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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.

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