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So What’s Up with Vlad?

Part 1: The Problem

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been meaning to write about Vladimir Guerrero jr. all off-season. Chaos at my day job and a series of minor emergencies have kept me from finishing the work, but the question of “what’s up with Vlad?” has only gotten more important over the past couple of months. Following the Shohei Ohtani circus, the Blue Jays appear to have concluded that they’d have to go into 2024 banking mostly on internal bounce-backs to fuel an improvement over last year’s ultimately disappointing wildcard run. The moves they have made are mostly about filling holes left by departing players. Justin Turner replaces Brandon Belt, Kevin Kiermaier replaces a slightly younger Kevin Kiermaier, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa... is on the roster while Matt Chapman is not anymore. The only real addition, pitcher Yariel Rodriguez, is intriguing but unproven in MLB. That leaves it up to Alejandro Kirk, Alek Manoah, and most of all Vladdy to live up to their star billing in a way they totally failed to do in 2023.

A couple of good articles this winter have touched on Vlad, and I think together they make interesting but incomplete cases for what’s going on. The first, by Bobby Robert Orr for Baseball Prospectus back in November, is actually about Corey Seager and his ability to swing aggressively at pitches where hitters tend to do damage while mostly laying off ones where they don’t. It’s like plate discipline, but refined by considering the quality of the contact a hitter is likely to be able to put on the ball and the count (for example, a pitch on the black up and in is a strike, but not one hitters get to very well, so not swinging at it with less than two strikes on you is a positive decision, while a ball an inch low is pretty hittable and gets called a strike a lot anyway so swinging is often the right move).

To my surprise, Vlad shows up eighth on the selective-aggressiveness leader-board, driven mostly by an elite rate of swings at balls in good parts of the zone and a pretty low rate of swings at balls well outside it. As a contrast, Bo is basically tied with him in terms of being excellent at not missing pitches he should swing at but doesn’t show up on the overall leader-board because he can’t lay off pitches he shouldn’t. Other players, like for example the Rays’ Joey Wendle, are great at laying off un-hittable pitches, but give some of that value back by letting a lot of balls they probably should swing at pass. At least in terms of which balls average MLB hitters should swing at, Vlad seems to provide the best of both worlds. What Orr’s piece tells us is that Vlad is actually solidly patient outside the zone, but extremely aggressive inside it. That’s a good thing, provided you’re doing damage with those balls put into play.

The other is Michael Baumann’s piece from Fangraphs last month. You should read it (you should read both, the BP one has been opened up for free to non-subscribers), but the gist is that Vlad has changed his swing to make more contact down in the zone in a way that Baumann figures has hindered his ability to do damage up, which has been his strongest suit in his career. Vlad’s making more contact over a broader area over time, but maybe that’s causing him not to make as good contact, resulting in a net negative compared to the old version who was more dialed in on hunting high fastballs.

Put the two together, and what you have is a picture of a hitter who does a lot of things exceptionally well, but in a way that doesn’t totally fit together. Vlad makes what are in a vacuum good swing decisions. He lets fewer pitches down the middle get by him than almost any other hitters, while also chasing pitches too far outside the zone to do anything with less than the majority. He’s also better at actually getting wood on leather than most hitters, and almost all sluggers who swing with as much force as he does. But a lot of that contact isn’t the useful kind, because he’s hitting too many balls down in the zone, and so he grounds out hard at an incredible rate. In 2023, he lead baseball by recording outs on 78 ground balls hit 95mph or harder. On the one hand he’s in good company, as Yandy Diaz, Ronald Acuna jr., Rafael Devers, Christian Yelich and Juan Soto round out the top 6. On the other, that’s more balls than, for example, Kris Bryant hit hard all year with nothing to show for it (in fact less than nothing, because a bunch of those were double plays). He’s making good contact, but wasting it.

That’s a part of the explanation, but I don’t think it’s the whole thing. Notably, Vlad’s ground ball rate was only up 1.4 percentage points from his excellent 2021. His average launch angle was actually up, to a career high 10.5 degrees. It also doesn’t explain how he was worse than 2022, when his launch angle actually was way down, to a career low. Next week, I’m going to dive into Vlad’s pitch data a bit to try to figure out what’s changed, and hopefully identify some things to watch this season to see if he’s able to turn the ship around.