The 2019 season is the year of Vlad. Everybody knew the team was going to be bad this year, but the arrival of baseball’s prodigy, Vladimir Guerrero Jr, was going to make it all worth it.
Expectations were massive. FanGraphs’ Steamer projected Vlad to put up a 138 wRC+, which would be 14th best in all of baseball, better than stars like Aaron Judge, Manny Machado, and Paul Goldschmidt. Pretty much all of us expected he would hit the ground running and dominate big league pitching, just like he hit the ground running at every new level he was promoted to in the minors.
That hasn’t happened. Nine games into the Vlad era, he’s slashing an ugly 152/.243/.182 line with 10 strikeouts in 33 at-bats. Since he had three hits in each of his first three games, Vlad has gone just two-for-twenty-one.
Does Vlad need to be sent back down to Triple-A to learn how to hit? Is he a bust?! Is it time to slam the panic button?
No. Vlad is going to be fine.
His early struggles represent the reality that being a good Major League Baseball player is really, really fucking hard. While many players have slid into the league and hit their stride immediately, that isn’t going to be the case in every scenario.
I mean, take a look back at Mike Trout, who got sent back down to Triple-A after his first 14 games because he had a .163/.213/.279 slash line. More recently, Alex Bregman put up a donut in his first 20 plate appearances at the Major League level.
It’s been a long time since we saw a player come into the league with the same amount of attention as Vlad. As much as everyone talks about his confidence and how chill he is about the whole thing, there’s no doubt that being under the microscope is taking a toll on him. You can see Vlad pressing at the plate, taking cuts he didn’t usually take in the minor leagues because he wants to smash that first big league homer.
It also doesn’t help that opposing pitchers really, really, reaaaaally don’t want to be the guy that gives up that first Vlad homer. Per James G on Twitter, he’s getting pitched like he’s the team’s only hitter…
In the last 3 seasons there have been 1516 batter seasons where the batter saw at least 150 pitches. Vlad Jr ranks 1516th for % pitches seen over the heart of the plate at 14.3% (23 of 161 after tonight) – the next lowest is 17.5%. (Stats before tonight: https://t.co/wqNnSZr5vv )
— James G (@james_in_to) May 7, 2019
I know it sounds lame to make excuses and many will just shrug this off and think something along the lines of, “well, if he really is as good as they say, he’ll find a way to hit regardless.” And I imagine he will. But that’s the adjustment part and that’s what makes the jump from Triple-A to the Major Leagues the most difficult in all of baseball.
Not only is Vlad having to deal with guys who throw harder, mix speeds, command the zone, and have secondary stuff better than he’s ever seen in the minors, he has to deal with guys pitching him extra hard because of the hype that surrounds him.
Nobody wants to be the guy who threw a meatball over the plate that Vlad turned on for the first time. Nobody wants to be the one who got whiplash watching their pitch get sent into space by a 20-year-old. Nobody wants to become a reaction meme.
One difficulty for Vlad and the Blue Jays is that the team doesn’t have much protection to provide him in the lineup. I would suggest moving Justin Smoak, likely the team’s most dangerous hitter with the best plate approach, directly behind Vlad in the lineup, but it’s pretty easy for an opposing pitcher to focus the majority of their energy on dealing with Vlad. I know that’s a little oversimplified, but given how little he’s seeing to hit, that seems to be the gameplan.
All Vlad can do now is continue to struggle, make adjustments, and work out of it. Everything has come naturally for this kid and now he’s facing the biggest challenge of his life. Despite the poor start, I have no doubts he’ll bust through it and become the player we all expect him to be. He didn’t become a prodigy by accident.