Coming into 2019, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s rookie campaign looked like the star around which the entire Blue Jays season would orbit.
He was a phenom in the truest sense of the word, a 20-year-old kid with a famous name, incredible minor league track record and eye-popping projections. Despite talent beyond reproach, Guerrero Jr. didn’t live up to his billing in 2019.
Considered likely be one of the best hitters in the game from the moment he arrived on the scene, the rookie managed a .272/.339/.433 line that was awfully average and just 15 home runs in a climate where that number means little. Vladdy’s signature plate discipline was more average than great, he hit the ball hard but wasn’t a Statcast god, and put the ball on the ground too much.
The rookie also struggled mightily in the field, was a negative on the bases, and had to rest regularly.
“We could see he was tired from time to time and that’s why he played less,” GM Ross Atkins said of the situation. “Based on his reporting weight we did expect some level of that.”
He also collapsed down the stretch and put up a dismal September where he hit .232/.264/.293 with his walk rate plummeting to 4.6 percent and his strikeout rate climbing above average for the first time. The Blue Jays are trying to take the positives from his tumultuous season and its rough ending — one that was largely attributed to subpar conditioning.
“That’s the best thing that can happen to anybody,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “Now he knows what he needs to do. It’s a long season. He’d never played in September, you can run out of gas, which he did a little bit. You can learn from all of that.”
“He knows he has to come in in better overall condition,” Atkins added. “He has a plan to do that, we have helped him construct it and it’s really clear.”
Vladdy’s physical condition will be a big story going forward, but it doesn’t explain all the ways in which Guerrero Jr. failed to meet expectations. Both Atkins and Montoyo are quick to place the blame on the expectations themselves.
“I think he was great,” Montoyo said. “The problem was the expectations were too much, it wasn’t fair. He’s 20 years old. To hit .270 with 15 home runs is not bad. Every time he goes to the plate people expect so much, but he’s 20.”
“The at-bats and his fight in the at-bats and his ability to put the ball in play is what’s so remarkable. A 20-year-old with a near .800 OPS is a very good accomplishment,” Atkins said. “The bar was set very high for him publicly, and what he accomplished was what we feel is very positive in the grand scheme of things.”
Those statements were valid, but so too were the expectations. The idea that Guerrero Jr. would excel out of the gate wasn’t conjured out of nowhere, it was based on the way he dominated the upper minors as a teenager and the consensus of the scouting community. He was the top prospect in baseball on merit, not arbitrarily.
Yes, the fact Guerrero Jr. held his own as a 20-year-old is an excellent sign for his future. Out of context, that’s a heck of an accomplishment, but context matters. For the Blue Jays’ rebuild to work they don’t need Guerrero Jr. to be good, they need him to be special.
To be clear, doubting Vladdy’s ceiling at this point is exceedingly unwise. The show he put on in the Home Run Derby and his dual American League Player of the Week titles provide solid evidence of what he can do. In July and August he was one of the best hitters in the game. Consistency is the key for him going forward, and it seems the Blue Jays believe that improved conditioning can unlock that.
Nothing that happened in 2019 should cause anyone to be alarmed about Guerrero Jr.’s future. The smart money is still on him being a foundational player for the Blue Jays. What he’s accomplished at his age is truly impressive. Even with the surge of young talent in baseball, most 20-year-olds are kicking around Single-A. It’s just clear that he’s not quite as much of a finished product as most expected — even offensively.
The Blue Jays can feel comfortable with what they saw from Vladdy in his rookie season, but there’s no doubt they were hoping to see more.
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