To Return to His Elite Form, Vlad Jr. Must Avoid the Rollover

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

From a pure talent perspective, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is special. Only 10-15 players in any given season run a strikeout rate in the mid-teens while posting an ISO of .200 or better. Guerrero has done so in each of the last two seasons (his .290 ISO in 2021 was fifth among qualified hitters). I try to keep that context in mind when I analyze players of Guerrero’s caliber. While I think it’s fair to say that his 132 wRC+ in 2022 was underwhelming, that mark is still quite impressive — indeed, it ranked 29th among qualified hitters last season. He was still productive despite running a 52.1% groundball rate, a mark exceeded by just six qualified hitters, none of whom came close to matching his year at the plate. If he continues to hit like this for the rest of his career, he’ll be a perennial All-Star. Still, given his talent and the lingering expectations of his prospect pedigree, I suspect the Blue Jays are looking for ways to get Guerrero back to something resembling the superlative 2021 version of himself. So let’s do the same.

Now you may be thinking, “Esteban, we all know Vlad Jr.’s problems come when he gets too groundball happy. Why not just tell him to hit more fly balls?” That’s good advice, but I’m more interested in the finer details. For example, Guerrero’s increased groundball rate is the result, but his process has an effect on that outcome. Depending on the hitter, swinging at pitches in zones that don’t match up with their spectrum of swing planes can lead to a change in their batted ball profile. Alternatively, a hitter’s swing decisions could be roughly the same, but a slight mechanical change could alter their bat path. For the Blue Jays first baseman, I think there was a combination of both. Let’s start with how his batted ball profile changed from 2021 to 2022:

Guerrero’s Two-Year Batted Ball Profile
Year GB% FB% LD% PU% Pull% Straight% Oppo%
2021 44.8 25.2 24.4 4.8 37.9 35.9 26.2
2022 52.1 17.1 24.5 6.1 37.8 39.9 22.2

The most important differences here are Guerrero’s increased groundball and popup rates, and the four point drop in his opposite field rate. The first two indicate an increase in mishits, while the third indicates a change in barrel depth. Barrel depth can be thought of as how long a hitter keeps their barrel on an upward trajectory in the hitting zone. Can you hit a ball that’s right over the front of the plate hard in the air? Can you do the same to a pitch that’s several inches in front of the plate? As Guerrero displayed in the 2021 Home Run Derby, he has superior barrel depth resulting in home run power to all fields. That’s part of how he can sustain such low strikeout rates, too. However, that line-to-line power wasn’t nearly as present in 2022 as it had been in 2021. Here’s what that looks like:

The distribution of his fly balls and home runs shifted towards left field last season. Failing to hit the ball in the air to the opposite field was hardly an ideal trend. In general, it’s easier to pitch to a hitter who can’t use the entire field. It indicates a hole in the swing that can be targeted. In addition to a decrease in his oppo frequency, the quality of his contact on batted balls to the opposite field fell as well. In 2021, his xwOBACON was .390 but it fell to .330 last season. This was in line with his overall trend of a decrease in quality contact:

Guerrero’s Quality of Contact Regression
Year xwOBACON HardHit% Barrel%
2021 .462 55.2 15.1
2022 .387 50.4 11.2

No matter how you look at it, Vlad didn’t impact the ball as well in 2022 as he did the year before. His hard-hit rate declined by five points; meanwhile his barrel rate, which provides more context around whether his hard hits came at ideal launch angles, dipped four points. Guerrero’s xwOBACON tells us how that impacted his expected outcomes year over year. For somebody with a hard-hit rate in the 94th percentile to run a sub .400 xwOBACON is shocking. It further illustrates why a 50% groundball rate can be so damning to a hitter. Initially, I suspected this could partially be due to approach changes from pitchers, but other than throwing their breaking balls a bit more often, pitchers didn’t make any glaring adjustments against Guerrero from a pitch mix or location perspective. That leaves me to think he may have made some swing decision changes. Here are a few details that provide evidence for that idea:

Guerrero’s Notable Swing Decision Changes
Year Chase% 1st Pitch Swing% Heart Swing%
2021 24.5 43.2 83
2022 30.5 33.5 78

No player wants to combine fewer swings in the heart of the zone with more chases. This is an obvious statement, but it’s very difficult to get your barrel on the baseball when it’s out of the zone! Some players do it well, but generally speaking, it isn’t good practice. In 2021, Guerrero had a .275/.292 wOBACON/xwOBACON split in what Statcast defines as the chase zone. That was 27th-highest xwOBACON in the league, but very far off the top of the leaderboard. In 2022, not only did Vlad increase his chase rate, but he also increased how often he made contact when he chased, going from 47.6% to 58.6%. This led to 20 more batted balls in play on chase pitches than the previous season. His wOBACON/xwOBACON split (.229/.178) dropped off due to an 80% groundball rate on his 36 total batted balls on chases. Basically, if he chased and made contact, it was nearly an automatic groundball. That further validates the idea that he was swinging at pitches that did not match his spectrum of swing planes. And as you can see from the table, he paired this new swing tendency with a less aggressive approach earlier in the count.

His decrease in first-pitch swing% was jarring for a player who had been in the top 10 for xwOBA (.536) in 0-0 counts in 2021. His 43.2% swing rate to start at-bats was the fifth highest in the league. Given his production, the aggression was more than justified! I’m not sure if this was an intentional decision or not, but it had a significant negative impact on Vladdy. If you’re great at ambushing, keep doing it! Overall, he had 25 fewer hits in this count than he did in 2021. Even with a very good .433 mark last season, it was still .100 points off from the year before. This combined with his increased propensity to chase shows his approach and swing decisions took a step backwards, which contributed to his overall regression.

Now we can address the final piece, the mechanics. Let me be clear: It’s a tall task to critique Guerrero’s swing. Admittedly, that statement may be partially informed by personal preference. He is one of my favorite hitters to watch in all of baseball from a mechanical perspective. In particular, I’m fascinated by the combination of his unique bat comb, toe tap, and entry into the zone. Vladdy isn’t in the same size category as Giancarlo Stanton or Aaron Judge, and yet he’s one of the few hitters who could challenge them in an exit velo competition. He relies on a highly efficient kinetic chain to produce his power. There is no space for leakages. However, with a drop off in performance this large, it seems quite likely that something was off mechanically.

When analyzing his swing, I immediately want to go to where it all starts. As I mentioned, when Guerrero is locked in, his transfer of energy is nearly perfect, so if something is off, I suspect it will be with an early or late swing timing mechanism that is affecting the rest of his process. Injury could be a factor as well, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case last season. I’ll start by showing you some swings. The first three are from the first month of the season, when Vlad was still in his 2021 form.

April 14

April 15

The first two swings are against a four-seamer and sinker in the high 90s inside and off the plate. I included the third swing because it shows the kind of opposite field power Guerrero has when he is locked in and his bat path is playing at every depth of the zone. Since the focus here is on his timing mechanisms, pay close attention to the position and angle of his bat comb (barrel tip) when the pitcher is about to release the ball. This sets up the angle at which his bat will get on plane when entering the hitting zone. I’ll contrast this with how he looked in three swings that all came in the last few weeks of the season, when Vladdy had one of his worst slumps since before his breakout:

September 5

September 27

October 5

Each of these pitches came in the inner third, an area where Vlad has shown he can hit a pitch over 400 feet with a seemingly effortless swing. The third was still hit very hard, but the lift isn’t optimal. He is making deep contact with all of them, and his barrel plane is just too high above the bottom half of the baseball. Depth of contact directly affects the angle at which the barrel will impact the baseball. For inner third fastballs, a hitter must get their barrel further in front of the plate if they want to launch it to the outfield. If they’re too late to get their bat out in front, they make contact like Vlad did.

Essentially, his timing being a hair late is the difference between a groundball and a fly ball, and his bat comb has a direct impact on his timing. There are two main points at which Vlad’s mechanics need to be on time: at pitch release and when he impacts the ball. Now, I’ll ask you to look back to the video from April, and the video from September. If you pay attention to his bat comb, maybe you can pick up on the slight difference when the pitcher releases the ball. To me, it looks like Vlad is early in his load. He is working a bit too slowly, and it’s forcing him into an unnatural deceleration of his upper half. Because of this, his bat comb is tipping a bit more and his reciprocal movement is creating a suboptimal entry into the hitting zone. By that I mean, he is tipping his bat head too far towards the pitcher, which changes the angle at which his barrel enters its swing plane. This slight added movement is most likely delaying his swing a millisecond. If you can’t see it clearly, here are some still shots at release to show you where Vlad is in his load:

April 14

September 5

As I said, it’s only a slight difference, but if you focus your eyes to the back of his jersey, you’ll notice he’s created a bit too much counter rotation as a direct result of being too early at release point. I know it’s small, but that difference in timing tracks with the deeper point of contact that led to his sharp increase in groundball rate compared to the prior year and the first month of 2022. What I’m seeing is that Vlad’s change in batted ball profile was directly related to his delayed timing and the change in his swing decisions. Whether or not that is enough to explain the entire dip in his production is debatable, however, there is no question there is a direct relationship between a declined batted ball profile and drop in performance.

When I wrote about Ronald Acuña Jr. late last year, I pointed out how a similar change in bat tip changed his bat path. For hitters this special, all it takes is a few weeks in the offseason to learn from their negative adjustments and make sure it doesn’t happen again over a prolonged period. You don’t need to worry about Vladdy. I’m sure that next week during the World Baseball Classic, we’ll see him launching balls to the moon.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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Curacao LL
1 year ago

Also needs to avoid bread rolls.

1 year ago
Reply to  Curacao LL

A result of Vladdys eating habits is him crushing baseballs like only a few folks on the planet.

A result of your eating habits is failing at 3rd grade “fat boy” humor.

1 year ago
Reply to  mbs2001

Neither of these posts are necessary, useful, or entertaining.