vlad getty

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.

Cubs expected to host an All-Star Game in the near future

A general view of Wrigley Field and the newly renovated bleachers during the second inning of a baseball game between the the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds Thursday, June 11, 2015,  in Chicago. Chicago won 6-3. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
AP Photo/Paul Beaty
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The 2016-18 All-Star Games are spoken for, but the Cubs could play host not long thereafter according to commissioner Rob Manfred, Bruce Levine of CBS Chicago reports.

The Padres are hosting at Petco Park this year, the Marlins will host at Marlins Park next season, and the Nationals will host in 2018 at Nationals Park. That will make four consecutive National League hosts and five if the Cubs get it in 2019. In the past, the National and American Leagues have alternated hosting privileges. That is sort of important now since the league that wins the All-Star Game gets home field advantage in the World Series.

The Cubs last hosted the All-Star Game in 1990 and have hosted a total of three times (1962 and 1947 being the other years) since its inception in 1933.

Wrigley Field has been undergoing renovations which are expected to be completed by the 2019 season. Manfred said that the Cubs hosting the All-Star Game “will provide the Cubs and Ricketts family a chance to showcase the unbelievable renovation they are in the midst of doing for Wrigley field.”

Update: Here’s a table showing the last time each team hosted the All-Star Game.

Team Park Last Hosted Yrs Since Notes
Dodgers Dodger Stadum 1980 35
Nationals Olympic Stadium (Expos) 1982 33 2018 host
Athletics Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum 1987 28
Cubs Wrigley Field 1990 25
Blue Jays SkyDome 1991 24
Padres Jack Murphy Stadium 1992 23 2016 host
Orioles Oriole Park at Camden Yards 1993 22
Rangers The Ballpark in Arlington 1995 20
Phillies Veterans Stadium 1996 19
Indians Jacobs Field 1997 18
Rockies Coors Field 1998 17
Red Sox Fenway Park 1999 16
Braves Turner Field 2000 15
Mariners Safeco Field 2001 14
Brewers Miller Park 2002 13
White Sox U.S. Cellular Field 2003 12
Astros Minute Maid Park 2004 11
Tigers Comerica Park 2005 10
Pirates PNC Park 2006 9
Giants AT&T Park 2007 8
Yankees Yankee Stadium 2008 7
Cardinals Busch Stadium 2009 6
Angels Angels Stadium of Anaheim 2010 5
D’Backs Chase Field 2011 4
Royals Kauffman Stadium 2012 3
Mets Citi Field 2013 2
Twins Target Field 2014 1
Reds Great American Ball Park 2015 0
Marlins Never Hosted 2017 host
Rays Never Hosted

Kyle Hendricks and Adam Warren will compete for No. 5 spot in Cubs’ rotation

Chicago Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks throws during the first inning of Game 3 of the National League baseball championship series against the New York Mets Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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Expect Kyle Hendricks and Adam Warren to battle it out for the fifth spot in the Cubs’ starting rotation this spring, writes Gordon Wittenmyer for the Chicago Sun-Times. Clayton Richard could serve as a fallback option as well.

Hendricks, 26, pitched well in his first full season in 2015. He finished with a 3.95 ERA and a 167/43 K/BB ratio over 180 innings. That was a solid follow-up to his rookie campaign in 2014, when he posted a 2.46 ERA over 13 starts.

The Cubs acquired Warren, 28, from the Yankees in the Starlin Castro trade. He contributed both out of the rotation and the bullpen in the Bronx this past season, pitching 131 1/3 innings with a 3.29 ERA and a 104/39 K/BB ratio.

One through four, the Cubs’ rotation is solid with defending National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Jason Hammel.

Mets GM Sandy Alderson plans to limit David Wright to 130 or fewer games

David Wright
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Mets third baseman David Wright missed four months of the 2015 season due to spinal stenosis. In other words, Wright dealt with a narrowing of his spinal column. Going forward, the Mets plan to be cautious with Wright so as not to overuse him.

As ESPN’s Adam Rubin reports, Mets GM Sandy Alderson plans to have the 33-year-old Wright play in no more than 130 games. Alderson said, “We’re gonna make sure that he’s not overworked. So it’s important for us to find somebody who can play 30 games or so at third base when he’s not in there. But I think we have to be realistic, and not expect that he’s gonna be an absolute everyday [player] out there playing 150 or 155 games. That’s not gonna happen.”

Wilmer Flores played 26 games at third base in his rookie season in 2013, so he could back up Wright as needed. But Alderson mentioned that because Wright would mostly sit against right-handed pitchers, the switch-hitting Neil Walker or Asdrubal Cabrera could get the call at the hot corner.

When he was on the field last season, Wright hit a productive .289/.379/.434 with five home runs and 17 RBI in 174 plate appearances.

Marlins still searching for starting pitching depth

Aaron Harang
AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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The Marlins would like to add “another pitcher or two” before pitchers and catchers report to Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro writes. Among starting pitchers available, Kyle Lohse, Aaron Harang, and Alfredo Simon are candidates for the Marlins, but they may hold out for the possibility of inking a major league contract. Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee are other potential candidates, per Frisaro.

This offseason, the Marlins signed Wei-Yin Chen to a five-year, $80 million deal and Edwin Jackson for the major league minimum. The back of the rotation, though, is still a question mark as Jarred Cosart, Adam Conley, and Justin Nicolino will compete with Jackson for two spots. David Phelps is dealing with an elbow injury and may or not be ready by Opening Day, but he could function in a swingman capacity as well.