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Steve Phillips

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Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is having an MVP-calibre first half. He is tied for the American League lead in batting average (.342), first in OBP (.444) and first in slugging percentage (.675). He leads the AL in home runs (22) and RBI (56) and is tied for second in runs scored (51). His plate discipline has really improved as his chase rate – swinging at pitches out of the strike zone – is just 20.9 per cent compared to the MLB average of 28.4 per cent. He has walked (41 times) nearly as much as he has struck out (45).

Guerrero has been particularly improved on heaters this season, hitting .392 on at-bats ending with a fastball. Last season he hit a respectable .282 on the same pitch. His batting average on breaking balls (.301) is an elite. He is only hitting .200 on changeups so far, which means he is likely due a heavy dose of them soon.

Launch angle has been a hot topic around Guerrero because he has been so far below the league average in his swings. The league averages a launch angle of 11 degrees while Guerrero averages 7.4 degrees, which is up from 4.6 degrees last season. But on his home runs Guerrero is averaging 24.7 degrees in launch angle with a range from 17 to 36 degrees. His ability to barrel the baseball on the sweet spot of the bat has gone up from the 56th percentile to the 93rd percentile. 

Effectively, he has made all of the adjustments needed to hit for average and power while maintaining excellent plate discipline. He still maintains his line-drive stroke but understands that on certain pitches in certain counts he can look to launch the baseball. He hasn’t given up an at-bat this season to a lack of concentration or a bad plan. He never seems lost at the plate.

I have to admit that I didn’t see him making all of these adjustments so quickly, particularly the ability to provide launch angle when appropriate, while maintaining his level swing approach. It is amazing what a smart hitter he is at such a young age. 

He has figured out what he needs to know. The battle from this point forward is maintenance. Swings and hitting plans can come and go for hitters. The best of the best grab hold and don’t let go. When I watched Guerrero play at Triple-A Buffalo in 2018 he reminded me so much of Manny Ramirez. I see that hitter again.

 

The Derby in Denver

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Guerrero has suggested that he may participate in the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game in Denver in mid-July. He put on such a show in the derby in Cleveland in 2019 that it’s hard to resist a reprisal in 2021.

History, though, has shown that participants can have a drop in their power production after the All-Star break, which is something that no team wants. As a general manager I wanted the stars to participate in the derby for the good of the game – just not my stars. I admit I didn’t want to chance the negative impact on my players after seeing it happen to so many of the participants. But, since then, I have reconsidered and believe that the risk is worth the reward. 

The All-Star festivities are an opportunity to highlight the game in a way that is critical to the sport’s growth. Showcasing the biggest and best stars is critical in drawing new fans. In the long run, it is best for everyone – even if my own team was made to suffer a bit.

There is speculation that Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr. and Guerrero will all take part this year. It would be even better if Juan Soto agreed to compete as well. We could have all of the game’s young superstars participating. One can hope. 

 

Blue Jays’ bullpen woes

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The Blue Jays have lost eight of their past 12 games, and a big part of their struggle is in the bullpen.

Jordan Romano is really the only reliever Charlie Montoyo trusts right now. It is not hard to understand why as the Jays have eight relievers on the injured list. The pen will get a boost with Patrick Murphy being activated on Thursday after recovering from a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder. The hope is that he can be a late-inning, high-leverage option immediately.

The Jays can’t waste time in finding answers as they have fallen to fourth place in the AL East, 8.5 games behind the first-place Tampa Bay Rays and 5.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot. It’s not time to panic, but if the Jays don’t get their bullpen figured out soon it will be.

General manager Ross Atkins is going to have to start wearing out the phone lines. Baltimore, Kansas City, Detroit, Texas, Miami, Pittsburgh, Colorado and Arizona are all out of the playoff hunt and should start to listen to trade ideas.
 
The Jays need to strike early. Don’t wait for the market to take shape. They can’t afford to wait until the end of July for the perfect deal because they may be out of the race by then. Identify pitchers who fit and go get them, and I do mean “them.” It’s going to take a couple of relievers, the return of Julian Merryweather, and at least one more answer from inside or out to go along with Romano. 

I would absolutely experiment with Nate Pearson at Triple-A. Move him to the bullpen and see how he handles the role and usage. At the very least, it will protect his innings workload and get him aggressive in the strike zone with a reliever’s mentality. He can always be stretched out if necessary or desired later. 

 

Spitting Seeds

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- Ross Stripling’s apology to Joe Panik and his teammates was as good as his showing up Panik was bad. It was a nice recovery for Stripling as he violated one of the first rules that young men are taught when they sign to play professionally: never show up a teammate.

Baseball is a tough game that finds a way to humble even the best players. No one has ever been perfect as a player. As soon as a player has a thought to be critical of a teammate he has to stop and remember that he will be the one making a mistake at some point.

It’s a long season, and everyone will be selfish about something at one point or another. Players could be mad they aren’t playing or were pinch-hit for in a big moment. Relievers feeling like the are being overused or underused. A player being disappointed after going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and moping despite the fact that the team won. A starting pitcher can be mad that a reliever allowed his inherited runners to score. The manager is mad that the front office didn’t get him an extra arm in the bullpen. You get the point. Some of these situations are confronted and need apologies, while some get ignored and swept under the rug.

How a team handles selfish moments and surrenders resentments plays into the development of that thing we call “chemistry” on a team. Moments like Stripling’s meltdown on Wednesday night will either separate the team or pull them closer. 

- Pitchers around the game are complaining that MLB has chosen to start monitoring the use of foreign substances during the season instead of after the season. Of course they are. But what the pitchers are really saying is they want to be allowed to keep cheating until the end of the year.

Rays starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow hurt his arm in his last start and blamed it on the prohibition of sunscreen and rosin as his choice of extra grip. He said this rule change cost him a chance to be an All-Star or maybe winning the Cy Young Award. But he isn’t acknowledging that if he did reach those achievements it would be, in part, because he was breaking the rules.

Red Sox starter Garrett Richards made a big deal out of it and opted not to throw his curveball in his last start because he couldn’t use his foreign substance of choice. He got knocked around in his four innings, allowing six runs.

The bigger a deal pitchers make out of it, the bigger a deal it will become. The mental and emotional part of not using a foreign substance is as great or greater than the physical effects. Just ask the Blue Jays. Yankee starter Gerrit Cole was overpowering in his eight innings of work on Wednesday night. He allowed only two runs on four hits and struck out four. He still threw his fastball 98-100 mph. It didn’t have the same spin rate but was still effective. Cole is pitching determined to be great, regardless of the change. 

- The New York Mets may have dodged a bullet as initial medical reports on the sore shoulder of their ace Jacob deGrom are good. Prior to this injury, he has dealt with lat inflammation, side tightness and flexor tendinitis. The flexor tendinitis caused him to be removed from his start on June 11 against San Diego after six innings. 

For some unknown reason they didn’t put him on the injured list and allowed him to make his start on Wednesday. He left that game after three innings with shoulder soreness. My experience is that when a pitcher is throwing with pain in one area he often compensates for it and it leads to an injury elsewhere. I’m not surprised by the new shoulder pain. 

Even more shocking is that the Mets are still reluctant to place their ace on the IL. deGrom played catch in the outfield on Thursday and said he felt good. Playing catch and throwing 101 mph in a game are very different. 

The Mets have a five-game lead in the NL East. deGrom is their most important player and the best pitcher in baseball. They need to protect him from catastrophic injury. It doesn’t matter if he misses two weeks, it matters if he misses two months. Now they have to hope the shoulder, forearm, lat and side heal all at once. He says he feels good, but the Mets need to protect deGrom from himself right now or they may live to regret it.