Baseball

Evaluating Vlad Jr.’s Second Season

When discussing Vlad Guerrero Jr. and his performance through his first two seasons, it is important to get a couple of disclaimers out of the way right away. First and foremost, Guerrero is still just 21 years old, and will only be 22 years old on Opening Day 2021. He is obviously still a young player and by no means a finished product as a player. He has done things at age 21 that not many other players have done, that being that he already has two seasons of above-average offensive production under his belt, and while the Fernando Tatís Juniors, Ronald Acuña Juniors and Juan Sotos of the world have done better than Guerrero to this point, his offensive performance at such a young age is still impressive.

Second, Guerrero has played in just 183 Major League games, or just barely a full season’s worth of games. Not only is he still not a finished product, but he still has played in a small sample of games, relatively speaking. Those are just 183 games of what hopefully should be a long career for him, and those 183 games are not necessarily representative of his future performance. Obviously, there is plenty of time for Guerrero to put up the type of numbers that we expected from him as a top prospect.

Now with that out of the way, it still seems fair to say that Guerrero, to this point, has been a little underwhelming in his major league career as compared to his top prospect status. He’s been good, but he still has yet to put it all together. Not that there is anything inherently bad about what Guerrero did at the plate this season. His .262/.329/.462 triple slash translated into a 115 wRC+, a mark that is comfortably above-average. His low minor league strikeout rates have translated well to the majors, and he showed some power increases in 2020 from his rookie season, ending up with a .199 isolated power figure, which is up over 30 points from 2019. The most impressive thing over his first two seasons has been his hard-hit ability. This season he took a step forward in this regard, with average exit velocity and hard-hit marks that placed him in the 93rd percentile of all hitters in 2020. These are all good things! The 2020 version of Guerrero at the plate was definitely better than the 2019 one, and he is trending in the right direction. But again, for a player that was the unanimous number one prospect in baseball before his debut, the results have not quite matched the pedigree to this point.

The biggest issue, at least on the surface, and has been the biggest talking point throughout his already short major league career has been the issues he’s had with ground balls. As a refresher, Guerrero hits a lot of ground balls, posting ground-ball rates over 50% in each of his first two seasons, which is not quite optimal for a hitter who relies on power. The upside to this issue though, is that it gives Guerrero an obvious area of his game to consciously work and try to improve. Guerrero came into the 2020 season, way back when, with that specific goal in mind, and acknowledged this as an area of his game that needed to improve. That definitely seems like a good idea and a good mindset to be in, and it should have hopefully happened then, right? Well, we know what happened, and it wasn’t what we wanted to see:

While definitely not great, it is important to have some additional context. The league-average average launch angle in 2020 was six degrees, and the average ground-ball rate was 45.3%. While Guerrero is worse than the league averages, he isn’t super far away from getting to league-average and wasn’t that far off in a more-normal 2019 season. It is perhaps more significant, however, to see the rate of his batted-ball events that were hit at a launch angle less than or equal to five degrees compared to the rest of the league. Here is a look at the top ten, with a minimum of 150 plate appearances in 2020:

Hitters with the Highest Rate of BBE >= 5 Degrees

So, we see that Guerrero ranked in the top five in this department last season, which is definitely not an ideal place to be in. Looking at some of the other hitters towards the top of the leaderboard, there are a couple of good hitters, but not many hitters that would be classified as true “sluggers”, which is the category that we would hope and want to place Guerrero in. Another way we can view this is to take Guerrero’s excellent hard-hit ability and add it to the equation. The way that we can do this is to take a look at the average launch angle of each hitter’s hard-hit balls. The upside of doing this is to hopefully get more clarity over whether a hitter is doing a good job of maximizing his most hard-hit balls. In the case of Guerrero, it again looks like another dud. With the same qualifiers as the previous table, here is a look at the ten hitters with the lowest hard-hit launch angles in 2020:

Hitters with the Lowest Hard-Hit LA

We see that Guerrero is not in an ideal spot. The main takeaway from this should be that despite Guerrero’s excellent hard-hit ability, he hasn’t made the most of it when considering that, on average, those hard-hit balls are leaving his bat at such a low launch angle where better results are harder to come by. This essentially is just reinforcing the first point, that Vlad’s high groundball rate is an issue, just with some more context.

So, that isn’t great, obviously. However, this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon for him. Looking back at his minor league statistics for a moment, Guerrero consistently had high groundball rates, even in seasons that aren’t that long ago. Among the most notable is a 47% groundball rate in 2018 in his first taste of AAA ball, and that is not much of an outlier. His minor league groundball rate is 44.57% by my calculations, which while still ten percentage points lower than his 2020 rate, is still high. This may just be who Vlad is naturally as a hitter, and that can still be okay. A high ground-ball rate for a hitter does not necessarily have to be a death sentence, as there are plenty of hitters who have managed to be productive despite a higher groundball rate. To show this, let’s go back and look for hitters from the years 2017 to 2020 that had “strong production” — defined as hitters with an isolated power mark greater than .200, wOBA greater than .330, and a wRC+ greater than 120 — all with a ground-ball rate higher than 50%. These should be, at least in theory, comparisons for what Guerrero can still look like at the plate, should his high groundball rate not come down. This query returned eleven hitters, and is presented below:

Hitters with Strong Production with a High GB% 2017-2020

It is not a perfect exercise, and it is likely that some of the weirdness from the short 2020 season is showing up here as well, but for the most part, these are hitters that were still able to not only produce but hit for good power as well, all while having a high ground-ball rate. Again, Guerrero was productive this season as well, but not quite at this level. This is despite him being just as excellent, if not better, at hitting the ball hard as the other players were in this table in their respective seasons. Why would this be the case?

One of the more likely areas of reasoning would be that Guerrero’s slow foot speed is working against him. It is harder for him to beat out many groundballs with a 25.3 feet per second sprint speed mark per Statcast, slower than it was in 2019, and in the 17th percentile of all hitters in 2020. If a ground ball of his finds a hole, he is not super likely to stretch it into extra bases as frequently as a hitter such as Tim Anderson, who also appears on the above table. However, Guerrero would not be a unique case when looking at the hitters on the previous table. Many of the hitters on that table are quite slow as well, or at the least, not speedsters. Yet, their high rate of ground balls and subpar speed didn’t seem to cause a lot of lost production. Guerrero likely can be like this too, especially knowing what we know about Guerrero’s history of high ground-ball rates and elite hard-hit ability. Is it possible that something else may be going on with Guerrero’s non-grounders that are have caused him to not yet reach his potential? It seems to be worth exploring.

We know that Guerrero isn’t likely to have much success on his ground balls, so let’s instead focus on his non-ground balls. First, let’s take a general look at his exit velocity on batted balls by launch angle. Doing this and taking a closer look at the results reveals something slightly concerning:

This histogram shows all of Guerrero’s batted balls by launch angle in buckets of five-degree intervals and is colored by exit velocity. This not only further shows the earlier point of how many balls he hits at the lower launch angles, but now also shows that the balls that he hits at the higher launch angles are not hit all that hard. It appears that Guerrero, the hitter that finished 16th among qualified hitters in terms of average exit velocity, was generally lagging in terms of exit velocity at the higher, more optimal launch angles. Let’s throw some numbers into this, though. The graph does show that Guerrero generally hits the ball hard at angles between zero and 20 degrees, and that is true. In fact, he had an average exit velocity of 101.2 mph on batted balls hit between those angles in 2020, good enough for second among all hitters with at least 150 plate appearances. In this regard, Guerrero lives up to his reputation as a hard hitter. However, when we look at batted balls hit greater than 21 degrees, his performance dropped substantially to just 88.6 mph, 125th out of 203 hitters with the same 150 plate appearances criteria. That drop-off is obviously pretty glaring and was one of this season’s largest:

Largest Differences: EV at LA >= 21 vs. EV at LA 0-20

So this clearly isn’t ideal. This also likely provides an explanation as to why his overall results on fly balls and line drives are underwhelming as compared to his position on the overall exit velocity and hard-hit leaderboards, which, while not bad, appear to be just middle of the pack, instead of where he would be expected to be given his reputation:

All of this does seem odd, because usually when we see a highlight of Guerrero, it is almost always involves him hitting the ball hard and far. When he does this and hits the ball nearly perfectly and sends one over the fence, it looks absolutely beautiful. One would think that he is one of the best sluggers in the game and reminds us all of the reasons why he was such an amazing and highly-touted prospect:

Again, it doesn’t seem right when you see him hit one as well as he does in the above reel. We know he has the ability to absolutely obliterate the ball, but he just doesn’t do it that often. Why might this be the case? Could it be a case of Guerrero mis-hitting a lot of balls? Blue Jays coach Dante Bichette spoke about this in late-August of this year and seemed to suggest that Guerrero may have been frequently mis-hitting as a side effect of him trying to lift the ball too much. Guerrero was obviously working to lift the ball more, but it may have been doing him more harm than good. Bichette believes that Guerrero was catching the ball too much so out in front of the plate, so the two worked on trying to catch the ball deeper in the zone, or effectively stop deliberately trying to lift the ball. That is not quite what fans or the internet would suggest Guerrero to do, but it may have made more sense than it seemed.

For what it’s worth, Guerrero went on a tear to end the season. From September 12th to the end of the season, Guerrero had a 150 wRC+ and a .276 isolated power mark. Sure, it was in a hilariously small 60 plate appearance sample, but it was good to see him finish the year out on a high note, especially after seeing him and Bichette work on make improvements. In that span though, it is not as if Guerrero hit fewer ground balls and that led to his success. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Guerrero’s groundball rate spiked to 57.4% in that span, among the highest in the game:

Note the jump in wRC+ while groundball rate spikes towards the tail-end of the graph. Is it just that Guerrero was luckier down the stretch? While luck could be part of it, luck alone probably doesn’t explain all of it. It is still important to know that Guerrero continued to be one of the game’s hardest hitters in this span, with a 94.4 mph average exit velocity, better than his overall season rate, and one of the best of any hitter in this same time frame. That alone should not be too surprising. After all, that is not unlike Guerrero’s 2020 season as a whole, with a high ground-ball rate and high average exit velocity. Instead, let’s again look at his rates on just line drives and fly balls. This time, the results are quite encouraging:

Those qualifiers for the September 12th to 27th stretch are with a minimum of 50 plate appearances in that span. While Guerrero wasn’t tearing things up still at the level we would want to see, this is definitely an improvement, with over a 100-point jump in wOBA and over 200 points in slugging. To be perfectly clear, this is still an extremely small sample, and who knows if this will stick going forward, but it does look good that after trying to make an adjustment, Guerrero’s fly balls and line drives improved significantly. The Guerrero that we saw to end the 2020 season wasn’t all that different from the one we saw for the majority of the season. He still hit the ball hard, hardly struck out, and hit a lot of grounders. The difference was that he was able to get more out of his non-ground balls. It looks good so far, now it’s up to him to try and keep it going in the future.

Whatever the case may be, it looks like, in 2020 at least, that Guerrero’s issues were more than just ground ball-related. His super high ground-ball rate really stands out, but Guerrero should still be a hitter who can succeed and produce big power in spite of that. It is something that he would be better off trying to get away from, but it’s not his only area of weakness. Guerrero’s relative underperformance on his non-grounders was perhaps the bigger issue for him in 2020. Guerrero improved in this area in a small sample of plate appearances to end the season, and only time will tell if those gains will carry forward into the future.

Guerrero’s ground-ball issues may stick around, but if he can permanently reverse this trend, he should be even better than his performance in his second season. The odds should be in his favor for this to happen than not. It comes back again to the fact that Guerrero is still insanely young and talented, and has still barely played a full season’s worth of games. At least we know now that Guerrero has more to work on than just trying to get his average launch angle higher. It should be more about maximizing his launch angle. More fly balls are usually good, but more weakly hit fly balls usually aren’t, and those weak fly balls were very prominent in Guerrero’s 2020. For him, it should be less about getting his launch angle up generally, and more about getting more of his hard contact in the air.

Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)




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