Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Accelerates to the Finish

Guillermo Martínez is 34 years old, last played pro ball eight years ago for the independent Grand Prairie (now Texas) AirHogs, and never made it above High-A in affiliated ball. He is also the rookie major league hitting coach for the Toronto Blue Jays. There’s a long history of men who never achieved much in their playing careers becoming outstanding in second acts as coaches, and in his responsibility for the offensive success of Toronto’s much-vaunted youth movement (the average age of their hitters, 26.2, is the youngest in the American League), Martínez has more than enough raw material to make his mark in his first season in the role.

Last week when the Blue Jays came to Seattle to take on the Mariners (dropping two out of three), I sat down with Martínez to talk about his first year of coaching in the majors, and in particular his first year of coaching another, much more famous, rookie: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

After making his debut for Toronto late in April at the precocious age of 20, Guerrero has had an up-and-down — or, more accurately, a down-and-then-up — season for a middling Toronto club that is nonetheless understandably optimistic about the cohort of young hitters of which Guerrero is a part. First, the down: Through the end of June, across 226 big-league plate appearances, Guerrero had posted a wOBA of just .317, and — even more worryingly — was striking out far more (19% of the time) and walking less often (9% of the time) than at any previous level.

Some regression was to be expected, of course, upon facing big-league pitching for the first time. But it wasn’t just that the results that were underwhelming. It was that they matched up with the story told by the eyes.

“It wasn’t just that he was swinging at fastballs inside,” said Martínez, “it was that he was swinging at fastballs inside a foot off the plate. He was swinging at balls. But there were a lot of things going on at that point. I think a lot of what was happening was affected by a feeling of ‘I just got to the big leagues, and I need to impress.’ All the cameras were on him, and the media was all over him. So I saw him trying to like, almost chase hits rather than actually calm his mind down and let his body go the same way.”

In looking at Guerrero’s swing rates by location both before and after the mid-July Tigers series that both Martínez and Guerrero himself identified as a turning point in the young man’s season, I’m not sure I see all that much difference in what Guerrero was offering at in the early part of the year, at least inside, than in the later part. But I’m completely on board with the notion that the tremendous pressure Guerrero was under in the first half dictated to some extent his approach at the plate. It also, more than likely, complicated the always-difficult transition from facing minor-league to major-league pitching.

“Last year,” said Martínez, “there were some things that he did his way because he was able to be successful while doing it his way. There’d be times when he’d come to the park and not take batting practice and go four-for-four with two home runs. And as soon as he got to the big leagues, I think he learned that talent can only get you so far. Not just the physical preparation but the mental preparation, watching video to see the pitchers and what they’re trying to do to him, and learning all that goes into the game at this level.”

Now Guerrero spends an hour or so before every game tailoring his approach to the game to the particular night’s starting pitcher. “It all depends who’s pitching,” he told me, in comments translated by Hector Lebron. “If I’ve never faced the guy on the mound, then I try to see all his pitches [on video]. If it’s someone I’ve seen before, then I’ll go do something else [in the batting cage]. I’ve also been working very hard about what I’m doing on the bench. When I’m there, I’m very focused on the pitchers. I’m always looking at what they’re doing, and when.”

Martínez relayed an anecdote about a game in which Guerrero noticed that the first pitch offered to Cavan Biggio, hitting in front of him, was the same as the first pitch offered to him in each of his first two at-bats. The third time up, he made a note of that pitch, got it precisely as expected, and promptly deposited it into the gap. “He’s so smart when it comes to paying attention to the game,” says Martínez. “Sometimes hitters try to make it more difficult than it is. To their ears, it sounds like they’re being smart, but they’re just making things difficult for themselves. Good hitters tend to make things simple. He does that.”

Guerrero, for his part, credits Martínez for working with him to establish a pre- and in-game routine that works for him and allows him to make best use of his otherworldly talents. “We have a great relationship,” he said, again translated by Lebron. “We’re working very hard together. Every day is a different plan. It all depends on the pitcher. If it’s a hard-throwing pitcher, we’ll do one thing. If it’s an off-speed kind of pitcher, we’ll do something else. I’ve always had a small strike zone. Since I’ve been here, I’ve tried to follow all my plans.”

It seems to have worked. Since that Detroit series, in which Guerrero went 5-for-12 with a home run, he has triple-slashed .361/.424/.639, good for a wOBA of .439 and a wRC+ of 179. For Martínez, at least, there wasn’t any mechanical change that presaged the success. There was just the mental adjustment of realizing that, with a little bit of preparation, there was absolutely no reason why he couldn’t do what he did in the minors at the major-league level as well.

“It’s not that he wasn’t working hard,” says Martínez, “because he’s always worked hard. Now he’s working smart. He’s working very smart. Depending on the scouting report, he’ll adjust what he’s doing that day. I think when he was hitting .250, he wasn’t happy. To him, he was struggling. And I had to tell him, like, man, you’re 20 years old and you’re struggling by hitting .250 in the big leagues — I couldn’t do that right now! I was just trying to remind him who he is, what kind of player he is. The mind is powerful. You think about it and think about it, and soon you start to believe it. I think the Detroit series was when he really started to come around.”

The more time I’ve spent around big-league coaches this year, the more I’ve come to appreciate what I’m sure is readily apparent from the outside but is nonetheless even more obvious when you see them at work: that any technical knowledge they have as a coach is wholly secondary, in terms of their ability to do their job effectively, to their understanding of the individual psychologies of the players they’re tasked with working with. Some need to be yelled at. Some need to be left alone. Every one of them needs something in between sometimes. I asked Martínez how he’d approached building a relationship with Guerrero, the young man whose personal context in the game could hardly be more different than his own.

“I got to see him play quite often [last year, when he was the Jays’ minor-league hitting coordinator], but never really had the type of relationship that was hands on. The relationship with him was built after I became the hitting coach, and we got into a daily routine with him in the cage. But even last year, we would sit and talk. We wouldn’t necessarily talk about hitting philosophies and whatnot, we would just talk about him and his family and when it comes to hitting, what he does well when he’s doing well and not doing well. That’s how it started.”

And now it continues. Guerrero’s first season will wrap in a few weeks with the Blue Jays outside the playoff picture looking in, with about one WAR in the books, and with a wRC+ that’ll probably end up somewhere between 110 and 120. This offseason, he’ll have the chance — his first chance, probably, since last April — to breathe and reflect on what he’s just done. And then, at some point in the late fall, he’ll get together with his hitting coach, and they’ll get to work.

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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