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Appreciating the free-swinging excellence of Vlad Guerrero

Sep 17, 2013, 11:55 AM EDT

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Not too long ago, I was working on a project that (sadly) never quite got off the ground — it was a project to explore why we still love sports. Here we are surrounded by the horror of concussions and NCAA hypocrisy and PED use and countless other unsavory things … but we still love the games. In a weird way, we love the games now more than we ever did.

In the book, I was going to write an entire chapter about a Vladimir Guerrero at-bat.

In my lifetime, there have been certain athletes who were just FUN to watch. Now, I’m not referring to how good they were or how valuable they were … simply how much joy they gave us. Some of the all-time greats were great fun, of course: Magic Johnson was fun, Barry Sanders of course, Muhammad Ali. Pistol Pete Maravich.

But there are some others too who weren’t all-time greats. The Cleveland Browns used to have this amazing kick returner named Eric Metcalf (son of the great Terry Metcalf) — he was widely viewed as a massive disappointment because he could never quite translate his punt returning genius to his life as a running back or a receiver. But, MAN was he fun — anytime he touched the ball, he might just do something that would blow your mind. Actually quite a few punt returners were like that. White Shoes Johnson was like that. Dante Hall was like that. Devin Hester.

Dwight Gooden was amazing fun in the early days. The strikeout pitchers are always fun. Jim Zorn was fun — scrambling quarterbacks are wonderful. These days: Bubba Watson is fun. Joe Flacco is oddly fun*. Victor Cruz is fun. Andrelton Simmons is fun — great defensive shortstop are fantastic. Lionel Messi. Man, nobody’s as much fun as Steph Curry — you can’t watch him play basketball without, at some point, just breaking out in a big smile.

*Flacco is fun because his arm is just RIDICULOUS — if I could throw a football as hard or as far as Joe Flacco, I would overthrow receivers by 40 yards again and again just to entertain myself. Maybe that’s why he does it.

In my lifetime, I think that there was nothing in sports more fun than watching Vlad Guerrero hit a baseball. He was one-of-a-kind. He grew up in the Dominican Republic, and when he signed with the Montreal Expos he was this big (6-foot-3), strong, fast, power-armed force of nature. I’ve heard people compare Yasiel Puig to him, and that’s not a bad comparison — but if anything Vlady was even more unbridled and absurd.

From his first day in pro baseball, you could not throw a baseball by Vlady — no matter how fast or slow, no matter how high or low, how far outside or inside. If you bounced a pitch in front of the plate, he might hit it. If you threw it over his head, he might hit it. He would definitely try.

There have been bad-ball hitters before, of course. Clemente was a famous bad ball hitter. Yogi was a famous bad ball hitter. Manny Sanguillen proudly would swing at anything. But there was something wonderful about Vlady’s free swinging. Every at bat, it was like he was just trying to prove a point. From 2007 to 2011, by the Fangraphs numbers, Vlad Guerrero swung at more than FORTY-FIVE PERCENT of the pitches out of the strike zone.

Think about that for a second. He basically swung at HALF the pitches that were not strikes. Of course, other players swing at bad pitches — and there’s not a thing fun about that when you’re talking about Jeff Francoeur. What’s fun about Guerrero is that even from 2007 to 2011 — though Guerrero was aged and beat up and no longer the hitting genius he had been as a young man — he STILL hit .303 and slugged .490.

Every at-bat of his was not just a battle with the pitcher but with geometry. Five feet outside? He’d reach. In the dirt? He’d golf. Behind him? He’d switch-hit. Close your eyes, you can just see the ridiculous movements Vlady would make just to hit a baseball. Man did he love hitting baseballs. His eyes just lit up when he was at the plate.

Of course, pitchers KNEW he would swing at just about anything. And yet, for 16 years, they never could find that place outside his hitting zone. They never figured out how to take advantage of his non-selective ways. Guerrero led the league in intentional walks five times, and I don’t think it was only because of his great hitting. I think it was also because pitchers didn’t know how else to walk him.

At 23, Guerrero played his first full season and hit .324 with 38 homers, 37 doubles, 9 triples. Everything he did was BIG. He made big plays. He made big mistakes. He swung big. He missed big. Guerrero flashed one of the great arms you’ve ever seen — Jonah Keri brings up the excellent point that Montreal, for a team that only played 36 seasons, had some spectacular outfield arms in its history. Guerrero’s arm was ridiculous. Larry Walker’s arm was fantastic. Andre Dawson had a breathtaking arm. And, most of all, there was Ellis Valentine. What an arm that guy had.

But while Guerrero’s arm was strong, he rarely had any idea where it was going. The guy airmailed so many cutoff men that at some point you just wanted him to get it over with and wear an American Postal Service uniform. He stole bases — as many as 40 in a season — but he got thrown out a lot (the year he stole 40 he led the league by being caught 20 times). He was fast and reckless on the bases, often hurting his team as much as he helped them.

And at the plate … just, wow. He would swing at anything and he would swing with crazy ferocity. And yet, against all logic, he didn’t strike out much. He never struck out 100 times in a season and only came close once. Eleven times, Vlady hit 25-plus homers while striking out fewer than 90 times. Since the strike — when strikeouts began to skyrocket — only Albert Pujols has pulled off that feat as often.

How did he do it? Well, for Vlady, it was simple math. He had three strikes to hit the baseball. And so he simply crushed the first thing he saw. In his career, he put about 20% of the first pitches he faced into play. He was the quintessential first ball fastball hitter. If it looked kind of straight, and looked within his reach (and weren’t they ALL within his reach), he swung at that first pitch.*

*Here’s a fun little statistic on Guerrero: On 3-1 counts, he hit .417. If he had a pitcher down 3-1, forced to throw something resembling a strike, Guerrero was extra-lethal. But, truth is, he hardly ever faced a 3-1 count. He hit a 3-1 pitch in play less than 4% of the time. The at-bat was usually long over before a 3-1 count was possible.

Pitchers all knew this. They studied him. They game planned him. They were told, again and again, “don’t give him anything good to hit on the first pitch.” But that’s part of what made Guerrero so fun. His idea of “good” was different from everyone else’s idea of good. On the first pitch, he hit .363 and slugged.660. The guy would swing at anything. The guy would swing at pitches in OTHER GAMES. And still pitchers could not throw a first pitch bad enough to hold him off.

Guerrero hit .324 that first full year. Then .317. Then .345. Then .307. Then .336. Then .330. Then .337. Batting average isn’t much of a statistic for determining the overall offensive contribution of a player, but in Guerrero’s case those batting averages are little markers of his artistry. Everything about him was moving parts, legs flying all over the place, heavy slides, overthrows, aggression, vicious swings, joyous intensity, but at the end of the year it always ended same. He hit the ball harder than just about anyone ever. And he always hit around .330.

He burned out pretty young, which figures when you look at the way he played baseball. He got his last big league at-bat at 36 — by then he was just an oversized version of the oversized player he had always been. He still hit .290. But the power was gone. And he was walked unintentionally just 14 times in 590 plate appearances. The superhuman reflexes necessary to do the impossible things Vlady did had dulled just enough. He tried in various ways to get back, but he could not.

In the aftermath of his retirement, he has been coupled with his contemporary Todd Helton, who also retired. It’s kind of weird. They were absolutely nothing alike. But by the numbers, their careers mirrored almost exactly. Helton hit .317. Guerrero hit .318. Helton had 2,505 hits. Guerrero had 2,590. Helton had 2,791 runs-plus-RBIs. Guerrero had 2,824. Helton had 61.2 WAR. Guerrero had 59.1 WAR. You could make a strong Hall of Fame case for both.

But the Hall of Fame talk feels like something for another time. For now, I want to remember Guerrero walking to the the plate, the pitcher sweating, the crowd ready to see something awesome. He wore no batting gloves. Then Guerrero would stand there, his body surprisingly upright, his bat high over his shoulder and waving back and forth, and you could just tell he was itching to swing at something, anything that came his way — moths, popcorn, air molecules — and then the pitch would come, and if it was anywhere close, anywhere in the stadium, he would lift that left leg, and turn his back toward the pitcher, and he would swing with purpose, and he would keep both hands on the bat all the way through the swing and — as often as anyone of his generation — he would crush the ball. It was so much fun. Somewhere in all of it, I think, is why we keep watching.

  1. asimonetti88 - Sep 17, 2013 at 12:10 PM

    Definintely one of my favorite Angels of all time, and he was a ton of fun to watch. He was a big play kind of guy, go hard or go home. The Angels could use a player like him nowadays.

  2. franklb - Sep 17, 2013 at 12:23 PM

    Unequivocally one of my favorite ballplayers in my lifetime. As an A’s fan, no one scared me as much, or was as much fun to watch at the plate, as Vlad the Impaler. (By the way – that has to be near the top of the list for all-time best ballplayer nicknames, even if Chris Berman did use it.)

  3. georgewashingtonsghost - Sep 17, 2013 at 12:51 PM

    Very nice post. Fun to read and picture Vlad (in an Expos jersey) doing what he did best.

    • cur68 - Sep 17, 2013 at 3:29 PM

      He was among my favourite Expos. A huge smile, even bigger strike zone, and exciting on the bases. I miss him and his old team.

      • Shayna - Sep 17, 2013 at 10:34 PM

        Great article about a great hitter. But I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Vlad’s anatomy. His arms seemed to extend below his knees; no wonder he could get a bat on pitches a foot outside the strike zone. Watching him torque a bat around at the end of those long arms was a study in the physics of force as well as a pleasure. His messy style may keep him out of the HOF but he’d have my vote in a heartbeat.

  4. imnotyourbuddyguy - Sep 17, 2013 at 12:59 PM

    Could have been the greatest cricket player ever

  5. imnotyourbuddyguy - Sep 17, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    Vlad’s 1st HR, a sign of things to come

  6. Chris K - Sep 17, 2013 at 1:09 PM

    Love these Poz posts. Hope to see more! Great article!

  7. weaselpuppy - Sep 17, 2013 at 1:10 PM

    One more bad ball hitter- Mickey Rivers, whose strike zone was also known better as ‘The Bronx”.

    I saw Vlad hit a ball off the outfield wall that actually bounced in front of the plate. Still think I dreamed that. Absolutely absurd. Boy, he was fun to watch. That his numbers are that close to Helton is weird, maybe even weirder than the Trammell/Whitaker career stat sympatico….

  8. cadillacjosh - Sep 17, 2013 at 1:13 PM

    Vlad was my favorite baseball player. He was the kind of guy that made you thimk, “If I just played hard like him I could make it.” Of course in my young mind I over-looked the speed, missile arm, and the ridiculous amount of hand-eye coordination it took to hit some of those famous pitches. But for a while, I just wanted to be Vlad.

    I remember people talking about how Vlad in baseball video games was incomplete because he couldn’t hit bad pitches. I wanna say MLB The Show even responded to it because it created such a stir on their message boards.

    What a legacy to leave behind, a HOF career and a demand that a video game alter their physics engine

  9. brockw82 - Sep 17, 2013 at 1:15 PM

    Awesome story – as an Upstate New Yorker who saw him during the early years, he appeared to be the second coming of Clemente. God how I miss the Expos, the constant young talent that they just couldn’t retain. Vlad was the best of them all, you wanted to see what he’d do next – damn you Jeff Loria and my condolences to Marlins fans.

  10. offseasonblues - Sep 17, 2013 at 1:37 PM

    That was FUN to read. Thanks, Joe.

  11. Alex K - Sep 17, 2013 at 2:07 PM

    I think Jonah Keri said it best:

    “Vlad never won anything in Montreal. No idea if he ever gets into the Hall. He was still the baddest motherfucker on Earth.”

  12. ravensfan8780 - Sep 17, 2013 at 2:12 PM

    I’ll still never forget when he hit a single back up the middle against my O’s when they were trying to intentional walk him

  13. psunick - Sep 17, 2013 at 2:54 PM

    Wonderful, Joe! You are by far the top writer on this site. More, please!!

  14. crackersnap - Sep 17, 2013 at 3:52 PM

    If you were ever going to write about one at-bat of the greatness of Vlad Guerrero, it would have to be Vlad’s first time to the plate on June 2, 2004 against Pedro Martinez. A beautiful Wednesday afternoon day game.

    This was the tail end of Pedro’s prime, but he was still a dominating force on the mound. Vlad would go on to win MVP that season but, let’s be honest, his monster years with the Expos were in his rear view mirror. So neither were at their peak, but both were still far, far better at their respective crafts than the vast majority of the other erstwhile elite baseball athletes.

    Vlad comes up with one out and one runner on in a game still tied at 0-0 in the bottom of the first. Pedro offers up 5 pitches, all garbage, and Vlad keeps hacking away. It’s 1 ball and 2 strikes and not going anywhere, so Pedro puts one towards the general area code of home plate. My memory might be foggy but I could swear he threw it well in the dirt and well away. Kind of like, “look, fool, stop swinging at everything and take a damned pitch!”. But it was still close enough for Big Vlad and his massive wingspan to reach. He reached out with another of his patented muscular flails and launched it over the fence for an early 2-run lead. Pedro just turned his back to the plate and strolled off the mound, smiling and shaking his head in disbelief. He knew that he had done everything legal to try and exploit the happy free-swinging Guerrero, and still he got burned.

    Vlad would go on to drive in 9 total runs that game as the Angels would best the Red Sox 10-7. He started hot, he stayed hot, he ended hot. He was 4 for 4 with 2 home runs, a double, and a sac fly. And it all started with that initial proclamation in the very first inning that, nope, on this day Vlad would have his way.

  15. crackersnap - Sep 17, 2013 at 4:12 PM

    P.S. – Vlad Guerrero and Todd Helton??? Helton played his whole career homed out of Coors Field, where he played half his games yet collected 2/3′s of his HR’s, 3/4′s of his triples, and batted nearly 60 points higher. Away from Coors he was rather pedestrian.

    Meanwhile, look at Vlad’s career splits. He was a monster regardless of where he played, and that included both home and away, American League and National League. And that included Coors Field, where he outhit Helton there anyway.

    • cur68 - Sep 17, 2013 at 4:20 PM

      Yeah. Its like people never heard of “Park Effects” when they compare Helton to Vladdy. Colorado’s thin dry air gave Helton more apparent power and those years of dried out baseballs magnified that. Hypothetically, Vladdy’s career as a Rocky would have looked like Babe Ruth and Ricky Henderson rolled into one guy.

  16. jimatkins - Sep 17, 2013 at 4:26 PM

    Mentioned to my wife that Vladdy was finally retiring and she just said “He was so much fun to watch.” He was always doing something full-on crazy and amazing with the bat. What a player. Thanks for a great article, Joe.

  17. shaggylocks - Sep 17, 2013 at 4:31 PM

    I just spent 15 minutes scouring the Internets for a “Vlad’s best out-off-zone hits” compilation. Why does this video compilation not exist? Get on that, Internet!

  18. nbjays - Sep 17, 2013 at 5:51 PM

    Great read, Joe (as always)! Vlad was such a great bad ball hitter that if a pitch was in any way catchable by the catcher, it was hittable by Guerrero. Many pitchers found that out the hard way.

  19. markmckeeexp - Sep 17, 2013 at 9:14 PM

    Hey everyone, I just realized that reading Joe Posnanski’s columns is a lot like watching Vlad at bat. For my money, Joe Posnanski is the best sports writer on the planet right now. He’s brilliant, yet he applies his brilliance to the little important details, which allows him to be a genius, and at the same time, a regular Joe. It’s becoming ridiculous. If Joe writes it, it’s a good read. So few dependable things left in the 21st century. God bless you Joe, for having so much talent and having so much respect for the gentle reader’s valuable time. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right there.

  20. cubb1 - Sep 17, 2013 at 9:30 PM

    Vlad was one of the great hitters of this generation. It’s unfortunate that as a Dominican player during the 90′s/00′s, his numbers will always be under a cloud of steroid suspicion. I hope he gets into the HOF because he belongs there.

  21. buddypuddy - Sep 17, 2013 at 10:49 PM

    I saw Vlad throw a runner out at first once from right field. His arm was totally off the charts.

  22. jdvalk - Sep 17, 2013 at 11:08 PM

    The park effects on Vlad were his knees being ground to dust on the turf and concrete beneath at Olympic Stadium.

  23. simalex - Sep 18, 2013 at 4:30 AM

    I was at the last game @ olympic stadium and i remember watching him throw a runner out at home from either the warning track or deep right field, one on bounce, if that. i guess i didn’t think arms could actually do that.

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