Guillermo Martínez had been thinking it for a while, so about a month ago he just came out and said it: Man, you’re way too good for this! Stop thinking so much. Just start thinking about hitting the ball hard.
That alone probably did not turn around Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s season. But it seems to have helped.
Perhaps the most remarkable element of the Blue Jays’ playoff push this year is that they’ve largely made it without their most talented player. Two years ago, at 22, Guerrero finished second in American League Most Valuable Player Award voting by slugging .601 with a 1.002 OPS, and he showed flashes of that player last year. But over his first 120 games this season, he was slugging .432, the worst mark of his career. Since then, that figure is .496; since Sept. 14, it’s .677. It’s come at the right time for his team: Over the last two weeks, Toronto has gone 7–4 to climb from a game out of the playoffs to tied with the Astros, a game and a half up on the Mariners, for the last two wild card slots.
“When his timing is better, he swings at better pitches,” says manager John Schneider. “He's got kind of a lot going on with the toe tap and everything, and when he's in sync, he just sees the ball better. And then when he sees the ball, he's gonna do damage.”
Through a team spokesman, Guerrero, 24, declined to make himself available for an interview, but Martínez, the hitting coach, and Schneider say they have seen their slugger begin to relax in the last month.
“I’d rather him be like that and be nonchalant about it, because that’s how you succeed, versus ‘I know I need to do this, I know I need to do that,’ creating anxiety,” Martínez says. “This game feeds on anxiety. So he’s in a good mindset right now. He’s gonna be good. He’s gonna finish strong, and he’s gonna come back year in better shape, everything.”
Martínez added that he did not believe Guerrero was unprepared to begin the season; indeed, he slugged .528 through the first six weeks. But at the time, Martínez believed the production was empty, more a factor of luck than of a good process. “It wasn’t like 2021,” Martínez says. “It wasn’t him. And then little by little, it started catching up with him.”
And when the fall came, it was precipitous. From mid-May to mid-August—a span of 81 games, or half a season—Guerrero hit .239 with 11 home runs and a .390 slugging percentage. His .706 OPS in that stretch would have ranked him No. 109 of the 128 qualified hitters this season.
They watched video and realized Guerrero had been dropping his hands before his swing. He could feel the problem but could not seem to solve it; he couldn’t get comfortable with his hands in the high position that usually produces so much success.
All season, they have been doing drills to adjust Guerrero’s hand height. Martínez, grinning, declines to be too specific but acknowledges that they focus on the inner half of the plate. “If it’s easy for him, we’re in a good position, because it’s not supposed to be easy,” he says.
And then, a few weeks ago, Guerrero looked good enough that Martínez decided to drop the mechanical discussion entirely and remind him to focus just on hitting the ball hard.
“He’s working hard,” Martínez says. “He cannot work that hard and then go back out there and be thinking about all these other things.”
The rest of the world saw the change when Guerrero started looking like himself again at the plate, when that recent slugging percentage started outpacing his midseason OPS. But Martínez knew earlier, when he heard his protege begin saying, “Whatever happens happens. I’m just going to work hard and go play.”
All Guerrero needs to think about is making contact, Schneider explains. “The home runs are just a byproduct of how strong he is,” he says. “I've always said he's a good hitter before a home run hitter. So it just comes down to swinging at the right pitch. It's gonna go as far as anybody as long as he does that.”
Sometimes it’s that simple.