Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has had a great start to the 2021 season for the Blue Jays, and he’s hitting the ball as hard as anyone in baseball.
Just last night Vlad Jr. hit a pair of singles that came off the bat at 116.1 and 110.8 miles per hour against the Yankees, and it’s something that we’re starting to see on a pretty regular basis. The 22 year old has been locked in at the plate to begin the year, slashing .390/.519/.585 with two home runs, nine RBI, and two doubles over his first 41 at-bats, also walking nine times against nine strikeouts.
And yet, if you google his name you’ll find some of the same old conversations being had as far as what he’s “not” doing. As I started to look for a few things before I began writing this article, some of the first tweets and articles I found were about what is quickly becoming one of my least favourite baseball terms, and that’s launch angle.
For those that aren’t familiar with the term, mlb.com defines it like this:
"“Launch Angle represents the vertical angle at which the ball leaves a player’s bat after being struck. Average Launch Angle (aLA) is calculated by dividing the sum of all Launch Angles by all Batted Ball Events.”"
For Vlad Guerrero Jr., the term and the concept has brought a lot of criticism to one of baseball’s more talented young hitters. That’s because he’s not the exactly the type with a lot of natural “lift” in his swing, and with the evolution of baseball trending more towards power numbers and advanced analytics all the time, for some folks it’s been a major concern about the young slugger’s future. I say Vlad Jr. is one of the rare cases that you throw analytics out the window almost completely, and just let him do what he does best.
As I watch him so far this season, I feel like we’re witnessing an elite hitter that’s gotten back to the basics of seeing the ball and hitting it as hard as he can. A big part of the equation is his improved fitness this year, but he also looks as confident as we’ve seen him since he first debuted at the highest level. What I really love to see is that he’s not trying to do too much with one swing (most of the time), and hitting the ball hard up the middle, like he did to Gerrit Cole on Opening Day.
While it’s fair to wonder if a different swing path would produce greater power numbers, it’s not always that easy of a translation. I’ll see tweets like “imagine if he hit a ball 110 MPH with some launch angle”, and that’s forgetting an important factor. You can’t always lift a ball when trying to achieve ideal contact, and trying to force something often ends up with worse results. There’s a reason MLB has the worst batting average in league history right now.
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As I think about the great individual hitting performances in franchise history, it hasn’t always been about power. John Olerud earned 7.8 bWAR with a mark of 7.5 oWAR in 1993 and he only hit 24 home runs. Granted, he slashed .363/.473/.599, and there was nothing wrong with his league leading 54 doubles. The same goes for Roberto Alomar from that same season who contributed 6.1 bWAR with just 17 home runs, but that came with a .326/.408/.492 slash line. Sticking with the 1993 theme, Paul Molitor brought 5.6 bWAR to the championship team with just 22 home runs, but a .332/.402/.509 line. I realize it’s not the 90’s anymore, but I’m sure you can see what I’m getting at.
The Blue Jays aren’t going to be lacking in the power department over the next few years either. Bo Bichette clearly will bring plenty of extra-base hits to the line over the next five years or more, and the same goes for others like George Springer (signed through 2026), Teoscar Hernandez (free agent in 2024), Cavan Biggio (under control until 2026), Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (under control until 2025), Alejandro Kirk and more. They won’t need Vlad Jr. to be the second coming of Jose Bautista, and there should be plenty of thunder in the lineup whether he hits 25 or 50 home runs.
Having said all of that, Guerrero Jr. is young enough that he can still work on and refine his game, and I’m sure that will include trying to hit for a little more power. However, I don’t think it’s as important as many people would have you believe, and when you regularly hit a baseball 110 MPH or harder, you’re going to hit a fair number of home runs. For now, I’m just happy to see him looking comfortable in the batter’s box, and the rest should take care of itself.