The playbook has not adjusted, and it might well once his offense picks up.
It’s not uncommon at all for future star players to struggle in their first lick of the big leagues. Mike Trout, the greatest example of future star players, hit just .220/.281/.390 in his first 40 games. Aaron Judge hit .179/.263/.345 with a 44.2% K-rate in his first 27.
Vlad Guerrero Jr.’s future could be like either of those players, or the lower probability outcome is that he settles in as a ho-hum regular player, not like big league teams aren’t hungry for those either. So, it’s fair to say that it’s just a slight disappointment that Guerrero is hitting at a 98 wRC+ clip over the first 49 games of his young career.
Let’s start with what he’s done right, and that’s a lot. For one, his exit velocity numbers are nearly off the chart and likely do not lie in how much raw power and hit tool ability he actually has. He has recorded a hard hit ball 43.6% of the time, and his exit velocity sits in the 77th percentile. He has a .404 xwOBA on contact, and he’s had barrels on 9.4% of balls.
Put that all together and add a little bit of experience and that’s a middle-of-the-order bat who can hit—easily—30 home runs per year. Yet he’s still had some struggles. One of the keys to this has been a 115 GB%+, meaning he is getting the normal lift he needs to hit home runs and extra base hits. Pitchers have generally attacked him low-and-away the whole time this year:
This, intuitively, makes a lot of sense. Pitchers need to make Guerrero think balls will be over the lower third, and then they dip right below, something that works incredibly well with two strikes. This, though, does not agree with where Guerrero has actually done the most damage:
It now looks incredibly counter-intuitive to pitch Guerrero around the exact area where he’s had the most, albeit limited, success. According to Statcast, Guerrero has an average exit velocity of 101.9 mph on pitches on the middle, lower-third of the strike zone, while just 73 mph up-and-in.
This brings up two possibilities. One is that teams are smarter than me (likely true), and they know that if they leave breaking stuff up in the zone, he will eventually hit it. The other possibility is that this is the wrong strategy and once he lays off pitches outside the zone, groundball-inclined pitchers are toast.
We’ve seen this trend with Trout, who I’ll go back to again. The first couple few of his historic career featured a major weakness in the high fastball, and it took him until 2015 to fix it. If they had exploited it more often, maybe some of his career numbers earlier on would have been shaved down.
Which is all to say that I don’t think Guerrero is incapable of fixing that hole in his game, but it’s certainly puzzling that pitchers altogether ignore it. It’s also even more puzzling that he has received 54.8% fastballs during his brief time; I get unfamiliarity, but the point is that if the strategy is to attack him low in the zone, then using majority fastballs makes little sense in the aggregate.
The prescription should be a similar amount of fastballs, but higher and higher in the zone to test his abilities. If he fixes it like Trout, make him struggle through it first, at least. I expect Guerrero to have a long, successful, and illustrious career, and I fully expect pitchers to treat him like that, as well.