Is Vlad Jr.’s Breakout Finally Here?

Is Vlad Jr. becoming one of the game's greatest hitters?

Throughout his time in the minor leagues, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. had been one of the most hyped prospects of this generation. His father and namesake being a Hall of Famer certainly didn’t hurt his case, but Vladito possessed some extraordinary traits giving him serious superstar potential. It led to the Blue Jays deciding to call him up to the big leagues at just 20 years old, of course after some service time manipulation.

 

Slow Start?

 

Guerrero’s first season as a major leaguer was rather underwhelming, especially to those who expected him to break out right away. He struggled mightily defensively at third base, prompting a shift across the diamond the following year to first base. His offense was just barely above average, which was not good enough considering he had so much negative value from his defense. In his second year, his offense barely improved.

Vlad Jr. Rookie and Sophomore Season

Was it time to worry? No, we don’t need to overreact to his 20 and 21-year old seasons, one being shortened by Covid. Not everyone can be Juan Soto, a superstar the instant he reached the major leagues. While the production may not have been what we were hoping for, Vlad Jr. did show promise in his first two years.

 

The Potential Has Always Been There

 

Aaron Judge. Nelson CruzGiancarlo Stanton. Gary Sanchez. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. These are the players you will consistently see at the top of exit velocity leaderboards. The production may not be there yet, but it’s never a bad thing to be mentioned in the same breath as those four players.

This rocket single from 2019 was the fourth hardest-hit ball in the Statcast era from a player not named Judge or Stanton. This is not the only hit from Guerrero which ranks near the top of this list. He has three batted balls with an exit velocity above 118 MPH since 2019, which ranks second to Stanton in that time span. It’s no secret that Vlad Jr. can hit the ball hard.

Vlad Jr. Statcast Metrics

Looking at this profile, you’d think you’re looking at a good hitter. A Hard Hit rate of over 50% is absurd. The Barrel rate suggests that many of his hard-hit balls may not have the optimal launch angle, leading to slightly above-average results. However, hitting the ball hard as consistently as he does will almost always be a sign for good things to come. Guerrero also ranked in the top 15 in the highly predictive 90th Percentile Exit Velocity in each of the last two seasons, right up there with all the usual names (Judge, Stanton, Cruz, Alonso, etc).

 

So What Has Changed?

 

So far, Guerrero has exploded out of the gate in 2021, slashing .353/.482/.588 with a 204 wRC+ in April. This incredible level of production is obviously not sustainable, but it’s definitely something to be excited about. Looking at his Statcast profile, he is still hitting the ball incredibly hard, but is also barreling balls at a higher rate (9.6%) and his xwOBA is over 100 points higher than each of the last two seasons.

 

So what is different? Has Guerrero changed anything about his approach or is this just early-season noise?

Vlad Jr Batted Ball Distribution

The line drive rate increase is probably not sustainable, as they are generally driven by noise, especially in a small sample; this does explain the extremely high xwOBA. However, the decrease in ground balls seems very promising. Hitting the ball as hard as Vladito does isn’t going to help you too much when you hit the ball into the ground. We know the exit velocity will always be there for Guerrero. If he can continue to hit the ball in the air, the results will continue to be what he desires.

 

Plate Discipline

 

From a plate discipline standpoint, Vlad Jr. has been a completely different hitter this season. He has shown much more patience at the plate, something we saw from him down in the minors. 

Vlad Jr. Plate Discipline

He’s striking out less and walking more. What is there not to love? For Guerrero, walks and strikeouts will be the difference between becoming a good hitter and a great hitter. He has gradually improved his plate discipline each season on all three pitch types (fastballs, breaking balls, and offspeed pitches). His chase rate currently sits in the 93rd percentile of the league. Oddly enough, his father was famous for swinging at (and hitting) everything out of the zone. If Junior can continue to lay off pitches out of the zone at an elite rate, in addition to what we already know he can do on batted balls, the sky is the limit.

 

The one downfall of Guerrero’s recent improvement is that he been swinging at slightly fewer pitches in the zone (67.1% Z-Swing% down from 71.9% in 2020). Obviously, you want him swinging at as many hittable pitches as possible because of the damage he can do on batted balls. This may be a product of a new approach at the plate or perhaps it’s just noise. Either way, a few swings on pitches in the zone is a sacrifice I’m sure any fantasy player or Blue Jays fan would take if it meant double the walk rate.

 

What Can We Expect Moving Forward?

 

I think we can all agree that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is not going to finish the season with a 204 wRC+. As mentioned earlier, this level of production is not sustainable. But we can definitely expect an improvement over his first two seasons if this new approach is real. What about the plate discipline?

The graph above compares a player’s chase rate after X pitches faced and their chase rate for the rest of the season. For example, the R-Squared value between the chase rate in the first 500 pitches a player sees and the rest of the season is approximately 0.6. For reference, Guerrero has seen 310 pitches this season, which produces an R-Squared value of about 0.5. The curve doesn’t start to flatten until around 450 pitches, but it’s pretty clear that this development is more than just noise.

 

Wrapping It Up

 

2021 has brought the version of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. we’ve all been waiting for. He continues to hit the ball hard while keeping it in the air more than usual. He also has one of the highest walk rates in the league. If that keeps up, we are looking at a truly elite hitter. While the Blue Jays have gotten off to a fairly mediocre start, they have a lot to be excited about from an offensive standpoint.

 

Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire | Feature Graphic Designed by James Peterson (Follow @jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)

Jeremy Siegel

Jeremy is currently a senior studying Computer Science and Statistics at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a writer and data science staffer here at Pitcher List. His goal is to one day work in the analytics department of the front office of an MLB team

  • Avatar theKraken says:

    “of course after some service time manipulation”… that is some tired baseless commentary. I am not sure how we can both acknowledge his struggles upon promotion and make statements like that. IMO he should have spent more time in the minors – maybe been in better shape, maybe be of some defensive value, maybe reach a higher ceiling offensively? He didn’t help them and we really should not assume that it helped his development to be up before this year. But yes, this is about as easy as it gets to proclaim a breakout. I would actually argue that it is definitely bad to be mentioned in the same sentence as Gary Sanchez! His Statcast data is irrelevant here to his breakout – you could measure it using whatever metric you wanted. Start taking notes and tracking those guys that Statcast does and doesn’t’ like – it is embarrassing compared to looking at the real outcomes. Using Statcast to measure performance is like using a ruler to measure several hundred feet – just not a good tool for the job. The reality is that Vlad was a generational hitting prospect – that was without Statcast and here we are trying to pretend that Statcast provides us some valuable insight. When he produces it won’t be because of the Statcast leaderboards. I wish this were more about Vlad Jrs hot start than promotion of cude tools. The easy analysis here says he has a BABIP of .370 and an unsustainable walk rate. Vlad Jr is an exciting young player that has a low bar to clear for a breakout. Regression in BB and Hit rates looks likely. Hopefully he can make up for it in increased XBH. To be clear, this is a guy that could win the AL MVP but I don’t think that there is a ton to takeaway from less than a month into the season about BB and Hit rates. Any guy that manages Ks and hits the ball hard is useful. However, there is a graveyard of players that didn’t work out great with that set of skills, like Maikel Franco for example. Vlad’s ace up his sleeve is that he walks. If he materializes into the monster that he can, then he will break molds – like all of the great players do. Being that patient often times is a drag on BA – not a death sentence and some guys do beat it but if he is going to be that patient then it becomes something to monitor.

    • Jeremy Siegel Jeremy Siegel says:

      Had they kept in the minors for a couple of months, I’d agree with you. But they gave him 34 PA in AAA before calling him up a few weeks after Opening Day. That screams service time manipulation.

      To answer your 2nd point, I agree that Statcast data can be overused, but it definitely gives a good indicator of batted ball success. Barrel rate, hard-hit rate, and 90th percentile EV predict next season’s wOBAcon very well.

      I think the most common mistake I see is when people only use Statcast data and ignore everything that happens when the ball is not in play. I’m sure we can both agree Gary Sanchez can do damage when he hits the ball, but his biggest downfall is whiffs.

      Vlad is swinging at much fewer pitches out of the zone and hence walking more, skills that, as I mentioned, don’t take long to stabilize. I don’t think he’s a true talent 18% walk rate guy, but I do think 12-13% is realistic, which is a significant improvement over 2019-20. Combine that with his success on batted balls and you have a borderline elite hitter, in my opinion. If you’re playing in BA leagues, I do see where you’re coming from.

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