Home-run derby record is a sign Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will be fine

The production never quite matched the hype during Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s first two months in the major leagues and yet the Blue Jays don’t seem the least bit concerned. Why should they? He’s going to be just fine.

Guerrero marked the unofficial midway point of the season on Monday night the same way he spent the last several years, directly under the spotlight. At age 20 and 114 days, Guerrero made history not only by becoming the youngest hitter to compete in the home run derby, but by breaking the record for most homers hit in one round. Guerrero hit 29 in the first round to break Josh Hamilton’s mark of 28 from 2008.

It was a breakout performance on one of the biggest stages. It also represents the perfect time to reflect on the start of Guerrero’s career, a first half that included a circus-like atmosphere for his debut, flashes of elite power and even moments of extreme frustration. It wasn’t always easy for Guerrero, who entered the break with an underwhelming .741 OPS, nor should it have been.

“He’s just a kid, he’s 20 years old and he’s going through a funk right now, probably for the first time in his career,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said before the break. “We all know he’s going to be all right. I think it’s funny, he keeps struggling and he’s still hitting .250. That’s a sign of somebody who is going to be very good someday.”

In hindsight, everyone got a bit too caught up in the hysteria surrounding Guerrero’s ascent to the majors. People made judgments based on boxscores and stat lines without having seen him step into the batter’s box more than a handful of times. Some dubbed Guerrero a future hall-of-famer before he even faced a major-league pitcher.

The hype was understandable because of the ceiling, and it grew with each passing week. Guerrero had the pedigree and tools required to become one of the sport’s top talents. At the same time, it was easy to forget how young and inexperienced he was. Guerrero was so much better than his minor-league peers it was blasphemous to even consider he might struggle in the pros.

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Yet this is the same player who finished his first half with a .249/.328/.413 slash line across 61 games, which was respectable but nowhere near elite. At one point he went 19 games without hitting a home run. Was it disappointing? Maybe. Should it have been expected? Probably a lot more than most people realized.

MLB has been spoiled over the last two years by the debuts of Ronald Acuna Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. Both players made immediate impacts, with Acuna posting a .917 OPS last year for the Braves and Tatis currently hitting .327/.393/.629 with 14 home runs in his rookie season for the Padres. The thing is, those two are the exception, not the norm, even for the game’s best.

Mike Trout’s first stint in the majors didn’t last long; he was demoted by the Angels after 14 games because of a .213 on-base percentage. He returned a month later, but the results were similar, and he finished with a .672 OPS. The next season, Trout won the American League rookie award and finished second in MVP voting. He hasn’t looked back since.

Manny Machado was seven days younger than Guerrero when he debuted in 2012. He hit just .262 with a .294 on-base percentage that year and is now one of the game’s highest-paid players. Bryce Harper enjoyed more initial success than either of the previous two, but he also had issues. Harper finished with 22 home runs in 2012, his rookie season, but he had just a .718 OPS in mid-August.

Just like that trio of superstars, Guerrero’s performance will improve the more reps he gets. There have been moments this season when he appears to be trying to do too much. His swing gets too big, too long, and he expands the zone more than he did in the minors. Defence remains a work in progress, especially when Guerrero is tasked with running in and making off-balance throws. He is learning on the job and needs time to mature, as do all players his age.

If Ross Atkins is going to be criticized for his mistakes, he also deserves credit when he gets something right. Toronto could have taken the easy way out a year ago, succumbed to the public pressure, and added Guerrero to the roster at age 19. Instead, Atkins and his front office team took the heat and maintained the status quo, choosing the long-term process over short-term gratification.

Guerrero will start producing more consistently before long. The line-drive percentage, which currently sits at 16.2 per cent, will inch closer to the 29 and 22.6 per cent he produced in Buffalo and New Hampshire. A .281 batting average for balls in play, which is below average by MLB standards, will begin to rise.

There’s a reason no one around the Blue Jays seems concerned about the slow start. There are some players who have so much talent the early bumps seem inconsequential. Guerrero just happens to be one of them.

Gregor Chisholm is a Toronto-based baseball columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @GregorChisholm or reach him via email: gchisholm@thestar.ca

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