Photo credit:Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Looking for The Sweet Spot
2 months ago
There’s a lot to love about Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
At just 24 years of age, he’s already belted an impressive 130 home runs, won a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award at first base, and made three All-Star appearances with a Home Run Derby victory to boot. Vladdy is a star player that any team in Major League Baseball would be happy to have.
However, after back-to-back years of decline since what appeared to be a breakout performance in 2021, Blue Jays supporters are left trying to pinpoint a specific reason behind Guerrero Jr.’s dip from a slash line of .311/.401/.601 down to .264/.345/.444.
Vladdy’s season in 2021 justified his incredible potential. The difficulties that Guerrero Jr. had during his rookie and sophomore seasons with getting the ball in the air seemed to be behind him. A good launch angle combined with his crazy exit velocity resulted in a lot of dingers. His 48 home runs were tied for the most in baseball and he finished as the runner-up to Shohei Ohtani in American League Most Valuable Player voting.
Here we are now, two seasons later, and Guerrero Jr.’s breakout has looked like the anomaly in his career. His OPS has dipped from 1.002 in 2021 to .818 in 2022 and .788 in 2023. The Blue Jays as a team made a shift from offence to defence following their playoff meltdown to the Seattle Mariners but Vladdy only hitting 26 home runs in 2023 was shocking.
One noticeable change lies in the “shadow zone” pitches around the strike zone, think of 50/50 pitches on the corners that may or may not be called a strike depending on the umpire. Baseball Savant’s swing/take run value places Vladdy near the bottom of the league in this zone, near other Blue Jays such as Matt Chapman, Daulton Varsho, and George Springer, indicating this is a larger team issue.
The Swing/Take on Baseball Savant evaluates a player’s ability to effectively respond to pitches. In 2021, Vladdy ranked second in swing decisions and fourth in takes, indicating elite plate discipline. However, comparing this to 2023 shows a significant decline, plummeting Guerrero Jr. all the way down to 86th.
Specifically speaking of the shadow zone, Vladdy’s struggles are pronounced. He produced -25 runs in this category, which ranks 575th of 592 qualified players. What’s more problematic is that both Springer and Varsho both somehow ranked lower than Vladdy did. With eight players on the Jays ranking anywhere from 508 to 586, this is a team-wide issue that needs fixing.
Beyond plate discipline, a nuanced evaluation of Vladdy’s 2023 performances involves scrutinizing the quality of his contact. He had the 11th highest Balls in Play (BIP) in baseball last season, indicating an elite ability to get the ball on the bat.
At the same time, he also has one of the highest average exit velocities of anybody in the league. So, if getting the bat on the ball isn’t an issue, the quality of contact that comes after the swing must be the problem, right? Guerrero Jr. ranked just in the 28th percentile in Sweet Spot%, which would suggest that might be the case.
Sweet Spot% refers to a specific part of a player’s bat when it contacts the ball. Essentially, the more balls you hit in the sweet spot, the more likely you are to make quality contact. For reference, he was in the 50th percentile, league average, in 2021.
Below is a useful visual for what’s considered the sweet spot and what other spots will result in different kinds of poor contacts.
Vladdy’s at-bats often wind up in the “Topped” category. According to Baseball Savant, he topped 170 balls in 2023, good for the 13th most in baseball. If we look at what it is in the shadow zone, he ranks 32nd. His batting average was awful at 0.90, but his xBA was at .162, which is one of the widest discrepancies in the league under these circumstances.
This would be validated by the eye test, as many can remember instances in which Vladdy smashed a ball incredibly hard right at the shortstop or the second baseman and was ultimately thrown out at first base. He makes a lot of contact and a lot of it is hard contact, but missing that sweet spot often means poor results.
So, what does all of this mean and what can we expect from Guerrero Jr. in 2024? Something similar to the frustrating seasons he had in 2022 and 2023? Or should we be hopeful for a return to 2021 levels of production? In order for the latter to happen, the Blue Jays need to work with Vladdy to improve his ability to not just get the bat on the ball with a hard swing, but to find that sweet spot as well.
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