Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has confidently hit his stride with the Blue Jays in 2021, establishing himself as one of baseball’s best hitters and most magnetic stars. His bat is never far from unleashing a moonshot, an easy smile never far from his face.
His elevation is the MLB season’s prevailing storyline and it can now finally be appreciated by an in-person audience, since the Jays transitioned from Dunedin to Buffalo for home games this week. Though it is not quite a home crowd and it is still not the Rogers Centre in Toronto, at least some can be in attendance to witness the greatness of the 22-year-old Dominican phenom as he carves out a significant place in the sport.
In front of a small, but passionate crowd of 5,000 in the Blue Jays’ first game this season in Buffalo, Guerrero had four hits and a home run that brought fans to their feet. It is early June and Guerrero has once again taken the sole lead for most home runs in the MLB. Guerrero seems to love the crowd as much as it loves him. He threw his arm up in the air as he rounded the bases and later received ‘MVP’ chants from those in attendance.
“I’m just trying to do my job. It feels great but I’m very focused on the game and that at-bat,” Guerrero said to reporters afterwards through team interpreter Hector Lebron.
Those MVP chants he received this week aren’t facetious; Guerrero could realistically win the award this year in just his third big league season. The most publicized prospect in Blue Jays’ history is living up to the immense expectations placed upon him. He is also helping keep Toronto in playoff contention. The Jays have weathered their early-season injury woes mainly thanks to the offensive production of their lineup, led by Guerrero. He ranks in the top 10 in the MLB in nearly every offensive category and has been unflappable in the field at first base. After a committed offseason program, we now see a leaner Guerrero, though he has lost none of his explosiveness at the plate.
“If they think I’m the MVP, then it’s good. I thank God for that.”
The real threat of Guerrero’s game has been and likely always will be his power hitting. He leads the MLB in home runs, or “plakatas” as Guerrero likes to call them. Plakata is a commonly used Spanish baseball term, slang for “good, solid contact, often resulting in a home run.” He is also making that solid contact at a consistent rate. Guerrero ranks first in the majors in On-base Plus Slugging (OPS), a metric that measures the combination of offensive consistency and offensive production. Guerrero is on pace to have the franchise’s best power-hitting season since Jose Bautista in 2011. If he keeps up that pace, he could also eclipse 50 home runs, a rare feat in the MLB. He has already etched his name into the history books this season. On April 27 against the Washington Nationals, Guerrero became the youngest player in the MLB’s expansion era (since 1961) with a three-home run, seven-RBI game. One of those home runs was a grand slam off of future Hall of Fame pitcher Max Scherzer.
Guerrero points to an approach that he adopted before the season as the reason for his elevated play this year. He follows a consistent, daily routine that involves coming to the stadium early to sit down with Blue Jays coaches and discuss each game’s opposing pitcher, examining their tendencies and weaknesses.
“I would say I improved on everything regarding baseball. Physically, mentally, the way I prepare myself every day, the way I go out about my business every day. I would say everything changed,” Guerrero said.
It seemed predestined that Guerrero would reach this point in the pros but perhaps not this soon. He seemed to slip under the radar heading into this season with the amount of talent that Toronto has accumulated throughout their lineup. Guerrero was always the Blue Jay with the highest talent ceiling though.
Sharing the same name as his Hall of Fame father, the stage has always been big for Jr. since he has followed in Sr.’s footsteps into baseball. The expectations have been enormous: to become the centrepiece of a World Series contender, like his father before him. Blue Jays fans have dreamed of that possibility since he first signed a contract to join Toronto’s system in 2015. Even though those expectations had cooled somewhat heading into this year after Guerrero’s first two seasons in the league, the realization of that potential is here. Guerrero says he never had doubts that he could dominate baseball’s highest level.
“Never, never doubt myself. I haven’t and I never will. Yes, I went through some struggles, but all that did was make me stronger,” Guerrero said.
Guerrero is more than just a hitter. He is now a reliable fielder and bona fide playmaker at first base. That is due to the dramatic progression in his overall movement and flexibility, which Guerrero attributes to the 42 pounds he shed in the offseason. “That was the only way, basically, to go to the gym and work very hard for me to get into extreme condition and lose all the weight that I did,” said Guerrero in a March interview with MLB Network. “I am reaching balls that I couldn’t last year.”
At 245 pounds, the way he can move and stretch now is astonishing, even at a position that is considered baseball’s most immobile. Several times this season, Guerrero has gone into the splits to make a catch while keeping his back foot on first base. His newfound flexibility makes him an easy target for the Blue Jays’ other fielders to throw out opposing runners. That ability has allowed him to save errant throws and extend to snag catches earlier. Take this stretch or this scramble and it is clear that this is not the same Guerrero we saw in the field in 2019 or 2020.
Guerrero’s ability to make clutch catches has drawn praise from his coaching staff as well. “One of these years he’s going to win a Gold Glove at first base,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoya following a May 28 victory over Cleveland, referencing the award given yearly to the sport’s best defenders.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s performance this season is worthy of a raucous Rogers Centre crowd, even if the Blue Jays remain away from Canada. Here’s hoping we see more “plakatas” in Toronto before his breakout season is through.