MLB Network is currently in the midst of its annual pre-season rankings of the top 10 players in baseball at each position, and the news at first base has caused a stir among Toronto Blue Jays fans. There, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., this year's MLB The Show cover athlete, checks in at No. 7, a notable decline from his No. 3 ranking heading into last year, and his No. 2 ranking the year before that.
Sure, Jays fans may be inclined to point to a bias in these types of rankings. After all, Bo Bichette only managed to reach #6 in the shortstop rankings, while Cy Young finalist Kevin Gausman did not even crack the top ten starting pitchers. Still though, with the type of season Vlad Jr. had in 2023, when he slashed a modest .264/.345/.788 with 26 home runs, seventh is perhaps not all that unfair.
The question, of course, is whether this is just the type of player Guerrero is now, good but not great, mulling around the outskirts of the top ten at his position, or if he can rediscover what he was and return to his place as one of the elite players in all of baseball.
Look closer at the question, and what emerges is compelling evidence that a return to glory just may be in the cards … if Vladdy plays his cards right.
The first thing to recognize is that Guerrero was perhaps the unluckiest player in baseball in 2023. Despite finishing among the game’s elite in a variety of categories which usually portend success at the plate – exit velocity, barrels, hard hit percentage, and so on – his raw numbers lagged almost impossibly behind statistical expectation.
Guerrero’s batting average (.264), for one, was 30 points lower than his expected batting average (.294), while his slugging percentage (.444) was more than fifty points lower than expected (.499). In fact, no player in baseball had a larger gap between their wOBA and their expected wOBA, an all-encompassing stat which measures overall offensive value. The suggestion is that with a little bit more luck in 2024, Vladdy should reclaim his place near the top of the game.
However, it might not be quite that simple. A recent deep dive by FanGraphs suggests that it is about more than just dumb luck, and indeed, if Vladdy wants to reclaim his place at the top of the game, he will have to make his own luck.
To understand what has happened to Vlad Jr., we can look at another of the Jays’ recent blue-chip prospects – Nate Pearson.
Those of a certain vintage will remember the Pearson who made his way through the minors, an undeniable force of nature who dialed it up to 103, 104 mph on almost every pitch. Seriously, the guy threw so hard that some were speculating he might one day touch 110.
But then, just as he was preparing for what everyone assumed would be his big league breakout in 2021, the Jays’ decision makers decreed that Pearson needed a change in his mechanics, to dial back some of his never-before-seen velocity in pursuit of control, stamina, longevity.
The result, well, we’ve all seen it – a player who not only has not become the generational pitcher he was expected to be, but who cannot even crack a major league roster for any meaningful amount of time, just another boring reliever who throws in the high-90s like everyone else.
Would Pearson have succeeded without these mechanical changes, or was he always doomed to failure by that big body which just cannot stop breaking down? It’s impossible to tell. But the point is that the Jays franchise has shown itself willing to change the thing that makes a generational prospect unique.
The deep dive by FanGraphs suggests something similar is happening with Vladdy.
Start in 2021, when Guerrero demolished pitches in the middle and upper part of the zone at an historic pace on his way to 48 bombs. Despite his success, however, he did have something of a hole in his swing down in the zone.
By 2023, he had effectively eliminated the hole – the result of a series of mechanical tweaks and changes in approach which became an ongoing discussion across the Blue Jays universe. With the hole in his swing solved, Guerrero had the highest contact rate of his career in 2023. The problem was, while he was making more contact, it was on pitches he couldn’t do any damage to. Even worse, while he remained an effective high-ball hitter, he was no longer putting up out-of-this-world numbers on pitches up in the zone. As FanGraphs put it, the result of all the changes was that “Guerrero traded quality of contact in his kill zone for quantity of contact everywhere,” leaving him “covering more of the zone but at the cost of making much less effective contact everywhere.”
What this suggests is that for Vlad Jr. to truly return to the behemoth he was in 2021, it is about more than just doing what he did in 2023 and hoping for better luck. It’s about returning to the thing he does better than anyone else on earth, a swing which appears like a lightning bolt from the sky, a crack of the bat which no other bat makes.
There is, according to FanGraphs, reason to be optimistic that this takes place. When Vladdy put up a .311/.401/.601/1.002 slash line in 2021, he became only the ninth player in baseball history to record a full season of .300/.400/.600 at age 22 or younger, joining Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Eddie Mathews, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, and Bryce Harper. For those keeping score, that’s five Hall of Famers, two future Hall of Famers, and A-Rod.
More simply, no player in the history of the game has ever been that good, that young, and gone on to anything other than a legendary career.
Speaking of Vlad Jr. being that young, here is something else to think about. When he slashed .264/.345/.788 with 26 home runs in 2023, Guerrero was 24 years old. At that age, Bryce Harper was coming off a huge year in which he hit .330 with 42 home runs and won the MVP … only to put up a slash line of .243/.373/.814 with 24 home runs.
Let’s take it further. At 24 years old, Aaron Judge was in the minor leagues, while Shohei Ohtani was hitting 18 home runs in his second big league season. At that age, Ronald Acuña Jr. was gingerly returning from a torn ACL and putting up a slash line of .266/.351/.764 with 15 homers, while Fernando Tatís Jr. went for .257/.322/.770 with 25 home runs in his return from a PED suspension. Even the great Juan Soto – for whom effusive and marginally deserved praise will surely only intensify with his move to the Yankees – could only manage a slash line of .242/.401/.853 with 27 home runs at that age.
The point is simple – it is all in front of Vladdy, and if historical precedent, or plain dumb luck, are any indication, it should be no surprise if MLB Network’s 2025 first base rankings look decidedly different than 2024.
What do you think, can Vladdy bounce back? Will 2024 be more like 2021 or 2023? Let me know on the platform formerly known as Twitter – @WriteFieldDeep.