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Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. leans toward simplicity, leads MLB hitters

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s lighter frame and switch to a lighter bat have led to less fatigue and better production in 2021 for the Toronto Blue Jays. File Photo by Corey Sipkin/UPI
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s lighter frame and switch to a lighter bat have led to less fatigue and better production in 2021 for the Toronto Blue Jays. File Photo by Corey Sipkin/UPI | License Photo

MIAMI, June 24 (UPI) -- Many of MLB's best players pore over analytics and up-to-the-minute video to find an edge, but Toronto Blue Jays infielder Vladimir Guerrero Jr. says his breakout 2021 campaign comes from downsizing and simplicity.

"I would say the key thing we are very focused on is trying to make hard contact and trying to hit the ball back to the middle," Guerrero told reporters Wednesday during a Zoom conference before the Blue Jays beat the Miami Marlins in Miami.

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"That's our main focus and it is going well in my matchups."

Guerrero, 22, says increased patience and trust in his skills, coupled with a more strict off-season regimen, led to his breakout campaign. The former top prospect in baseball saw his statistics dip in 2020 after an explosive rookie year.

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He leads MLB with 23 home runs, 60 RBIs, a .664 slugging percentage and 172 total bases through 72 games. His 88 hits top the American League, while his 3.8 wins above replacement rank in the Top 5 of baseball.

Guerrero is averaging one home run per every 11.2 at-bats this season. He homered one time per 28.5 at-bats through his first two seasons.

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That improvement nearly mirrors early career jumps made by Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Sr.

"He has a great swing," Marlins manager Don Mattingly told reporters Wednesday during a Zoom conference call. "Last year, I didn't think he was as good. His at-bats didn't seem to be as good, but this year, you see a guy who is dangerous, running well, played really good first base.

"You've seen a little more this year of what everyone talks about."

The changes he made over the off-season, however, can't be spotted easily from a stadium seat.

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He still grips his black and brown bat with a slight wiggle and gentle hold. That slow rhythm often detonates into a violent collision with the baseball, which brings home runs to the deepest sections of MLB ballparks.

"I'm seeing the locations of the pitches a lot of better," Guerrero said. "I'm just trying to stay back [on pitches] and [hit] to the middle."

The 2021 version of Guerrero is more than 40 pounds lighter than last year. He carries a lighter bat, down from a 34-inch, 32-ounce model to a 33.5-inch, 31.5-ounce model.

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He altered his diet, sleeping habits and exercise routine over the winter and spring. His slighter build allows for quicker speeds on the base paths and less fatigue in games. The lighter bats increase his endurance and flexibility, allowing him to reach more pitches outside the strike zone.

Blue Jays left fielder Teoscar Hernandez, one of Guerrero's closest friends on the team, let the phenom borrow his bats late last season. Guerrero felt comfortable and noticed increased production with the lighter lumber, so he ordered the same model for himself this year.

"His normal bat was too heavy and too long," Hernandez told UPI on Wednesday in Miami. "He was getting tired quicker. I gave him one of my shorter and lighter bats and he kept using it. The results have been positive."

Hernandez, a six-year veteran, and other Blue Jays players say they've noticed Guerrero having more fun this season compared to the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. Hernandez said the simplification of the game and enjoyment have led to Guerrero's resurgence.

"If you can simplify everything and get on time for the pitch, that's all that matters in this game," Hernandez said.

"He has been working on that and trying to get more patient. That's one of the keys, and experience. The more experience you have, the better you are going to get."

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Guerrero leads all MLB players in All-Star votes, but won't be among the sluggers competing this year's Home Run Derby. The 2019 runner-up still plans to attend the July 12 slugfest at Coors Field in Denver, but said he opted against participation so he can focus on his "mental and physical health" in the regular season.

Everyday player

Guerrero pays attention to his home run total, but said he doesn't monitor his other statistics. His main goals this season are to play in all 162 regular-season games and help the Blue Jays win. He appeared in all 60 games last season and hasn't missed a game yet this year.

"I feel good physically right now," Guerrero said. "There is a long way to go still, but I want to try and keep it that way."

Guerrero said he often visits Charlie Montoyo's office and tells the Blue Jays manager that his only off days should be when the team doesn't have a scheduled game.

"I love that the kid thinks about winning here and wants to play every game," Montoyo told reporters Wednesday during a Zoom call. "My conversations with him are about how he feels."

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Guerrero moved from third base to first base last season. Montoyo plans to use him as designated hitter for some games in 2021, so he can rest instead of playing defense.

"I feel great," Guerrero said. "I am very proud of the work I did in the off-season, and it's paying off right now.

"Thank God everything is going the way i expected. ... I'm very proud of myself."

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