Appreciating the free-swinging excellence of Vlad Guerrero

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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.

The Phillies are trying out prospect J.P. Crawford at third base

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On Sunday, for the first time in his professional career, Phillies shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford started at third base. He picked up three hits in five at-bats, continuing his torrid pace. Since the start of July, he’s hitting .306/.397/.595 with 11 home runs, 28 RBI, 33 runs scored, and a 37/25 K/BB ratio in 199 plate appearances.

With September looming, the Phillies may be considering a promotion for Crawford. Shortstop, however, is currently taken by Freddy Galvis who has appeared in every game this season and has taken on a leadership role with the team. Meanwhile, third baseman Maikel Franco has been mired in a season-long slump as he’s carrying a devilish .666 OPS.

The Phillies haven’t been averse to trying their prospects out at new positions. Prior to his recent promotion, Rhys Hoskins had played only first base throughout his professional career, but the Phillies moved him to left field for a few games, then called him up to the majors. Hoskins has made nine starts in the outfield and two at first base in the majors thus far.

As MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki notes, the Phillies are also considering trying out second base prospect Scott Kingery at shortstop or third base before the end of the minor league season.

These aren’t long-term plans; it’s just a way for the Phillies to find meaningful playing time for their prospects and giving manager Pete Mackanin potential flexibility. Assistant GM Ned Rice said, “It benefits the player and benefits the team when more guys are able to play multiple positions. It just gives Pete [Mackanin] a lot more options at the big league level. The more guys we can bring up who have been exposed to different positions, the better.”

Players having great seasons under the radar

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Yesterday, I watched a myriad of defensive highlights from Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons (who also homered). Curious, I looked up his stats and found him among the leaders in Wins Above Replacement. And then I found a handful of other players having great seasons and realized I’ve hardly heard anything about them. Let this be my contribution towards raising them into the spotlight.

Andrelton Simmons (Angels): The 27-year-old is having the best offensive season of his career. He posted a .751 OPS in his rookie season, but that spanned only 49 games. From 2013-16, he had an aggregate .664 OPS. His defense never wavered, of course, which is why he kept getting regular playing time and why the Angels were eager to trade for him in November 2015. This season, however, he’s been a terrific hitter, batting .292/.345/.451 with 13 home runs, 57 RBI, 62 runs scored, and 17 stolen bases in 502 plate appearances. He’s four home runs away from matching a career-high. Simmons is 11th in baseball in FanGraphs’ version of WAR, heavily predicated on the valuation of his defense, but it’s not too outlandish for me to believe Simmons has added nearly two wins above replacement on defense alone. While Jose Altuve, Aaron Judge, and Mike Trout will fight for the lion’s share of AL MVP votes, Simmons could get some down ballot consideration.

Gio Gonzalez (Nationals): Gonzalez nearly threw a no-hitter earlier this season against the Marlins, which brought some eyeballs to his stat line. Still, he hasn’t been talked about much somehow. He’s 12-5 with a 2.39 ERA and a  150/62 K/BB ratio in 162 innings. It’s nothing new for Gonzalez, as he won 21 games with a 2.89 ERA en route to finishing third in Cy Young balloting in 2012. There’s also some reason to believe Gonzalez’s performance is in some part due to great fortune as his batting average on balls in play is about 50 points below league average and his rate of stranding runners on base is more than 11 percent higher than his career average. Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have had better seasons and will be the first and second place finishers in this year’s balloting, but Gonzalez is looking at likely finishing third again, which is no small feat.

Aaron Nola (Phillies): After a dismal June 16 start against the Diamondbacks, Nola stood with a disappointing 4.76 ERA. After the first two innings of last Thursday’s start against the Giants, he briefly brought it under 3.00. Currently, it’s at 3.26 along with a 128/38 K/BB ratio in 124 1/3 innings. Since that June 16 start, he’s made 11 starts with a composite 2.21 ERA across 73 1/3 innings. The right-hander out of LSU showed promise in his rookie year in 2015, then struggled last year before succumbing to injury. Finally, it’s appearing that Nola is showing the promise the Phillies believed in when they took him in the first round (seventh overall) in the 2014 draft. Perhaps more importantly, he looks like a pitcher the Phillies can build around. If there’s one thing the Phillies have lacked since trading Cole Hamels, it’s a starter capable of throwing seven or eight innings and holding the opposition to one or two runs.

Chris Taylor (Dodgers): On a team that features Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Alex Wood, and recently added Yu Darvish, it’s understandable that Taylor would slip under the radar. He’s played five different positions this season — left field, second base, center field, third base, and shortstop — while batting .311/.383/.549 with 17 home runs, 58 RBI, 69 runs scored, and 14 stolen bases in 413 plate appearances. He’s played average to above-average defense at most of those positions, which is why his 4.6 fWAR ranks 13th in baseball and 10th in the National League. Before the Dodgers acquired him from the Mariners last June in a very little talked about trade, Taylor had been a weak-hitting utilityman. Now, he’s the starting center fielder for baseball’s best team.

Felipe Rivero (Pirates): The Pirates acquired Rivero from the Nationals last year in the Mark Melancon trade. It worked out well for the Buccos. Though the club sits at a disappointing 60-64 in fourth place in the NL Central, Rivero has been a bright spot, owning a major league best 1.31 ERA with 14 saves and a 73/16 K/BB ratio in 61 2/3 innings. The lefty took over the closer’s role when Tony Watson began to struggle in the first half. While Rivero has been terrific against right-handed hitters, limiting them to a .547 OPS, he’s been death to lefties (.227 OPS). After the season, Rivero will be eligible for arbitration for the first of four years, so it wouldn’t be shocking if he got traded at some point, but for now, they’ll enjoy his outstanding 2017 campaign.