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Photo Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and ‘load management’

The Blue Jays can thank the Raptors for bringing the phrase “load management” into the Toronto sports lexicon. With the aid of their athletic department, the Raptors throttled Kawhi Leonard’s usage during the 2018-2019 NBA regular season, which kept him healthy enough to lead the Raps to a title.

The Blue Jays are in a similar predicament with the face of their franchise: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Whether the Blue Jays high performance department wants to admit it or not, they’re using a similar load management method with Guerrero.

Fans were disappointed to learn about Vladdy’s unscheduled off day this past Sunday, a super premium game (one of only three on the 2019 Blue Jays schedule) against the New York Yankees. Since it was an A+ game on the schedule, tickets were priced at the upper tier of the dynamic pricing scale.

Luckily, Guerrero was brought in as a pinch-hitter and provided an epic 13-pitch at bat against Aroldis Chapman, but fans bargained to see Vladdy in more than one plate appearance.

I had to look through the schedule to confirm this, but yes, the Blue Jays are throttling Guerrero’s game usage. Feel free to scroll through the super-exciting table of his game-by-game usage below and you’ll notice the patterns the Blue Jays follow throughout the season.

The 20-year-old hasn’t played more than five consecutive games at third base this season. The last time he played five consecutive games in the field was May 25.

More recently, the Blue Jays adopted a “two games at third/one game at DH” rotation for Guerrero. The team has adhered to that schedule since the All-Star break.

Guerrero has spent 68 games at third base, 16 games at designated hitter, eight “rest days” and four games when he’s entered as a pinch hitter and finished the game.

Again, this is a 20-year-old baseball player who either gets a full day off or plays DH every three or four games. That doesn’t seem ideal for Guerrero’s development, but that’s the strategy the Blue Jays are using this year.

Coincidentally, Guerrero has some of the worst defensive numbers in baseball at third base this year. The Blue Jays don’t view Vladdy as a third baseman long term, but by throttling his time on the field, it isn’t helping his ability to improve at the hot corner.

When the Blue Jays adhere to this “schedule”, it’s easy to see how they run themselves into issues like when Guerrero was absent from the Blue Jays’ Victoria Day game lineup. Leading up to that game, he played nine consecutive games with one day off his feet as a designated hitter.

When the team fills out their lineup cards in advance, the last thing they’re thinking about is whether fans are expecting seeing Vladdy in the lineup that day. That misstep was a convergence of bad timing, a poor attempt at a PR recovery and a failure to recognize that days off don’t need to be followed to the letter.

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This method isn’t limited to just Vladdy, either. Bo Bichette is in the midst of a rotation where he plays three consecutive games at shortstop, followed by a DH day. The Blue Jays then upped it to a four-games at short, one game at DH schedule. The pattern now is 3-1, 4-1, 3-1 with the one game being days at DH, the others as the starting shortstop.

Cavan Biggio’s a bit of a different animal. Because he bounces around the diamond, it’s hard to nail down a schedule for him, but the Blue Jays have taken the restrictions off him now and he plays second base most games, with very few “rest days” in between.

Why the special treatment for Vladdy? In May, it made sense as the Blue Jays tried to ease him back into the schedule after taking a fastball off the wrist. Now that it’s mid August, Guerrero either sits on the bench or plays DH every two to three games. He’s still hitting, but it’s hard to work on defense when he’s absent two or three times a week.

To me, this underscores why it was so important for the Blue Jays to get rid of Kendrys Morales and eliminate the full-time designated hitter position from their roster. Most teams use the DH spot to rest players from the field while keeping their bat in the lineup.

It defies traditional baseball convention of running starters out there every game, but it’s a shrewd move that allows the Blue Jays to use this “load management” strategy where they otherwise wouldn’t have the roster flexibility. Without the DH spot, none of this is possible.

Ideally, once a prospect of Vladdy’s calibre is promoted, they shouldn’t be shielded from the rigours of the regular season. These kids want the opportunity to play every single day, but the high performance department suggests otherwise.

In the long term, the “load management” philosophy should preserve players like Vladdy and help them avoid fatigue, and as a by-product of that, avoid injuries and stay on the field longer. Load management allowed Leonard to be a beast for the Raptors and the Blue Jays are hoping similar results will carry over to Guerrero.

From an analytical standpoint, it all makes perfect sense, but try telling that to the family of four who dropped $400 to watch the Blue Jays play on Sunday afternoon and don’t see Vladdy in the lineup.