So that the 22-year-old has somehow managed to make the world of Major League Baseball his own, managed to dominate it so fully that more than halfway through the 2021 season he is a legitimate Triple Crown contender on a team clinging to contention in the loaded American League East, says a great deal about just how good the Toronto Blue Jays first baseman has become.
Few players begin their professional baseball careers surrounded by questions that start with the word “when” instead of “if” — when will he be an all-star? When will he channel his uncommon power into a major league explosion? When will he be as good as his father? When will he be better?
Of those players endowed with impossible expectations from the start, even fewer are able to answer those questions by playing every single game, leading the majors in wins above replacement, and becoming the youngest-ever All-Star Game MVP in just their second major league season. Guerrero has hit 32 homers, second only to Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels. His on-base-plus-slugging is 1.107, best in the majors. His .329 average is among the best in the American League.
“This is who he is. It’s not that he’s hot,” Blue Jays hitting coach Guillermo Martinez said. “This is who he is.”
By the time Guerrero suited up as an American League all-star for the first time earlier this month, he looked right at home. If most first-time all-stars soak up the scene, Guerrero seemed determined to join in, as if he were the main attraction — not a rookie happy to be there, but a full-fledged star who couldn’t help but find himself at the center of it all.
This time, he didn’t feel the need to participate in the Home Run Derby. If he had anything to prove there, he had long since done it. Two years ago, in 2019, he set the record for most home runs hit in a single round of the derby with 40, then obliterated the record for most home runs in a single derby with 91.
Guerrero, who lost to Pete Alonso of the New York Mets in the final, was just 20 years old then, a prospect with such pedigree and potential that even that epic Home Run Derby showing felt more like an affirmation than a surprise.
This time around, Guerrero seized the All-Star Game as his stage instead. He nearly decapitated Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer with a line drive on a ball low and away, a pitch Scherzer said later he worried Guerrero might be able to hit hard despite its location. Perhaps more telling than Scherzer noting that Guerrero might be able to handle even his best-located pitch was the fact that a day earlier, he had talked to Guerrero about doing damage.
“At the Home Run Derby, we had a conversation and he was just joking with me, he said, ‘Hey, take it easy with me tomorrow.’ That’s what he told me,” Guerrero said through an interpreter. “After the line drive, I just wanted to give him a hug.”
After Scherzer hit the ground and Guerrero was thrown out, the 22-year-old hustled directly to the mound and did just that, apologizing as if Scherzer were an old friend and not a future Hall of Famer 15 years his senior. In his next at-bat, Guerrero hit a 468-foot home run to deep left field.
“There will be a target on his back every night. The hype was there before, and now everybody is like, ‘okay, that’s what the hype is about,' ” veteran teammate Marcus Semien said. “They don’t want to be giving up home runs to Vladdy. They don’t want to be a part of those highlights.”
Guerrero’s power is unique not only in its expansiveness but also in its versatility. Of the 32 home runs the righty has hit this year, 11 have gone to left, 11 to center, and 10 to right. Of his 109 hits, 35 percent have gone to his pull side, 35 percent to center, and just more than 30 percent to right.
“Look at his swing path, he’s got one of the best swing paths in baseball. He’s able to wait on a fastball and hit a breaking ball really well. That’s something a lot of us fight with throughout the year,” Semien said, noting that Guerrero is direct to the ball. “It seems like he’s doing both at a high level. He hits the ball harder than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Baltimore Orioles pitching coach Darren Holmes remembers facing the elder Guerrero back in the day. He now has to game plan for the younger Guerrero, who he says is “a little more disciplined.”
“His undisciplined part is spin, so you can get him to swing at spin,” Holmes said. “But if you miss with a fastball, 90 percent of the time he’s going to make you pay for it.”
But he says that if pitchers have adjusted to him this season, he hasn’t really noticed. Instead, he has simply focused on swinging at pitches he can hit and not biting when pitchers try to entice him to do otherwise. In his first major league season, Guerrero’s walk rate was 9 percent. This year, it is nearly 14 percent, 12th highest in the majors.
“To be honest with you, I’m sure they’ve done adjustments to me, but I’m not worried about that. If I don’t get the pitches I’m looking for, I just have to trust my teammates behind me,” Guerrero said through an interpreter. “That’s the key for me this year, the patience.”
That patience, plus an offseason slimdown, has helped Guerrero emerge as a legitimate threat to become the first Triple Crown winner since 2012, when Miguel Cabrera did it. He has played in every one of the Blue Jays’ 92 games this season.
He has failed to reach base or drive in a run in just nine of them, a consistency Martinez said is the result of a maturing approach to Guerrero’s daily routine.
“It’s just making sure he knows what he’s doing each day and the reason why he’s doing it, making sure he’s practicing what he needs to do for the pitcher he’s facing that day,” Martinez said. Guerrero said the same, noting that consistency in his routine — getting to the park early every day, regardless of the situation, to work with his hitting coaches — has also helped create consistency on the field.
Guerrero is part of a wave of young Dominican-born players who seem ready to take over the sport with a more energetic brand of stardom, a group that also includes the trio Commissioner Rob Manfred and players’ union head Tony Clark anointed “the Juniors” during all-star week: Guerrero, Fernando Tatis Jr., and now-injured Ronald Acuña Jr., who is the oldest of the three at 23. Juan Soto, also 22, fits in that bunch, in terms of skill and early dominance, if not when it comes to the “Jr.” part.
Guerrero exudes the easy talent the group seems to bring, the ability not only to succeed regularly but seem to enjoy the succeeding — the willingness to throw a hug to a bristling veteran, or to FaceTime teammates from the all-star dugout. If a life loaded with expectations ever weighed on him, he doesn’t show it. If the question is now “how good can he be?,” no one seems quite sure how to answer it.
“I’m sitting here at 30, there’s a lot of things I learned from 22 to 30,” Semien said. “So I’m excited to see what he does.”