Sports

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s two home runs are just the latest in a breakout season

Not that anybody has questioned Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s raw power anytime lately, but the first of his two home runs on Monday was a booming testament to his strength.

Ryan Yarbrough threw a first-pitch, 78-mph changeup on the outer third of the plate. Guerrero, knees slightly bent, hands cocked on the handle of the bat behind his right ear, unloaded. As the ball zeroed in on the strike zone, a microsecond from contact, Guerrero’s front foot was slightly off the ground, his hands had dropped a few inches, and his bat was right behind his helmet, perpendicular to the ground, his hips about to thrust forward like Shakira.

A microsecond after contact, Guerrero’s front foot touched down and rolled a bit onto its outer edge due to the torque of his swing, and his belt buckle faced right at Yarbrough, who was still in the process of finishing his delivery. Guerrero’s hands extended up and away from his chest like an Olympic hammer thrower, but his head remained locked in position, his eyes already following the towering flight of the ball.

Guerrero’s home run, with an exit velocity of 117.4 mph, traveled an estimated 461 feet, sailing over the big center field batter’s eye fence at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida. There have been four home runs of at least 460 feet off changeups this season — and Vlad Jr. has two of them. The last 460-foot home run hit against a slower pitch was a home run Juan Soto hit off a 77-mph curveball from Steven Matz last season.

Guerrero’s second home run was a game-tying two-run bomb in the eighth, a high shot to left-center. The Rays would eventually beat the Blue Jays — that’s 11 in a row for them, in case you haven’t been paying attention — thanks to a seven-run 11th inning, but Guerrero’s two long balls are just the latest exclamation point on his breakout season. His 15 home runs tie him with Ronald Acuna Jr. for the major league lead. His .661 slugging percentage trails only Reds outfielders Jesse Winker and Nick Castellanos. His .443 OBP trails only Mike Trout and Max Muncy and his 1.104 OPS leads everyone. Guerrero has 30 walks and just 29 strikeouts, making him one of just six qualified batters with more walks than strikeouts in this age of K’s.

Not every elite hitter arrives from the womb as a fully-polished superstar, not even a hyped phenom like Guerrero Jr., who sped through the minors like Max Verstappen at Monaco and reached the majors a couple months past his 20th birthday. We’ve been spoiled, of course, not just in baseball, but in other sports. Teenagers now enter the NBA and are immediate stars. The NFL drafts quarterbacks after two or three seasons of college and instead of learning for another season or two as a backup, teams expect the young quarterback to produce immediately. In baseball, we’ve been blessed with the likes of Acuna, Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr.

Guerrero has joined their ranks in 2021, with the skills we saw as a minor leaguer — power, contact, plate discipline — in full force, a reminder that sometimes it takes a little time for everything to click. Guerrero has made some obvious improvements, most notably in increasing his launch angle, which means fewer grounders and more fly balls, although he’s still below the major league average in that area.

His improvement reminds me of another son of a major leaguer who learned to launch the ball into the air — Ken Griffey Jr. Indeed, Guerrero was arguably the most hyped prospect since Griffey, with enormous expectations based on his talent, minor league numbers and pedigree. Their swings aren’t really similar — Griffey hit lefty, of course, and stood upright and had that one-hand flourish — but the progress of their power growth matches up well.

Griffey arrived in the majors at age 19 in 1989, but didn’t really have his big home run breakout until 1993, when he was 23. He hit a home run every 24.9 at-bats his first four seasons, and then one every 12.9 at-bats in ’93. Guerrero homered every 28.5 at-bats his first two seasons and is at one every 11.2 at-bats in 2021. With Griffey, we can see how a clear line upward started in 1993, when he started hitting more fly balls and fewer groundballs. Launch angle was around long before 2015, my friends.

There is one caveat to Guerrero’s hot start. Guerrero — and his Blue Jays teammates — have thrived while playing at their spring training home. He’s hit .410/.521/.897 with 11 home runs in 78 at-bats at TD Ballpark and .267/.371/.456 on the road. As a team, the Blue Jays have hit .276/.348/.493 at TD Ballpark and .230/.289/.371 on the road. Monday’s game, however, was the last one in Dunedin, as they move back to Buffalo for their next homestand, which begins June 1. For now, the Jays are scheduled to play in Buffalo through the All-Star break, with their second-half home to be determined.

I think Guerrero will be fine. Buffalo played as a good hitter’s park last year and Guerrero’s special ability to hit for contact and high exit velocity should translate well to any locale. Maybe he loses a couple home runs, but that .300-plus average should easily remain in play. Plus, that launch angle may continue to rise, leading to more of those towering home runs like we saw Monday.

How Guerrero fares in his new environs will also factor into the MVP race, since his candidacy is all about his bat. Guerrero began the day leading the majors in FanGraphs WAR among position players. With Trout facing an extended stay on the injured list, the AL race does feel wide open, even if the early discussion feels centered on Guerrero and Ohtani.

The issue there is the Blue Jays are now 23-23 after their sixth loss in a row and sit in fourth place in the AL East, behind the red-hot Rays, Red Sox and streaking Yankees. Monday’s loss was the third bullpen implosion of the series against the Rays — the pen allowed four runs in the 12th inning on Friday, blew a 4-2 lead in the ninth inning on Sunday and then allowed nine runs in extra frames on Monday. The Blue Jays’ standing in the playoff race could play into the voting, although the same could be said for Ohtani.

All that is months down the road. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy a hitter who has developed into a superstar.

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