Blue Jays: Digging into Vladdy's hot start at the plate

Toronto Blue Jays v Kansas City Royals
Toronto Blue Jays v Kansas City Royals / Ed Zurga/GettyImages

After winning the AL Hank Aaron Award with a league-leading 166 wRC+ in 2021, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. took a step back in 2022, with a notable drop in almost every offensive category. While it's obviously an incredibly small sample size of just seven games, Vladdy has had an impressive start to the 2023 season, and the things he's shown give real optimism that he could be one of baseball's best hitters once again.

Prior to the series opener against the Angels, Guerrero has 11 hits, five walks, and two homers in 34 plate appearances, which is good for a 225 wRC+ and a .407 average. What might be most impressive is this combination of stats here; his 34 plate appearances are the most among any player in MLB with one or fewer strikeouts, 10 more than any other batter, all while he leads MLB in hard-hit balls (over 95 MLB in-play) with 17. To be hitting the ball that hard and that consistently while still not striking out should be almost impossible, and it's a testament to the work he's put in early this season. There are a few moments in particular that really demonstrate the changes he's made, so let's take a look at them right here.

In the Blue Jays' first game of the year, Guerrero steps up to the plate in the top of the first with nobody out and runners on first and second. He works a 2-0 count on two balls outside, then fouls off what would be ball three. On the next pitch, he swings at a sinker on the inner part of the plate, hitting it just shy of the track for a flyout. While this isn't an ideal result, he hit this ball 104.7 MPH with a launch angle of 33 degrees, and it had an expected batting average of .830. In 2022, he struggled immensely with not getting enough under the ball, and this shows that to start the season he was prepared to put the ball in the air and let his raw power work for itself.

In game two of the season, while the team struggled to score runs, the Cardinals' pitching had been wild, and while Vladdy failed to record a hit in his two at-bats, he was able to work three walks. This is because, having recognized the Cards pitchers' difficulty finding the zone, he only swung at nine of the 34 pitches he saw, only whiffing at one of them. After his incredible 2021, pitchers started avoiding the zone in 2022, and he struggled to adjust to this, as he walked almost 30 times less. This game against the Cardinals showed that he may be beginning to understand that the best hitters aren't getting pitches to hit, they simply don't offer, and this could make him a huge threat if it continues.

In the Jays' first game against the Royals, Guerrero was 1-4 and hit three ground balls in the game. The exit velocity of all those grounders was 112.3, 113.2, and 106.6, and while hitting the ball hard into the ground is not a great formula for success, his single in the eighth inning of the game was an example of how sometimes it just works. Normally if you hit a ball with a negative launch angle, it's probably going to be an out, but Vladdy hits the ball so hard that sometimes the fielders just won't be able to get to the ball and it'll sneak through into the outfield, as it did with his only hit of the game. Again, this isn't the best way to get hits, but his ability to just hit the ball hard will get him on base and is a great failsafe if all else fails.

In the third game of the series in Kansas City, Vladdy finally hit his first home run of the year, taking a fastball on the outside of the plate to the opposite field 107.9 MPH off the bat, a ball that would've been gone in 27 of the 30 MLB ballparks. This may not have been one of his move visually impressive home runs, but it's a very good sign that he may not be pulling as much. If you look at his spray charts in 2021, he's hitting homers to all parts of the field, but in 2022, the vast majority of them were pulled. The ability to hit the ball to all parts of the field can take already good hitters to another level, so seeing him hit his first homer of 2023 over the right field wall is a great sign.

Finally, the most impressive at-bat of Guerrero's season thus far is obviously the absolute tank he hit off Jordan Lyles on Thursday. After taking ball one, he unloaded into a very hittable sinker, sending it 436 feet to left field. This highlighted what may be the most important part of Vladdy's game if he's going to return to that 2021 form; if you make a mistake against his, he's going to punish you. Too often last year, Guerrero seemed to be overthinking at-bat, and not punishing pitches when he should have. In this instance, Lyles gave him a pitch he never should have given him and paid the price.