Blue Jays: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s key to success in 2023
At this time last year, besides worrying about the lockout, we were all thinking about what was in store for Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s 2022 season. Coming off of an MVP-caliber season, the sky seemed to be the limit for the then-23-year-old first baseman. He was among the league leaders in many offensive categories during that 2021 season, including home runs, runs scored, slugging, OPS, OPS+ and most notably, OBP.
The .401 OBP from that season represents his career high. Concerningly, that number dropped 62 points from 2021 to 2022. A .339 OBP last year is not bad by any means, but what’s with such the dramatic drop from one season to the next, and did Vlad’s overall numbers suffer as a result of it?
The main culprit of the discrepancy over the two years was the change in Guerrero's plate discipline. At a glance, discipline can be examined in two particular areas, chase rate and walk percentage. Baseball Savant ranked Guerrero in the 87th and 69th percentile in these two categories respectively back in 2021. While these two marks aren’t earth shattering, they’ll definitely play with a guy who hits the ball as consistently and as hard as Vladdy. What’s alarming about these two areas is the dip from 2021 to last year. Those numbers dropped significantly and were ranked in the 49th and 29th percentile last season. As the kids like to say, these numbers were rather “mid”, and pale in comparison to what he produced the year prior.
What happened during plate appearances for these dramatic dips to occur? The interesting part of this is the fact that this change for the worse was all Vlad’s own doing.
Guerrero was pitched overall very similarly year to year. The one notable change between the two seasons was the absence of fourseam fastballs. He was thrown fourseamers 25.7% of the time last year as opposed to 32.3% the year before. This 6.6% drop should’ve been a no-brainer throughout the league, as Guerrero owned fastballs in 2021, hitting them to a run value of 32 (!) that season. The run value on that pitch dropped to a lower, but respectable 7 in 2022.
So he got less fastballs, but what’d he see more of? The next biggest difference in any pitch were sliders. The percentage of sliders thrown to Vlad jumped from 21.9% to 26.6%. He hit that pitch relatively well in 2021, with a pitch value of 11 that season. 2022 was a different story however, as the run value on that pitch fell to a -2 clip. Interestingly enough, the uptick in breaking balls didn’t change the presence of pitches in the strike zone. Pitches to Vlad were in the strike zone approximately 39% of the time both of the last two seasons.
With pitchers adjusting their pitch selections to Vlad’s strengths and weaknesses, his approach adjusted as well. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t for the better. Guerrero's swing percentage on pitches outside the zone increased by about 6%, going from 24% to 30.6%. This increased aggressiveness on balls was a large detriment to his OBP for the 2022 season. Whether it was the increase in sliders, less fastballs to swing at, or just Guerrero simply hunting for more hits, his overall numbers took a bit of a slide as a result of his aggressiveness. Guerrero is one of the more dangerous hitters in the game, and he’s better when he’s patient and taking his walks.
A better plate approach wouldn't just yield more walks, but in theory it should give him more opportunities to hit the pitches he wants. Longer plate appearances could produce more fourseam fastballs. More opportunities to hit these pitches could help Vlad regain that run value he lost from 2021. A continued effort to lay off pitches outside the zone, and effectively strike on pitches in the zone will be key for his success in 2023.
It's worth noting that when Guerrero would make contact, it was still as hard as always. There were little shifts in his average exit velocities and hard hit percentages from the last two years, all ranking at least in the 96th percentile. This insane talent, paired with the return of a disciplined plate approach, could lead to another MVP-caliber season. Vlad's swing decisions on pitches outside the zone will be something to watch from the onset of Spring Training, and could very well be the key to becoming the first MVP in a Blue Jays uniform since 2015.