Vladimir Guerrero Jr. makes his MLB debut on Friday for the Toronto Blue Jays, and this is why he’s the biggest thing to hit baseball in years.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is not your normal rookie.
For much of his professional baseball career, the 20-year-old Guerrero has been talked about not only as the future of the Toronto Blue Jays but as arguably the best prospect in a generation. Guerrero was ready for the Majors while still a teenager, but because of baseball’s arcane service time rules his much-anticipated debut was put on hold. That wait ends on Friday when Guerrero plays his first game for the Blue Jays against the Oakland Athletics at Rogers Centre.
It takes a special type of prospect to generate the kind of excitement that Guerrero does. The Blue Jays are opening their gates an hour early on Friday just so fans can watch him take batting practice. The game against Oakland will be broadcast across North America on the MLB Network. Ticket prices soared after manager Charlie Montoyo announced they were calling him up on Wednesday.
This is the promise of Guerrero, a player hyped as the savior of a franchise before he even puts on the uniform. But what makes him so special?
For one thing, it’s his power. When he was playing in Double-A New Hampshire in 2018 he hit a home run off the hotel beyond the left field fence, at least 470 feet from home plate. In the Arizona Fall League back in November he hit a double with an exit velocity of 117 m.p.h., a figure matched by only 15 MLB players in the Statcast era. Already this year he hit a ball clear out of McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, a home run measured at 441 feet. In his last game for Triple-A Buffalo on Wednesday, he went to the opposite field for a home run in Syracuse.
Then there is the ability to make contact with the ball. Guerrero hit over .400 in 61 games for New Hampshire last season and .381 across all levels. He’s hit .367 in eight games for Buffalo this season. For his minor league career, spanning 288 games since he was 17, he’s hitting .331 with a .945 OPS. To put that last number in perspective, Mike Trout, the best player in baseball, had a .942 OPS in the minor leagues. Bryce Harper had just a .917 OPS. Guerrero’s Hall of Fame father had a .992 OPS but never played a game in AAA.
His father built his career on the ability to expand the strike zone. The elder Guerrero once hit a ball that bounced in the dirt in front of home plate. The son, however, is not like his father. Guerrero Jr.’s plate discipline is advanced for a player his age. In 1,261 career plate appearances, he’s struck out only 139 times. He’s actually drawn a walk more times than he’s struck out.
For all his power, Guerrero isn’t just a dead-pull hitter. In AAA last season nearly a third of his hits went to the opposite field. Only six Major Leaguers had a higher percentage of hits the other way in 2018. Less than half of his hits go to left field.
The only question for Guerrero is what position he will play. He’ll begin his career as a third baseman, but his fielding isn’t great and he’s expected to either move to first or DH later in his career.
Guerrero is the type of prospect who comes around once in a generation. He’s already drawn comparisons to players such as Miguel Cabrera, Manny Ramirez, and even his father. It’s mighty expectations to put on the shoulders of someone who was a teenager just a month ago. On Friday, finally, the world will see what all the hype is about.