It wasn’t long ago that some Blue Jays fans questioned how much power Vladimir Guerrero Jr. really had. These days he has nothing to prove in that department.
As of this writing, Vlad Jr. is currently tied for the major league lead at 23 long balls, sharing that distinction with two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani of the Angels. In addition to the power Guerrero Jr. has had a remarkably well-rounded approach at the plate, slashing .337/.440/.671 across his first 70 games and 252 at-bats. Ohtani might be the current favourite for the AL MVP award, but Vladdy isn’t far behind him, and if the season ended today I think he’d be an obvious choice for the Hank Aaron award as the AL’s best overall hitter.
While it’s pretty remarkable to see the growth that Vlad Jr. has shown so far in 2021, it also goes to show how misguided some of the old conversations about him were. After hitting just 15 home runs in his rookie season (123 games) and only nine across 60 games last year, there were all kinds of discussions about anything from launch angles, to bat speed, and everything in between. It wasn’t hard to find phrases like “needs more lift in his swing” when reading about the talented young man.
It was a bit of an interesting concept given what we saw from the now 22-year-old back in the Home Run Derby at the 2019 All-Star game. He was chosen as a rookie despite not having the stats to justify his place in the competition. It didn’t matter though because the then 20-year-old broke the derby record of 91 total home runs, and if not for an impressive display from Pete Alonso in the finals he may have won the whole thing.
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To be fair, hitting home runs against batting practice fastballs is a different skill than hitting against a game-speed assortment of big league pitches. Vladdy showed flashes of that same power potential in a game setting, but it wasn’t until this year that he really started to show himself as a true power hitter. Perhaps I missed something, but I don’t think there were any “launch angle” swing changes that were made, or any drastic adjustments at all.
Two major things have changed for the charismatic first baseman. The obvious difference is that Vlad Jr. is in the best shape that we’ve ever seen as a professional, and his offseason work paid dividends right away. He’s moving far better than ever before, runnings the bases at an above-average speed, playing pretty solid defence at the cold corner, and of course, has transformed into one of the best hitters on the planet.
The second change has been the confidence that we see from the Canadian-born slugger. He’s had roughly a season and a half to learn the ins and outs of the big leagues and make some adjustments. He had an opportunity to realize what he needed to do personally in order to excel, and that he wasn’t going to get by on sheer talent alone as he did throughout the minor league system. In hindsight, the power was always going to come, he just needed to truly find his swagger and comfort zone at the highest level.
Sportsnet’s Hazel Mae broke the news on Monday that Vlad Jr. has decided not to participate in the HR Derby at this year’s All-Star game, choosing to “regroup and refresh mentally for the second half of the season”. I’ll admit that I’d love to watch him in a home run contest being held at Coors Field in Colorado, and it would be even more entertaining to see him battle against Ohtani, who is going to participate this year. That said, I admire that Guerrero Jr. has his priorities in the right place, and even more that he knows he doesn’t have to prove anything at this point. His numbers speak for themselves, and at just 22 years old, he’s only getting started.