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Vlad Guerrero Stumbling to Start 2011

Sometimes a running narrative can really help a player. This offseason, Vladimir Guerrero took advantage of his bounceback 2010 and turned it into a one-year, $8 million contract with the Orioles. It’s a bit less than he sought early in the offseason, but it was a win for the aging DH. Cases in point: Hideki Matsui, who produced similar numbers to Guerrero last year, got just $4.25 million. Jim Thome, better than Vlad last year, got $3 million. But because Vlad’s narrative involved him bouncing back for a pennant-winning team, he ended up commanding far more than his peers. But that deal isn’t looking so swell for the Orioles right now.

Nothing seems to be working for Vlad early in the season. He’s just 19 for 71 (.268), and his BABIP, .281, isn’t too far off his .292 mark from last year, and it’s reasonably close to his .287 xBABIP. That is, it’s not as though he’s hitting the ball hard and finding fielders. He’s swinging at more pitches in general, and specifically more out of the zone. Worse yet, he’s making less contact on those pitches out of the zone, which has led to a spike in his swinging strike and, by extension, strikeout rates. He has, in other words, looked as poorly as he’s performed.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of Guerrero’s season to date is that he has not drawn a single walk. He is, in fact, the only qualified batter who has yet to draw a free pass. Despite his reputation as a free swinger, he actually did take walks at a solid rate during his prime seasons. Pitchers didn’t want to face him, and while he was up there to swing the bat, there wasn’t much he could do to defend against unhittable pitches out of the zone (though he kind of created his own definition of unhittable) and against the intentional walk. But as he started to decline, he saw his walk rate dip. In his down year, 2009, he walked just 4.7% of the time, and even in his bounceback year he walked 5.4% of the time. Those aren’t healthy rates, but if anyone can make it work, it’s Vlad. Unfortunately, not even he can make a 0% walk rate work.

(Aside: Since it’s still early, assigning an “on pace” rate is a mostly futile activity. Clearly, no one expects Vlad to maintain his pace of zero walks this season. But he has certainly eclipsed the 10% mark for plate appearances this season, so we can have some fun with this one. Since 1980 there have been only six players who have qualified for the batting title with 10 or fewer walks on the season. Vlad certainly has a chance to join this illustrious club, which includes the likes of Tony Pena Jr., Ozzie Guillen, Ivan Rodriguez, and especially Shawnon Dunston, who did it twice.)

Looking at Vlad’s splits from last year, it’s pretty clear that his incredible first half helped drive the narrative that defined him as a bounceback player. He hit .319/.364/.554 through the All-Star break, combining with Josh Hamilton to create a 3-4 combo that powered the Rangers to an AL West lead. But in the second half he started to look more like the Vlad of 2009. In fact, he looked quite a bit worse, hitting .278/.322/.426 in 289 PA — and that includes a .311/.351/.491 September performance. The narrative ran strong throughout the playoffs, though which he hit ..220/.242/.271, which played into the contract he received.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Rangers balked when Vlad asked for a two-year contract. It’s not even surprising that they declined his $9 million mutual option and opted to pay him the $1 million buy-out instead. They had clearly seen through the narrative. (For which we shouldn’t give them too much credit, since he was, after all, hurting their team in July and August.) The Orioles, apparently, bought it. Or, at least, they convinced themselves that he’d hit well enough to justify the outlay. To date that hasn’t worked out, and there aren’t many signs that point to an eventual turnaround.

As we saw last year, Vlad certainly has the ability to pick up the pace and produce a decent season for the Orioles. Last year he had two months that were as bad, if not worse, than the April he has produced to date, and he managed to turn in four solid-to-excellent months. The situation becomes a bit more discouraging, though, if you’ve watched a fair number of Orioles games and have watched Vlad at the plate. He truly looks his age, 36. While he can certainly run into one, as he did in last night’s game, he doesn’t look like a guy who will do that often. He’s swinging more often at bad pitches, which says something considering his propensity to do that throughout his career.

Anything can happen in 71 PA (including the complete avoidance of a walk), and with a player such as Guerrero, with such a long track record of success, we can’t completely write him off. But given his early season trends, his appearance at the plate, and his advanced age, betting on his return to productivity would be a mistake. He won’t be this bad all season, but can he even reach 2009 levels? With the way he looks now, I’d say no. There just isn’t enough evidence now, with his second half of 2010 and limping start to 2011, to suggest that it is.