando Tatis jr. and Juan Soto have been exploding onto the MLB scene as MVP contenders from the day they arrive, Guerrero has struggled. You couldn’t say he’s been a bust or anything close to that. He’s hit about 8% better than MLB average over his two seasons, making him one of only 57 players in the 74 seasons of the integration era to do that in 500 PA before turning 22. Roberto Alomar and Cal Ripken jr. produced at the same level at the same stage in their careers, Adrian Beltre, Roberto Clemente, Carl Yastrzemski, and a half dozen other Hall of Famers did much worse. Still, for the consensus #1 prospect in baseball, the first ever to receive a perfect 80 grade projected hit tool from Baseball America in almost 40 years of prospect rankings, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed.
There have been a couple reasons for Guerrero’s under-performance. The first is his conditioning, which he’s struggled with since before he signed with Toronto as a 16-year-old, and which has been analyzed to death elsewhere. What’s more interesting to me is Guerrero’s performance at the plate, and specifically the relative lack of damage he’s been able to do when he puts the ball in play. He doesn’t chase much outside the zone and improved from solid average to near elite in that respect between 2019 and 2020, and he’s around the median in terms of making contact when he does swing, which is pretty good for a slugger. But in spite of his massive raw power, demonstrated with a record setting performance at the 2019 Home Run Derby, he’s produced only a decent .174 isolated slugging and average .300 BABIP.
I wanted to look at how Guerrero hits the ball, who else hits it like he does, and what that might mean for his future. Part 1 of this piece will break down his 2019 and 2020 batted ball distribution, and in parts 2 and 3 (coming on Thursday and Monday) I’ll try to figure out how he compares to other MLB hitters, then look at how other players have gone about improving their batted ball performance to see what we might expect in the future.
Below is a graph showing Guerrero’s distribution of batted balls by launch angle and exit velocity. Each dot represents balls hit within 5 degrees of the line on which the point lies in buckets of 5mph. For example, the bright red dot on the 30-degree line just inside the 110mph line represents balls hit between 105 and 110mph, at angles between 25 and 35 degrees. The size of a dot indicates how many balls are in that group, and the colour indicates his wOBA on those balls.
The first thing to look at is the outer ring of dots, two beyond the 110mph line. Those are balls hit over 115mph, essentially the hardest it’s possible for a human to hit a baseball. That’s been done fewer than 300 times over the past 4 seasons, by only 65 individual hitters. Most of those only managed to do it once or twice. In about a season and a quarter of playing time, Vlad has hit a dozen. That’s good for fifth on the leader-board, tied with Gary Sanchez and behind only Joey Gallo, Nelson Cruz, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton. Those guys are all veterans, though, and so have had a lot more chances. On a per-PA basis, Guerrero moves into fourth, behind Judge, Stanton, and (barely) Daniel Palka. His power is among the elite of the elite, with only two hitters in all of baseball who are clearly stronger.
One thing about hitting a ball that hard is that you have to swing at maximum effort to do it. Even for a mountain of a man like Aaron Judge, hitting a baseball like that requires putting every one of his 282lbs behind it. Taking cuts that powerful almost inevitably results in a fair bit of swinging and missing. You just can’t be totally precise and under control when going that hard. Note, though, that I said ‘almost inevitably’, because that doesn’t really seem to apply to Vlad. He’s made contact on 76.7% of his swings in the majors, about a percentage point more than the average MLB hitter over the past couple years. Among the top 10 on the leader-board for batted balls over 115mph (the names mentioned before, plus Daniel Palka, Pete Alonso, Carlos Gonzalez, and Kyle Schwarber), all had contact rates at least four percentage points worse than Vlad’s (and so at least 3 points worse than MLB average). The result is that thus far in his career, Vlad has run a strikeout rate about 5.5% better than league average while everybody else on the leader-board is worse than average, most by a lot.
That’s the good news. Coming up, Guerrero was hailed for his unique combination of power and hitting ability, and at least in terms of raw exit velocities and contact rates, he’s delivered. Very few can hit it like he can, and no one but him can do it without also missing a lot.
The bad news is on the lines above 20 degrees. There just aren’t that many balls there, especially in the spaces above or just below the 110mph line. About 98% of home runs have launch angles at or above 19 degrees, with about two thirds coming in the sweet spot from roughly 24 to 34 degrees. Vlad makes lots of extremely hard contact, but it’s almost all in the -5 to 25 degrees range, where it can produce ground ball singles and line drive doubles but rarely homers. He hit only 5.2% of his balls in play in the 24-34-degree window and over 95mph. The league average was 6.1%, and sluggers like Stanton, Judge, and Cruz are all over 7%. Mike Trout, who actually lacks Vlad’s top end power but excels at making high quality contact, hit 10.7% of his balls in play at optimal angles and with enough speed to potentially clear the fence.
The figure below shows the entire league’s distribution of batted balls and the wOBA they achieved on them from 2017 through 2020. As mentioned before, all the dark red dots are on the 30-degree line (which includes all balls from 25 to 35 degrees) or on the 40-degree line at really extreme velocities. Those are the angles and speeds where the ball is going to get out of just about any part of just about any park. Hitters still do pretty well on balls in the 20-degree bucket at almost any speed, and in the 10-degree bucket at speeds over about 80mph. Those are line drives hit hard enough to get over the infield, and unless they’re hit right at an outfielder they usually fall in for extra bases. Balls in the zero-degree bucket can be OK, but only if they’re hit really hard, above about 100mph. Those are grounders hit hard enough to get to holes before infielders can react. There’s also a little spur of orange in the 30- and 40-degree buckets from 65 to 75mph. Those are Texas leaguers that just clear the infield but drop in front of the outfielders. Otherwise, it’s a sea of blue. There’s actually a pretty narrow range of useful batted balls, and anything outside that range is just an out.
Looking back at Guerrero’s batted ball distribution, he’s good at hitting balls in some parts of that useful range. He has a lot of balls in the hard parts of the 0-, 10-, and 20-degree buckets. He also avoids the high angles pretty well, which is good because balls hit over 40 degrees are almost never productive. He clearly hits more balls than average below the useful range of launch angles, though. There are a lot of fairly big circles on the -10- and -20-degree lines. Many of those low angled balls are struck hard, but it doesn’t really matter because they just smack into the infield turf before they even get to the mound and are easy for infielders to reach.
To sum up, Vladimir Guerrero jr. has a pretty incredible talent for hitting the ball extremely hard, and especially for doing so without a major trade-off in strikeouts. Unfortunately, his swing seems to be geared to make that contact below the launch angles where it can do the most damage. The result is a lot of hard ground ball singles and line drive doubles, but also a lot of ground-outs and not a lot of the kind of hard flies that turn into home runs. On Thursday, I’ll look at who else hits the ball like that, and what that might tell us about the potential for improvement. Next week, I’ll look into some players who have changed their batted ball distributions and how that went for them.