Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Is Chasing MLB's Best Offensive Season in YearsJune 22, 2021
There's a long way still to go, yet Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is making it easy to dream big about the company he might keep by the end of the 2021 Major League Baseball season.
After two good-not-great seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2019 and 2020, the 22-year-old is making a mockery of opposing pitchers by way of a .337 batting average and MLB-leading marks with:
- 23 HR
- 59 RBI
- 169 TB
- .440 OBP
- 1.111 OPS
- 202 OPS+
- 3.8 rWAR
Oh, and he's also leading the American League with a .671 slugging percentage.
As he peaked with a 162 OPS+ in 2000 and 7.4 rWAR in 1998, even Guerrero's Hall of Fame father arguably never had a season like the one his son is having.
But then, that's nothing to be ashamed of. Because if he stays on this pace, Vladimir Jr. will end up with numbers few others have reached.
The History within Vlad's Reach
Because he already leads the AL in home runs and runs batted in and is also second to Michael Brantley (.350) in batting average, Guerrero has a shot at baseball's Triple Crown.
If he gets it done, it would mark the 28th Triple Crown season—periodic reminder that the Negro Leagues are now rightfully represented as major leagues—and only the second such winner in the last 54 years. It would be just him and Miguel Cabrera, who achieved the feat amid an MVP season in 2012.
One issue with the Triple Crown, though, is that it measures a hitter's offensive prowess not relative to his historical peers but to that of his contemporaries. Between this and the awkwardly arbitrary nature of judging a hitter strictly by his average, homers and RBI, the Triple Crown is frankly more of an oddity than anything else.
It's more instructive, for example, to point out that Guerrero could become only the 23rd player in modern history to finish with a .330/.440/.650 batting line. And since Juan Soto achieved his .351/.490/.695 line last season in only 47 games, Guerrero would be the first to do so over a full season since Albert Pujols slashed .357/.462/.653 in 2008.
Mind you, baseball's offensive environment has changed a lot since 2008. The average line that year was .264/.333/.416, compared to .239/.313/.400 in 2021. Because that's life when strikeouts are historically prevalent and teams have mastered infield shifts.
As it adjusts for offensive environments and park factors, this is where OPS+ is helpful. And if Guerrero can keep his OPS+ over 200 for the full season, he would be the first to do so since Barry Bonds ended the 2004 campaign with an absurd 263 OPS+.
What would makes things even more interesting, however, is if Guerrero stays on his home run pace.
Because he's hit 23 homers while playing in all 70 of Toronto's games, Guerrero is hitting 0.33 homers per game and therefore on a 162-game pace for 53 home runs. If he gets there, he'd claim just the fifth 50-homer season in the last decade.
He could cross the 50-homer threshold while also maintaining his 200 OPS+. That particular club has only six players in it—and no new members since Bonds and Sammy Sosa joined in 2001.
Where Did This Version of Vlad Come From?
Because Guerrero comes from baseball royalty and had hit .331/.414/.531 in the minors, it was perhaps inevitable that he would become baseball's hottest hitter.
But to get to this point, he basically had to reinvent himself.
Though Guerrero hardly embarrassed himself as he slashed .269/.336/.442 with a 109 OPS+ in his first two seasons, there were things he clearly needed to do better to live up to the hype that accompanied him when he arrived as baseball's No. 1 prospect.
For starters, he simply needed to get in better shape. And while he clearly had a knack for avoiding strikeouts and generating exit velocity, the former didn't come paired with a talent for drawing walks, while too much of the latter went to waste on the ground.
As if on cue, Guerrero got serious and dropped pounds by the dozens between the end of the 2020 season and the start of the 2021 campaign. The slimmer version of him is undoubtedly better, specifically to the extent that his swing is quicker and more explosive.
It's the kind of difference that you can just, you know, see.
Yet this difference can also be quantified, including with regard to how Guerrero has improved an already sturdy performance against fastballs:
- 2019: .306 AVG, .478 SLG
- 2020: .272 AVG, .472 SLG
- 2021: .399 AVG, .746 SLG
The youngster's strike-zone judgment, meanwhile, now resembles that of a more experienced player in how he's attacking good pitches while letting the bad ones go:
Practically speaking, this has allowed Guerrero to bring his walk percentage (14.3) into closer proximity with his strikeout rate (16.7). It's also a factor behind yet another upward shift in his average exit velocity, which is now in the 99th percentile at 94.8 mph.
The catch should be that Guerrero's average launch angle is still in single digits, but that's misleading. He's doing a much better job of launching balls in the sweet spot, and fly balls and line drives account for a career-high 47.8 percent of his batted balls.
It all adds up to a .437 xwOBA that, like many of his results, is the best mark in MLB. Which is to say: Yeah, Guerrero really is that good right now.
Ah, But Can He Avoid the Bellinger Fade?
There is, of course, an obvious problem with projecting Guerrero's numbers after 70 games. He still has 92 games to go, and those won't necessarily look anything like his first 70.
For an appropriate cautionary tale, one only needs to look back to 2019 to find Cody Bellinger.
Like Guerrero has in 2021, the Los Angeles Dodgers star got off to a rip-roaring start with a .355/.452/.701 line and 23 home runs through 70 games. But while he still captured the National League MVP Award, he cooled as he slashed .264/.368/.570 with 24 homers through the end of the season.
Contrary to what one might think, the writing wasn't on the wall that Bellinger was bound to come back down to earth like that. His xwOBA through those first 70 games was a whopping .476. That was 16 points higher than his wOBA at the time, not to mention 39 points north of where Guerrero is now.
But if there are reasons to believe that Guerrero can avoid a similar slide, they start with how he's trending in the opposition direction as Bellinger was then.
Whereas Bellinger's results began declining after a red-hot April, the 1.240 OPS that Guerrero has in June is his best mark of the season. Likewise, his expected results are also in good shape:
As such, perhaps the bigger questions concern whether Guerrero will stay healthy—which is one for the crystal ball—and whether pitchers will continue giving him pitches to hit. On that front, he's already seeing a lesser rate of in-zone pitches in June (46.1 percent) than he did in April and May (47.0 percent).
Guerrero, though, has responded by swinging at 72.3 percent of those offerings after hacking at 71.3 percent in April and May. That's perhaps too slight a difference from which to draw conclusions, but it may indicate greater urgency on his part to try to do damage when opportunity knocks.
In any case, it's hard to find any angles from which Guerrero doesn't look totally locked in. As long as that remains the case, his historic pursuits may indeed reach historic ends.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.