The Blue Jays sought to improve the lineup this offseason by signing Marcus Seimien, George Springer and in addition almost landed Michael Brantley, but the success hasn’t arrived with those signings. They currently sit 28th in FanGraphs WAR which is not ideal. While the team as a whole hasn’t played well, there is one guy on the team who has, and its Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Vlady Jr. so far has a 196 wRC+, a slash line that reads .338/.472/.563, and currently has the 4th highest FanGraphs WAR in baseball.
The numbers that I will be using throughout this article will be from FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.
Now the first major thing that stands out with Vladdy Jr. is that as of right now, for the first time in his short career, he boasts a higher walk rate than strikeout rate. He has improved his walk rate from 8.2 % in 2020 to practically doubling it to 18 % so far this year. This is a 9.8 percentage point difference which is the sixth highest in the league. His strikeout rate has slowly decreased each year he has been in the big leagues, and he currently sits at 14.1 % compared to 15.6 % in 2020 which is great to see. Off the bat, we see him being more patient at the plate by taking more walks.
The chart above shows how he has reduced his overall swing percentage. In addition, he has also altered the pitches he swings at by swinging at more pitches in the zone this year. His chase rate is at 23.53 % of his swings putting him in the 88th percentile which is ideal considering he is seeing less pitches in the zone at 38.2% of pitches compared to 40.9% from last year. He also increased his swing rate at four-seam fastballs from 31.8% to 36.8% this year. However, he did increase his swing % at sliders from 15.6% to 28.7% this year, but this can be explained by the fact pitchers have started throwing him more sliders this year at 25.2 % of pitches compared to 15.4% from last year. While it seems pitchers are using the fastball/slider combo against him which has increased his swing and miss % to 12.7% (11.3 % in 2020), it hasn’t increased his strikeout rate nor his outside swing % which then allows him to look for pitches he wants in the zone to do damage. His batting average on four-seam fastballs and sliders are both at or over .400 and both of those pitches are hit at a 57.1 hard-hit % as well. This suggests that when he does try to hit those pitches, he hits them well. He also has the ability to lay off of them when they are out of the zone which is scary.
One of the fun things about Vlad Jr. is how hard he hits the ball and in 2021 that remains a constant. This year his average hard hit % is in the 80th percentile and his average exit velocity is at 93.8 (98th percentile), which is a slight increase from last year which was at 92.5. So what changed? He stopped putting the ball in the ground and started hitting more line drives. He increased his line drive % to 25.9% (17.5% in 2020) and decreased his ground ball rate to 43.1% (54.6 % in 2020), which is just about league average. This coincides with the fact he increased his launch angle from 4.6 to 10.6 degrees this year. His flyball rate has also increased by 3.1 percentage points from last year.
Swinging at pitches more up in the zone and improving his bat path to create a much higher launch angle has helped him in hitting more line drives. He has reduced his pull % to 32.8% (41.5% in 2020), and increased his hits up the middle % to 43.1% (35% in 2020). He has done all this without sacrificing any power. He improved his ISO from .199 to .225 so far this season and he has increased his home run to fly ball ratio from 17.6% to 22.2%. Nothing better than having more plate discipline while also not losing any power.
All that being said his BABIP is at .370, which is pretty high compared to his career BABIP at .306, so there is room for regression. Currently, nearly a third of his plate appearances end in either a walk or a strikeout so once he does get more batted balls in play his BABIP should come down but I don’t expect the results to change. His xBA (.326) is not that far off from his actual BA of .338. Therefore, despite we are only about to finish the first month of the season, the lack of a gap between Vlad Jr.’s xBA and actual BA is a sign that what he is doing at the plate is not as fluky as it could seem. A higher walk rate, an increased line drive %, and a consistency of hitting the ball hard can only take Vlad Jr. to levels we haven’t seen before and we better get used to seeing him at the top of batting leaderboards should he keep it up.