Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s Unusual, Replacement-Level Season

The Blue Jays are 1.5 games behind the Rangers for the last AL wild card berth, so it remains quite possible that Toronto could still end up as part of the postseason bracket.  However, simply squeaking into the playoffs wasn’t at all what the Jays envisioned when spending roughly $215MM (a club record) in payroll and surpassing the luxury tax threshold for the first time, as the team fully expected to be contending for a World Series title.

Alek Manoah’s extreme struggles and a lack of bench depth have contributed to the Jays’ underwhelming season, yet the biggest culprit has been a very up-and-down offense.  Though the Blue Jays are actually among the league’s best in getting hits and getting on base, they rank middle of the pack in runs due to an inability to consistently drive in runners in scoring position.  Beyond this specific flaw, the Jays have also gotten disappointing years at the plate from several regulars, and while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has still been above average, his oddity of a season has been pretty symbolic of Toronto’s 2023 campaign as a whole.

“Above average” production and a 112 wRC+ is a perfectly respectable year for most players, yet for Guerrero, it stands out as a red flag.  When that good (.264/.337/.432 with 20 homers over 579 plate appearances) but unspectacular offense is paired with a subpar defensive season, Guerrero has only 0.4 fWAR — among all qualified players in baseball, only 16 players have a lower fWAR than Guerrero’s modest total.

It is an eye-opening statistic, since for all of the money the Blue Jays have invested in building their roster, the team’s plans have been built around the assumption of excellent production from homegrown stars Guerrero and Bo Bichette.  While Bichette has mostly lived up to that billing and has been Toronto’s best player this season, Guerrero suddenly becoming barely a replacement-level player has been a big setback for the Jays.

And yet, a glimpse at Guerrero’s Statcast page would make one think that he is again an MVP candidate.  Guerrero ranks in at least the 89th percentile in such key categories as strikeout rate, hard contact, barrels, expected batting average, expected on-base percentage, expected slugging percentage, exit velocity, and xwOBA.  In fact, that latter statistic hints that Guerrero’s relative struggles this season have been due to horrid luck.  No qualified player in baseball has a larger gap between their xwOBA and wOBA than Guerrero, whose elite .379 xwOBA has resulted in a much more modest .332 wOBA.

The sea of red on Guerrero’s Statcast page seemingly indicates that a turn-around is imminent or almost inevitable, and yet as the calendar has now reached September, the first baseman has still yet to get hot for any extended period of time.  Guerrero’s best production came early in the season with an .885 OPS over 127 PA in March and April, but he has hit only .245/.318/.397 over 434 PA since May 5.

Hailed as a future cornerstone superstar and the game’s best prospect during his time in Toronto’s farm system, Guerrero seemed well on his way to living up to the hype with his sensational 2021 campaign.  Guerrero hit .311/.401/.601 with 48 homers over 698 plate appearances, and likely would’ve won AL MVP honors if it hadn’t been for Shohei Ohtani’s legendary two-way performance.

Rather than build on that big season, Guerrero took a relative step backwards in 2022, hitting .274/.339/.480 with 32 homers over 706 PA.  While not exactly a cause for concern considering that a 132+ wRC is still outstanding, Guerrero’s 2022 numbers revealed some issues that have become larger issues in 2023.  For one, Guerrero’s chase rates and chase contact rates have been well below average in 2022-23, as pitchers have learned that Guerrero is prone to swinging at pitches outside the zone with less-than-stellar results.

While Guerrero doesn’t strike out much, his tendency to chase has led to a lot of his hard-hit balls staying on the ground.  Guerrero has a 47.5% grounder rate this season, and an even 50% grounder rate since the start of the 2022 season — the eighth-highest among qualified hitters in that span.  Between these grounders, Guerrero’s below-average speed, and a .285 BABIP in 2022-23, it perhaps isn’t surprising that Guerrero has hit into 46 double plays since Opening Day 2022, tied for the most of any player in the league.

Guerrero has always had pretty higher groundball rates over his five MLB seasons, yet in 2021, his career-best 36.5% fly ball rate resulted in that big 48-homer year.  He has only a 31.9% fly ball rate in the two seasons since, with rather a stark dropoff in overall power.  The first baseman’s Isolated Power metric has gone from .290 in 2021 to .205 last season to .169 this season.

As much as 2021 seemed like the first taste of what Guerrero was “supposed to be” as a budding superstar, it also stands out as an outlier within Guerrero’s five Major League seasons.  It is also worth noting that the 2021 season was also an outlier for the Blue Jays in general, as COVID-related border restrictions kept the team from actually playing in Toronto until the end of July.  Guerrero still had a .935 OPS in 152 PA at Rogers Centre in 2021, though even that impressive total paled in comparison to his numbers at the Blue Jays’ other two home ballparks that season — a 1.418 OPS in 96 PA at the Jays’ spring complex in Dunedin, or his 1.180 OPS in 98 PA at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field.

Since the pandemic also forced the Jays to play in Buffalo during the 60-game 2020 season, Guerrero has only played 241 games at his actual home ballpark in his career, and there is evidence that Guerrero has yet to entirely get comfortable at Rogers Centre.  Guerrero has hit .258/.327/.448 over 1024 career PA in Toronto, but his home/road splits have been unusually drastic this season.  Guerrero has only a .691 OPS at Rogers Centre in 2023, as compared to a much more respectable .837 OPS in road games.

The altered dimensions and wall sizes at Rogers Centre this season seems to have had some impact on overall offense, as Statcast’s Park Factor calculations rank Toronto as a slightly below-average hitting environment this season after years of being seen as a park that generally favors hitters.  Of course, there are some on-field factors that go into this calculation, as the reduced offense might have less to do with the ballpark renovations than how the Jays have had a strong defense and good pitching staff this season, or their own lineup’s lack of production.  And, since several other Blue Jays batters are hitting quite well at Rogers Centre, it is hard to pinpoint why Guerrero in particular is struggling so much in his home ballpark.

Beyond offense, Guerrero also hasn’t been helping his cause on defense.  Public defensive metrics (-8 Defensive Runs Saved, -0.3 UZR/150, -14 Outs Above Average) are very down on his glovework, which represents a step back after Guerrero had seemingly been improving as a first baseman in past seasons.  The public metrics have always been somewhat split on Guerrero’s defense, yet DRS gave him plus grades in both 2021 and 2022, while he had a +2.5 UZR/150 in 2021.

Given that he is close to competing his fifth MLB season, it is still almost a surprise to remember that Guerrero won’t turn 25 years old until March, and his prime years might well still be ahead of him.  Of course, this is small consolation to a team built to win right now, and Guerrero’s 2023 season also creates some new questions about his status as a long-term building block.  He is arbitration-controlled for two more seasons and will be due a raise on his $14.5MM salary in 2023, with his early-career success and Super Two status combining to give the first baseman some hefty paydays throughout his arb years.

The question of whether the Blue Jays will sign Guerrero and/or Bichette (or neither) to long-term contract extensions has been a lingering question for years, yet since Bichette is also controlled through 2025, it isn’t necessarily a question the Jays have to face just yet.  However, Guerrero’s 2023 performance is far from the ideal for a franchise player, and as that huge 2021 season gets further in the rearview mirror, the Blue Jays might still not know exactly what they have in Guerrero.

A big September would go a long way towards salvaging this season from a personal perspective and a team perspective if Guerrero can finally break out and carry the Jays into the playoffs.  But, after what has basically been a four-month slump, time is running out for Guerrero to adjust and turn his superb advanced metrics into better real-world results.

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