Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will make his MLB debut Friday. (Christopher Dolan/The Citizens' Voice via AP)

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The sound when a baseball hit Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s 34-inch, 32-ounce Louisville Slugger C243 was raw and pure, a loud, true crack. When he stepped to the plate for batting practice here Monday afternoon, that sound preceded balls flying to all parts of the diamond — starting, as always, with the opposite field.

In a batting cage underneath the main seating bowl, baseball’s top prospect employed a different approach. He focused on one-hand drills, mostly his top hand, and maintained a steeper swing than the one he applies during games. His massive power is what people associate with him, but it’s this methodical, contact-driven approach that has made him a generational prospect.

“Not always very appealing,” Buffalo Bisons hitting coach Corey Hart said of the cage work, which appears vanilla upon inspection. “It’s like, this is the guy everybody’s talking about? Then he gets on the field.”

The field is where Guerrero makes hitting look fun. It’s where he has mishit home runs. It’s where, on Monday, he hit what Hart described as “a two-iron with backspin” into the wind, over the fence and off the top of the batter’s eye in center field. But for a guy who spends little time fine-tuning his mechanics, the roughly 20 cage swings he takes before games — prioritizing contact — may paint a more accurate picture of the major league hitter he could become.

Guerrero, 20, will make his long-awaited debut with the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday night. Toronto kept him in the minors to start the season, delaying his free agency by a full year. Soon the third baseman will arrive in the majors with his wide smile and big swing. In an era of launch angles, exit velocities and other advanced metrics, he hits with authority and power, yet he fanned only 38 times last season in a time of climbing strikeouts across baseball.

Along with his high bat speed, his ability to distinguish between balls and strikes separates him. He hit .381 last season with 20 homers, leading the minors in slugging percentage (.636) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.073). This season at Class AAA Buffalo, he was hitting .367 with three home runs and eight RBI as of Thursday morning. And yet, entering this season, his rate of 0.54 home runs for every strikeout at Class AA and AAA was nearly four times more than that of Mike Trout, five times the rate of Bryce Harper and three times that of 2018 National League rookie of the year Ronald Acuna when they played at those levels.

Guerrero’s coaches and teammates point to a number of factors that make him an elite hitter who rarely goes down on strikes. He has made few, if any, visible changes to his swing since he signed for $3.9 million in 2015 at age 16. He is largely not susceptible to off-speed pitches, and he rarely gets beat by fastballs. John Schneider, his manager at Class AA New Hampshire last year, said Guerrero hit more than one 100-mph batted ball per game.

“If you try to go in and it’s middle of the plate, you’re in trouble,” Schneider said. “I’ve seen pitchers throwing 95 to 98 just throw him breaking balls. I’ve also seen him face upper-90s, and he’s in there sitting on a slider because he knows that’s what he’s going to see. He has this unique ability to make adjustments pitch-to-pitch.”

His father won the 2004 American League MVP and was inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer. He was a good bad-ball hitter, capable of making solid contact even with pitches well outside the strike zone. Guerrero Jr. possesses a similar explosiveness and barrel control, though he keeps a more refined strike zone. He swings at only 16 percent of pitches out of the zone, according to his hitting coach, Hart, who noted that he has swung and missed only twice this season.


The elder Vladimir Guerrero was known for his powerful swing and ability to crush balls thrown well outside the strike zone. (David Zalubowski, File)

To get him out, pitchers have tried to go hard inside. They probably will continue that, his coaches said, and attempt to keep him from extending his arms, given his power to the middle of the field is so striking. He’s powerful enough to hit a home run to right field — off a batting tee. Once, during batting practice last year, Schneider made a bet with the young star, then all of 19 years old: If he hit five straight home runs to right, Schneider would give him a dollar.

“That time, he hit the first one out to center, the next four out to right,” Schneider said, noting that he kept his dollar. "Nope. The first one didn’t count.”

Schneider illustrates a point that helps explain why Guerrero’s hitting approach has been so effective and why he has rarely whiffed: His swing, from start to finish, is repetitive. For years, he has begun each at-bat the same way, by tapping the plate with his bat. He moves his weight to his back side as he prepares for his toe tap. He gets his front foot down early, usually when the ball is about halfway to home plate, “like he’s dancing with the pitcher,” Schneider said. He dives into his front leg, rotates and throws his hands into the slot. His back foot comes off the ground, almost always, a split-second before contact.

In all, Guerrero says he doesn’t focus much on the science or his methods. He tries to stay loose and let his hands fly to the ball, through contact. Before that, in the small window a hitter has, he recognizes pitches early because he has virtually no head movement. Buffalo’s manager, former New York Yankees shortstop Bobby Meacham, thinks a 95-mph fastball to most hitters looks more like 90 to Guerrero.

“His eyes work really well,” Meacham said. “He seemingly has more time than everybody else because of the speed of his bat.”

There’s another reason he strikes out so rarely. He likes to pounce on the first strike. Coaches say he has a tendency to try to do too much on the first pitch, which results in foul balls or outs. But mostly he keeps it simple with a swing that is fluid and effortless and a follow-through that looks pretty. Maybe nobody has bothered tweaking the mechanics of his swing, but there has been no need.

“He has this crazy ability to be really aggressive in the strike zone but at the same time not swing at any pitch out of the zone,” Blue Jays shortstop prospect Bo Bichette said in March. “If it’s in the zone he’s going to take a hack. A lot of time you’ll see a guy who walks a lot, they take pitches in the zone. They take strikes. He doesn’t take strikes. But he also doesn’t swing at anything outside of the zone.”

Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.

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