Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is heating up at just the right time for the Blue Jays. Over his last six games he is hitting .478/.500/.826. If the Blue Jays are going to be successful in the playoffs Vlad is going to be a big reason why. He’s the type of hitter when he’s hot he can carry a line-up and seems like a kid who thrives in the big moments in the spotlight.
We don’t want to fret too much over six games, but this hot stretch has coincided with a change Vladdy has made at the plate.
Andrew Stoeten at The Athletic wrote about Vlad on Friday and included a quote in there from Dante Bichette from a couple weeks ago, which said he wants Vladdy to let the ball get deep and get away from him trying to lift the ball all the time.
This isn’t what you necessarily want to hear about a player whose 55% groundball rate is in the top 10 among qualified hitters this season. Vladdy and Bo Bichette have played together at pretty much every level of the minor leagues, so Dante has seen Vladdy tear through the minors and there might not be another person in the organization who knows him and his swing better.
Stoeten notes how Vladdy’s launch angle was up to 7.5 degrees on average through Thursday up from his 4.8-degree season average. However after hitting five groundballs between Friday and Saturday, his launch angle for the week is back down to 4.2 degrees.
What Vlad has done is make a slight but noticeable change to his swing this week. Here is his swing last Sunday in Philadelphia:
Pretty normal Vlad swing right? He’s standing upright and has the bat well above his head. Now watch this swing from Monday against the Yankees.
Everything about his actual swing looks the same. He’s made some adjustments to his pre-pitch stance. He’s not standing as straight up any more, he has a little knee bend and he’s lowered his hands a few inches.
What this does is get Vladdy’s hands to the zone quicker, making it easier for him to stay back on the ball. It’s much easier to stay back on ball when your hands are ready, as opposed to rushing through your mechanics to get your hands in the right position.
Vladdy using this approach has been able to make substantially more contact at the plate; he’s almost entirely cut out the strikeout. Vlad started the month of September with 13 strikeouts in 12 games. Since then he’s has just two in 14 games, both of which were on (questionable?) called strikes.
The camera angle in Buffalo makes it hard to tell, but it looks like John Means just paints the corner for the strikeout. A great pitch. The Tanaka strikeout is clearly a ball outside the zone.
The new approach is working. More contact = more success
The motivation for this change looks to be improving against off-speed pitches. Stoeten discusses Vladdy’s struggles against off-speed pitches, a .132 average with 12 strikeouts in 40 plate appearances. Per Fangraphs Vladdy has just four hits on the season against change-ups with a 25.6% swinging strike rate. Since September 13th Vlad has seen 24 off-speed pitches (change-ups and split-fingers) per Baseball Savant, and he has swung and missed on just three of them. He’s done a much better job at fouling off the close ones and spitting on the ones outside of the strike zone.
He’s increased his contact rate, and has done so without reducing any of his raw power. Vladdy’s exit velocity since the 13th is 93.8 mph, right in line with his season average of 92.3 mph. That includes the 116.1 mph rocket he hit in Philadelphia. Vlad has hit 12 balls 115 mph or harder since he joined the league, no one else has more than seven.
Vlad has hit 26 balls hard since Sept 13th, second over that time frame, behind DJ LeMahieu. Vlad’s launch angle and barrel rate gets brought up a ton and rightfully so, but look at what LeMahieu has done. Over the same time frame, LeMahieu has just a 4.9 launch angle and one barrel. LeMahieu sprays line-drives all over the field, has some power to drive the ball out, makes a ton of contact and rarely strikes out. Vladdy can be that type hitter, with more power. This is what Vlad did in the minors to be successful and it’s what Dante wants him to get back to doing.
For now, it seems to have worked.
As the playoffs starts, teams are looking for any advantage or mismatch they can get. There is no doubt teams are aware of Vlad’s struggles with off-speed pitches and will be looking to take advantage of that late in games where they can. Vlad has shown he can make improvements, albeit in a small sample. If this is able to continue, Vladdy could have a very successful postseason for the Blue Jays.