Vladimir Guerrero Was Obviously One of a Kind

Last week, we found out that Vladimir Guerrero — among others — will go into the Hall of Fame. The Guerrero news was hardly surprising, given how well he fared his first time on the ballot, but still, the Hall of Fame is considered a black-and-white issue, and for all but the most obvious of cases, there emerge criticisms, cases against. Arguments that a given player might not be good enough. Guerrero’s career generated some of those arguments, as he wound up with a WAR under 60. WAR has never been and will never be the sole defining metric for Cooperstown, but it’s true that Guerrero’s number might be surprisingly low. It’s right there on his player page, one estimated summation of all he achieved.

One consequence of Hall-of-Fame conversations is that great players get nitpicked. Everyone who gets so much as close to induction had a remarkable career spanning more than a decade. Another consequence is that players can get reduced to totals, with little attention given to how they were amassed. In a case like Guerrero’s, this means there’s something left out. And maybe it’s better that way, I don’t know — maybe all that should matter are the final results. The numbers a player has to show for his career. Yet players play in different ways, and there are different paths to accumulate value. You might not need to be told this, but Guerrero was something extraordinary. He wasn’t just a regular great player. He was a great player in a way all his own.

If you’re interested in Guerrero, you’ve already read several tributes, and you can recall him in his playing days. When he was younger, Guerrero could motor, and he stole 181 bases. Out in right field, Guerrero had a bazooka, and he racked up 126 assists. Guerrero was gifted with several standout skills, but, of course, he’s a Hall-of-Famer because of the bat. Out of everyone who’s ever batted 5,000 times, Guerrero’s wRC+ ranks 69th, only a few points behind Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, and Mike Piazza. Guerrero was a terror into his mid-30s, slowed only by irreversible physical decay.

Now, Guerrero wasn’t only a great hitter. He’s remembered as a great bad-ball hitter, as a guy capable of hitting anything. This is something that’s already established, so you don’t need the following plot, but it’s something I’ve generated anyway, to try to put Guerrero in the proper context. The problem with the information era is greediness. We have all this data going back to 2015, or 2008, or 2002, and we wish we had it forever. We don’t, but there is some limited pitch-by-pitch data stretching to 1988. You just have to hunt for it. Sean Dolinar very graciously did the hard work and gave me swing rates for players over the past 30 years. That’s as much information as we’ve got, and so, below, you see wRC+ marks and swing rates for everyone who, over the past 30 years, has batted at least 1,000 times. Guerrero is highlighted in yellow.

Guerrero is out there, and he’s essentially by himself. You can observe a somewhat inverse relationship between wRC+ and swing rate, but out of this 1300+ player sample, Guerrero ranks 31st in wRC+, and 32nd in swing rate. Even though Guerrero swung as often as Jeff Francoeur or Jonathan Schoop, he has basically the same wRC+ as Andrew McCutchen and Freddie Freeman. We can’t say that Guerrero is unique; it’s all a matter of where you set your cutoffs. But over the 30 years, no one else has been this aggressive and this successful. Guerrero loved to swing, and pitchers just couldn’t exploit it.

Here’s a table showing Guerrero and the 15 most similar hitters over the time span.

Vlad and His Comps
Player Swing% wRC+ PA
Vladimir Guerrero 56.4% 136 9059
Josh Hamilton 54.8% 127 4350
Kirby Puckett 54.4% 128 5113
Nomar Garciaparra 55.2% 124 6116
Corey Seager 51.2% 135 1413
Freddie Freeman 51.2% 137 4304
Corey Dickerson 55.3% 116 2102
Andre Dawson 55.9% 112 3969
Pablo Sandoval 57.0% 112 4324
Juan Gonzalez 51.7% 129 7155
J.D. Martinez 51.7% 129 3118
Bo Jackson 54.2% 117 2101
Matt Williams 55.4% 112 7329
Adam Jones 56.2% 108 6375
Kelly Gruber 55.9% 109 2893
Jose Abreu 50.2% 139 2660

Abreu, Freeman, and Seager show up with wRC+ marks close to Guerrero, but their careers all still have a way to go, and their swing rates are lower than Guerrero’s by several percentage points. Sandoval and Jones have the closest swing rates, but they’ve been far less dangerous hitters. If you set a somewhat arbitrary cutoff at a swing rate of 55%, Guerrero has the best wRC+ in baseball since 1988, by a full dozen points. And with players like Hamilton and Garciaparra, they don’t come close to Guerrero’s overall playing time. Guerrero was very aggressive, and very good, for a very long time. He’s the one who’s done it.

And he never wavered in his approach. Not that you’d expect him to, given that it was working for him, but here’s a plot of Guerrero’s full seasons, from Baseball Reference.

Guerrero swung at 58% of all pitches, according to BR (there are minor differences between their numbers and the numbers Dolinar pulled). The league average during his career was just under 46%. He swung at 47% of all first pitches. The league average during his career was just under 29%. And he made contact with 80% of all his swings. That was exactly on the league-average mark. Again, this serves to confirm the impression you probably already had — Guerrero went up there hacking, and he did it until the very end, forever able to stay in or reach out and drive a pitch out of the zone.

In the past, I’ve written often about extreme home runs. That is, the highest pitches hit for home runs, or the lowest pitches hit for home runs, or what have you. Those posts have featured guys like Pablo Sandoval and Delmon Young, and they’re posts about good things — you can never get mad at a hitter for hitting the ball out. But in a sense, they’re indirectly posts about bad things, because they’re posts about players getting positive reinforcements for bad decisions. For all I know, the problem with Delmon Young all along was that he didn’t learn to distinguish between strikes and balls, because every so often he’d hit a ball hard. Too many over-aggressive hitters go up there believing they can punish almost any pitch. It’s not true. For just about everyone, it’s not true. Guerrero’s as close as we’ve come to a real exception. Maybe a more restrained version of him could’ve been even better, but, somehow, I doubt it. His career is over. He’s going into the Hall of Fame. It all worked. Everything about what he did worked. You’d never want to teach it, mostly because you never could.

If you go to YouTube and search for Vladimir Guerrero highlights, it tries to auto-complete with “hits ball off ground.” It’s a fun video, absolutely, but I don’t think it quite captures the real Guerrero essence. All that is is a fluke, a blooper, a highlight that doesn’t do much to separate Guerrero from Corey Dickerson. There is no one clip that’s most reflective of what Guerrero was at the plate, but something like this might be more appropriate.

Or something else, like this.

It’s not that Guerrero made a career out of chasing and punishing really wild pitches. That would be an exaggeration of his skillset, an edited memory. But the strike zone, as it exists, is supposed to more or less mirror the hitting zone of the guy at the plate. Some hitters like pitches more up, and some hitters like pitches more down. Few hitters are capable of controlling the zone in its entirety. Fewer still are capable of slightly expanding the boundaries. Most hitters have an actual hitting zone smaller than the zone that gets called. Guerrero was different. Guerrero knew he could punish just about any strike, and also a good number of would-be balls. Any good pitch was also a hittable pitch. It was more true for Guerrero than for anyone else.

At the end of the day, Guerrero is to be judged by his results. He is to be judged by his career totals, no matter how they came to be. But Guerrero won’t be remembered for his 136 wRC+, or for his 54 WAR. Guerrero will be remembered for being the kind of threat only he could become. It’s often said that aggressive hitters have trouble controlling the strike zone. Guerrero controlled his own strike zone to near perfection.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

Okay, who is the goofball in the far-right, way out by himself beyond 60%?

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I want to say A.J. Pierzynski, but can’t imagine his career wRC+ was better than league average.

6 years ago
Reply to  Sleepy

He’s juuuust behind Vlad on swing rate, and you’re right, he’s got a wRC+ of 90-something.

Here’s the list from Fangraphs, but it seems like Jeff’s data is something else.


6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

That was my first thought as well.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I believe it’s Dave Hollins. 110 wRC+ with a 59.9% swing rate.

6 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

Looks like that 59.9% swing rate is only from his last year, but if we think that approach was sticky from year-to-year it is probably him.

6 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Thank you Jeff. I literally came to the comment section to ask exactly this because it is pretty stunning that someone managed an above average wRC+ with that crazy swing rate.

6 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

I’d be curious to see if he was that much of a free swinger earlier in his career too, but I suppose we don’t have data on that, and he posted pretty good batting lines in 1988 and 1989.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I have the same questions every single time I see a scatterplot on FG. I always walk away frustrated, and wishing it was standard practice to label or mention ALL the outliers.

Who are those two guys in the extreme upper left (I’m guessing Bonds?) Who’s that guy on the far left, the one with the lowest swing rate of anyone? Who’s the guy with 1000 PA and a wRC+ of zero? Who are those three guys that are near Guerrero, sort of a poor man’s version?

Am I crazy in thinking that I’ve seen these done where you could mouse over data points (or at least some of them) and get a name? I’d love it if that was done routinely.