Look at the Toronto Blue Jays and it’s easy to both feel bad for them and be envious of them. They have been kicked out Canada — the Canadian government won’t allow them to play home games at Rogers Centre for COVID-19 reasons this year — and will have to play their home games at their Triple-A ballpark in Buffalo. The Blue Jays were also impacted by the Marlins outbreak and had to sit idle this past weekend because their series with the Phillies was postponed. I feel for them.

At the same time, the Blue Jays are loaded with young and exciting talent. Top pitching prospect Nate Pearson dazzled in his MLB debut last week and will toe the slab again Thursday. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez have quietly broken out as above-average outfielders, Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette form an impressive double-play combination, and it’s hard not to like Danny Jansen behind the plate. That young talent and the ability to spend money (see: Hyun-Jin Ryu) is an exciting combination.

The centerpiece of Toronto’s rebuild is, of course, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who shifted over to first base this season. The Hall of Famer’s son had an up-and-down MLB debut last season, hitting .272/.339/.433 with 15 home runs in 123 games as a rookie. Adjusted for ballpark, Vlad Jr. was roughly six percent better than league average offensively. That’s great for a 20-year-old but underwhelming for a prospect who was hailed as the next Miguel Cabrera.

Guerrero’s sophomore season has not started well. He is 7 for 32 (.219) through eight games and his batting average is that high only because he went 2 for 3 in a 10-1 loss to the Braves Tuesday night. Guerrero had two doubles and a walk in the game. It was only the ninth time in 131 career games that he had multiple extra-base hits and only the 47th time he reached base thrice. The two doubles were damn near identical: Guerrero yanked the ball down the third base line.

The first double was well-placed more than well-struck, though the second left Guerrero’s bat at 101.5 mph. That’s excellent contact and, in the early going, Vlad Jr. ranks among the league leaders in exit velocity. He’s in the 93rd percentile in average exit velocity (94.2 mph) and in the 90th percentile in hard-hit rate (52.0 percent). We saw glimpses of this last year — Guerrero had the second hardest hit ball in baseball last season (118.9 mph single) — and the kid has very real power.

The problem: Vlad Jr. keeps hitting the ball on the ground. The two doubles Tuesday night were grounders down the line, and thus far 18 of his 25 batted balls this season have been on the ground. His 71.0 percent ground ball rate is fifth highest in baseball and his average 4.0-degree launch angle is impossibly low. That’s slap-hitting speedster territory (Jarrod Dyson is at 5.2 degrees, for example). Guerrero’s career spray chart is not one of a power hitter:

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has had trouble getting the ball airborne as a big leaguer.
Baseball Savant

For reference, the ideal launch angle is in the 10-30 degree range, and elite power hitters like Mike Trout and Aaron Judge have posted ground ball rates in the 30-40 percent range the last few years. Some, like Joey Gallo, are in the 25-30 percent ground ball rate range. There are exceptions to the rule — Christian Yelich has a 48.1 percent ground ball rate since 2018 — but Guerrero does not look like one of them so far.

Just to drive home the point that it’s important to get the ball airborne, here are the MLB averages on the different batted ball types since Opening Day 2019. Ground balls don’t help the cause much. Line drives and fly balls are where it’s at:

Ground balls

.241

.264

Line drives

.632

.939

Fly balls

.303

.970

Last season Guerrero had a 49.6 percent ground ball rate and a 6.7-degree average launch angle. Those numbers are too low for a player with his natural strength and power, so what he’s doing early this season is really concerning. It’s still early, yes, and this has already been a weird season for the Blue Jays, but Vlad Jr. sought to improve his launch angle in spring training, and it hasn’t happened. Here’s what he told MLB.com’s Keegan Matheson in February:

[Manager Charlie] Montoyo joked earlier in camp that he’ll have Guerrero doing pushups any time he hits a ground ball in batting practice, and the topic is clearly on the hitter’s mind, too.

“I’ve been working with [hitting coach Guillermo Martinez] a lot on the launch angle,” Guerrero said. “Last year, there were a lot of balls that hit at the wall. This year, hopefully, I’ll put them in the air so they go out.”

Montoyo recently said he hoped the weekend break would give Guerrero a “chance to regroup” and get out of his early season funk and, hey, maybe it worked. He did have a big game Tuesday night. That said, Guerrero’s at-bats were more of the same. He got center-cut pitches from Max Fried and Darren O’Day, and rather than drive them with authority in the air, he pulled them on the ground. It just so happened they were beyond the reach of the third baseman.

Every once in a while Vlad Jr. really gets into a pitch and reminds us why he was such a highly regarded prospect, and why it’s still easy to dream on a young player who can do this to a baseball:

The raw ability is there. Guerrero hits the ball extremely hard and he’s posted solid chase (29.3 percent) and in-zone swing (67.7 percent) rates that are right in line with the MLB averages (28.9 percent and 65.5 percent in 2019, respectively). He hasn’t been ultra-disciplined but he hasn’t been a total hacker who swings at everything either. The plate discipline and the natural power points to greater upside than the raw stat line would lead you to believe.

Because Vlad Jr. was so hyped, and because we see young kids like Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr. come up and dominate right away, it can be easy to forget development is not linear. There are often bumps in the road and sometimes players need time to find their way at the MLB level. Javier Baez debuted in 2014 and didn’t break out as a star until 2018. Rafael Devers underwhelmed in 2017 and 2018 before it clicked in 2019. Yoan Moncada figured things out in his third MLB season. It can take time.

With Guerrero, there is an obvious flaw to correct. He’s hitting the ball on the ground way too often to fully tap into his power and offensive potential. Adjusting your swing to get the ball airborne more often is not easy but it can be done. There’s little chance the current ground ball-heavy version of Vlad Jr. can reach the heights projected for him during his prospect days. Figuring out how to elevate the ball is the single biggest development goal moving forward.

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