By In Stuff

Vlad the Impaler

Not too long ago, I was working on a project that (sadly) never quite got off the ground — it was a project to explore why we still love sports. Here we are surrounded by the horror of concussions and NCAA hypocrisy and PED use and countless other unsavory things … but we still love the games. In a weird way, we love the games now more than we ever did.

In the book, I was going to write an entire chapter about a Vladimir Guerrero at-bat.

In my lifetime, there have been certain athletes who were just FUN to watch. Now, I’m not referring to how good they were or how valuable they were … simply how much joy they gave us. Some of the all-time greats were great fun, of course: Magic Johnson was fun, Barry Sanders of course, Muhammad Ali. Pistol Pete Maravich.

But there are some others too who weren’t all-time greats. The Cleveland Browns used to have this amazing kick returner named Eric Metcalf (son of the great Terry Metcalf) — he was widely viewed as a massive disappointment because he could never quite translate his punt returning genius to his life as a running back or a receiver. But, MAN was he fun — anytime he touched the ball, he might just do something that would blow your mind. Actually quite a few punt returners were like that. White Shoes Johnson was like that. Dante Hall was like that. Devin Hester.

Dwight Gooden was amazing fun in the early days. The strikeout pitchers are always fun. Jim Zorn was fun — scrambling quarterbacks are wonderful. These days: Bubba Watson is fun. Joe Flacco is oddly fun*. Victor Cruz is fun. Andrelton Simmons is fun — great defensive shortstop are fantastic. Lionel Messi. Man, nobody’s as much fun as Steph Curry — you can’t watch him play basketball without, at some point, just breaking out in a big smile.

*Flacco is fun because his arm is just RIDICULOUS — if I could throw a football as hard or as far as Joe Flacco, I would overthrow receivers by 40 yards again and again just to entertain myself. Maybe that’s why he does it.

In my lifetime, I think that there was nothing in sports more fun than watching Vlad Guerrero hit a baseball. He was one-of-a-kind. He grew up in the Dominican Republic, and when he signed with the Montreal Expos he was this big (6-foot-3), strong, fast, power-armed force of nature. I’ve heard people compare Yasiel Puig to him, and that’s not a bad comparison — but if anything Vlady was even more unbridled and absurd.

From his first day in pro baseball, you could not throw a baseball by Vlady — no matter how fast or slow, no matter how high or low, how far outside or inside. If you bounced a pitch in front of the plate, he might hit it. If you threw it over his head, he might hit it. He would definitely try.

There have been bad-ball hitters before, of course. Clemente was a famous bad ball hitter. Yogi was a famous bad ball hitter. Manny Sanguillen proudly would swing at anything. But there was something wonderful about Vlady’s free swinging. Every at bat, it was like he was just trying to prove a point. From 2007 to 2011, by the Fangraphs numbers, Vlad Guerrero swung at more than FORTY-FIVE PERCENT of the pitches out of the strike zone.

Think about that for a second. He basically swung at HALF the pitches that were not strikes. Of course, other players swing at bad pitches — and there’s not a thing fun about that when you’re talking about Jeff Francoeur. What’s fun about Guerrero is that even from 2007 to 2011 — though Guerrero was aged and beat up and no longer the hitting genius he had been as a young man — he STILL hit .303 and slugged .490.

Every at-bat of his was not just a battle with the pitcher but with geometry. Five feet outside? He’d reach. In the dirt? He’d golf. Behind him? He’d switch-hit. Close your eyes, you can just see the ridiculous movements Vlady would make just to hit a baseball. Man did he love hitting baseballs. His eyes just lit up when he was t the plate.

Of course, pitchers KNEW he would swing at just about anything. And yet, for 16 years, they never could find that place outside his hitting zone. They never figured out how to take advantage of his non-selective ways. Guerrero led the league in intentional walks five times, and I don’t think it was only because of his great hitting. I think it was also because pitchers didn’t know how else to walk him.

At 23, Guerrero played his first full season and hit .324 with 38 homers, 37 doubles, 9 triples. Everything he did was BIG. He made big plays. He made big mistakes. He swung big. He missed big. Guerrero flashed one of the great arms you’ve ever seen — Jonah Keri brings up the excellent point that Montreal, for a team that only played 36 seasons, had some spectacular outfield arms in its history. Guerrero’s arm was ridiculous. Larry Walker’s arm was fantastic. Andre Dawson had a breathtaking arm. And, most of all, there was Ellis Valentine. What an arm that guy had.

But while Guerrero’s arm was strong, he rarely had any idea where it was going. The guy airmailed so many cutoff men that at some point you just wanted him to get it over with and wear an American Postal Service uniform. He stole bases — as many as 40 in a season — but he got thrown out a lot (the year he stole 40 he led the league by being caught 20 times). He was fast and reckless on the bases, often hurting his team as much as he helped them.

And at the plate … just, wow. He would swing at anything and he would swing with crazy ferocity. And yet, against all logic, he didn’t strike out much. He never struck out 100 times in a season and only came close once. Eleven times, Vlady hit 25-plus homers while striking out fewer than 90 times. Since the strike — when strikeouts began to skyrocket — only Albert Pujols has pulled off that feat as often.

How did he do it? Well, for Vlady, it was simple math. He had three strikes to hit the baseball. And so he simply crushed the first thing he saw. In his career, he put about 20% of the first pitches he faced into play. He was the quintessential first ball fastball hitter. If it looked kind of straight, and looked within his reach (and weren’t they ALL within his reach), he swung at that first pitch.*

*Here’s a fun little statistic on Guerrero: On 3-1 counts, he hit .417. If he had a pitcher down 3-1, forced to throw something resembling a strike, Guerrero was extra-lethal. But, truth is, he hardly ever faced a 3-1 count. He hit a 3-1 pitch in play less than 4% of the time. The at-bat was usually long over before a 3-1 count was possible.

Pitchers all knew this. They studied him. They game planned him. They were told, again and again, “don’t give him anything good to hit on the first pitch.” But that’s part of what made Guerrero so fun. His idea of “good” was different from everyone else’s idea of good. On the first pitch, he hit .363 and slugged.660. The guy would swing at anything. The guy would swing at pitches in OTHER GAMES. And still pitchers could not throw a first pitch bad enough to hold him off.

Guerrero hit .324 that first full year. Then .317. Then .345. Then .307. Then .336. Then .330. Then .337. Batting average isn’t much of a statistic for determining the overall offensive contribution of a player, but in Guerrero’s case those batting averages are little markers of his artistry. Everything about him was moving parts, legs flying all over the place, heavy slides, overthrows, aggression, vicious swings, joyous intensity, but at the end of the year it always ended same. He hit the ball harder than just about anyone ever. And he always hit around .330.

He burned out pretty young, which figures when you look at the way he played baseball. He got his last big league at-bat at 36 — by then he was just an oversized version of the oversized player he had always been. He still hit .290. But the power was gone. And he was walked unintentionally just 14 times in 590 plate appearances. The superhuman reflexes necessary to do the impossible things Vlady did had dulled just enough. He tried in various ways to get back, but he could not.

In the aftermath of his retirement, he has been coupled with his contemporary Todd Helton, who also retired. It’s kind of weird. They were absolutely nothing alike. But by the numbers, their careers mirrored almost exactly. Helton hit .317. Guerrero hit .318. Helton had 2,505 hits. Guerrero had 2,590. Helton had 2,791 runs-plus-RBIs. Guerrero had 2,824. Helton had 61.2 WAR. Guerrero had 59.1 WAR. You could make a strong Hall of Fame case for both.

But the Hall of Fame talk feels like something for another time. For now, I want to remember Guerrero walking to the the plate, the pitcher sweating, the crowd ready to see something awesome. He wore no batting gloves. Then Guerrero would stand there, his body surprisingly upright, his bat high over his shoulder and waving back and forth, and you could just tell he was itching to swing at something, anything that came his way — moths, popcorn, air molecules — and then the pitch would come, and if it was anywhere close, anywhere in the stadium, he would lift that left leg, and turn his back toward the pitcher, and he would swing with purpose, and he would keep both hands on the bat all the way through the swing and — as often as anyone of his generation — he would crush the ball. It was so much fun. Somewhere in all of it, I think, is why we keep watching.

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33 Responses to Vlad the Impaler

  1. invitro says:

    Here’s a player that’s even more similar to Vlad… at least in terms of player value.

    Helton 1B 17 1997-2013 61.2 46.5 53.8 -5.9
    VGuerrero RF 16 1996-2011 59.9 41.2 59.0 -10.7
    ????????????? RF 17 1996-2012 60.4 41.5 60.4 -10.6

    • Bobby Abreu. Great find. The most fun and least fun players of their generation?

    • Sean T says:

      The difference? Go look at the similarity scores for Vlad and Abreu by age. Guerrero spends over half of his career being compared to Willie Mays and Manny Ramirez, then rounds it out by being compared to Duke Snider. Abreu got Dave Parker and Bernie Williams. I don’t know if you can extract excitement factor from this sort of statistic but I’d call that somewhat compelling evidence for it.

    • Tim says:

      Bobby was my favorite player when I lived in the Philly area. The man could take a walk, and could run, hit for decent power and average and play a passable outfield with a good arm. He did not like the outfield wall, especially at Citizen’s Bank Park, where it is a chain link fence in front of the electronic scoreboard in right. I was in Fenway when he made an incredible homer-saving catch in front of the right-field bullpen, so when the wall wasn’t as punishing, he would go all out. He always had a smile on his face and never seemed to be having too bad of a time. He never learned much English, but he would still happily struggle his way through post-game interviews and would deliver a shaving cream pie when another guy was the hero. Great player, great guy, and he’s a real legend back in Venezuela, from what I understand.

    • MrJMR1970 says:

      This is why the WAR stat is still odd to me. Never would I take Bobby Abreu over Vlad Guerrero. Granted, Abreu was a good player, but to me, the Impaler could have played for my team any day. How about some props for Dwight Evans as well. If Guerrero and Abreu are deserving, this guy ranks right with both of them.

    • Unknown says:

      Tim, I’m glad to hear that you appreciated Abreu, as he’s pretty universally hated in Philly. All that despite generally being the best player on the team for most of his time in town. I guess it’s the classic story of an underachieving team having its failures pinned on its best and most valuable player.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Vlad is way better on the power stats including HR, slugging, OPS, OPS+, etc. Abreu walked more and stole more bases, though Vlad did steal when he was younger. So, Abreu makes up a large amount of ground with base running and walks. So, even for those of us that like WAR, it is sometimes hard to reconcile the fact that walks and base running can equate to the level of an elite power hitter.

  2. DSC says:

    Nice article. Who didn’t love watching the guy play? While other players dogged it to first, Vlad beat out infield singles even when he was 36. While other players let balls go to the wall or drop for cheap hits/bases, Vlad turned them into outs. While other players waited for something to happen, Vlad made things happen. Other players get the ball back to the infield like the play has already ended, giving up unnecessary bases/runs. Vlad made them work for it. Other players hope they get something to swing at, Vlad made the pitcher work hard to find a pitch he couldn’t drive, then prove them wrong. .322 BA with runners on base, .934 OPS, .401 OBP, .533 SLG. Exactly what you want in a cleanup hitter. So few players ever like him (how many retired hitting over .315 with 400 HR? 6. How many hit 1000 hits and 200 HR in both leagues? What, 3 ever?).

    • Frank says:

      I didn’t see Vladdy play all that much until he was on the Orioles at the end of his career. He had lost a lot of speed, but he didn’t lose his style – arms, legs, elbows, knee-caps, everything flailing. That might have been exciting when he was fast, but it was ridiculously funny when he was slow. The replay booth must have thought it was funny, too, because they would always show him flailing down the line, even on routine ground balls.

  3. frightwig says:

    It’s an awful pity that for many of Vlad’s prime years, while he played for Montreal, a lot of fans, particularly those in AL markets, didn’t get much of a chance to watch him because the Expos seemed to be so rarely on TV. In at least one season, as I recall, the Expos didn’t even have a local TV deal. As a result, his legend was based on rumor more than any other player in the cable broadcast age. Vlad the Expo was baseball’s Keyser Soze.

    When Miller Park opened in 2001, I planned a road trip from Minneapolis to check it out, and chose a late April game with the Expos specifically so I could see the legendary Vlad in person, at last. I was pretty psyched. Of course, on the day I was in attendance, he was 0-3 with a strikeout and came out of the game in the 7th inning. So it goes.

  4. BobDD says:

    Nice question: How did I become a fan?

    I was living near Portland Oregon in the 50’s during my grade school years and the only “western” teams were the Cubs and Cardinals. My brother and I had bought these crystal radio sets from the 88¢ store and wrapped the long wire antenna’s around our iron bedposts. After dark we could get Cubs and Cardinals baseball games from halfway across the country. Because the Portland Beavers AAA club was in the St Louis farm system, we followed the Cards and caught all the games and then would fall asleep listening to Harry Caray on the post-game show.

    I think a lot of the magic of MLB for us was that it was enough like the baseball that we played in our backyard that it was easier to relate to, and especially to fantasize being out there ourselves. It was right there in our bedroom, exciting, all for free, almost secretive from the adults downstairs, and we never got tired of talking about it. I think we argued Mantle vs Mays at least 100 times in our adolescent lives.

    I lost some of my fandom during the early days of free-agency; it no longer fit my particular fantasies (though I realize that was unfair), but then my interest picked up again with the Abstracts. Sabermetrics was an enchanted world to me that has never run out of tangents to explore.

    Oh, and APBA and Strat. Large regular doses of Poz go down easy too.

    • Wilbur says:

      It’s too bad that most people only know of Harry Caray as the drunken, woozy grandpa caricature from his TV work with the Cubs.

      In the 60’s, he was the greatest radio play-by-play announcer I’ve ever heard. Knowledgeable, ever enthusiastic, living and dying with his beloved Redbirds, he was truly a fan in the booth. As Cub fans in central Illinois, we derided his Cardinal bias, yet had a great respect for his talents. No one has ever made a meaningless night game in September as listenable as Harry.

      I still associate certain of his phrases with individual players:
      “Sensational catch!” Curt Flood
      “Pahhhhhhped it up” Ken Boyer
      “There he goes!” Lou Brock
      “Ooh, what a cut he had” Orlando Cepeda

    • Wilbur says:

      It’s too bad that most people only know of Harry Caray as the drunken, woozy grandpa caricature from his TV work with the Cubs.

      In the 60’s, he was the greatest radio play-by-play announcer I’ve ever heard. Knowledgeable, ever enthusiastic, living and dying with his beloved Redbirds, he was truly a fan in the booth. As Cub fans in central Illinois, we derided his Cardinal bias, yet had a great respect for his talents. No one has ever made a meaningless night game in September as listenable as Harry.

      I still associate certain of his phrases with individual players:
      “Sensational catch!” Curt Flood
      “Pahhhhhhped it up” Ken Boyer
      “There he goes!” Lou Brock
      “Ooh, what a cut he had” Orlando Cepeda

  5. Unknown says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. FINALLY! An excuse to talk about my favorite game ever! Thank God for baseballreference or there’d be no record of this: on August 5th I saw Vladimir Guerrero singlehandedly beat the Cubs.

    Down 1-0 in the 4th he hit a chopper to 3rd. He was running so wildly and quickly he forced an error (at least in my memory) and took 2nd. Later that inning he scored on a sac fly.

    Top of the 6th: Look closely at Guerrero’s at bat: Double to CF (Ground Ball). He hit a slow roller up the middle and simply didn’t stop running. It was incredible. I’ve never seen anyone or anything move that recklessly. He scores later that inning to put the Expos up 2-1.

    Bottom of the 6th: Sosa on 3rd, fly ball to deep right. Guerrero catches in on the warning track and uncorks that arm and fires a laser to home. He gets Sosa by 2 steps at least. One of the best throws I’ve ever seen.

    2-4 with 2 runs and an outfield assist. Not the most impressive line but I’ve NEVER seen anyone dominate a game like he did that day. Just a random day at Wrigley in early August. I’m so glad Joe posted about Vlad just so I could remember that game.

  7. prophet says:

    I saw him absolutely bury someone at second with a perfect throw from the warning track, and later in the same game, get it to the third baseman on the fly … while trying to throw someone out at second again.

  8. Berg says:

    Talking about fun players makes me think of Sheff. He’d waggle that bat, the pitcher’d throw a 95-MPH fastball, and he’d be a little in front and line it foul along the third base line.

  9. Lewan says:

    I distinctly remember being a child and seeing Vladdy play a AAA game in Columbus, OH, where the pitcher spiked, absolutely spiked a curveball. Sucker must have bounced in the grass in front of the home plate dirt circle.

    No matter, Vlad hit a double to left center that one-hopped the fence.

  10. 643putout says:

    Todd Helton retired? Better tell him that he played for free last night then.

  11. Tonus says:

    Ellis Valentine, oh man. May have had the best arm I ever saw, and I was watching the ’79 All-Star game when Dave Parker made that ridiculous throw to nail (Brian Downing?) at third.

  12. TS says:

    Some great arms up in Canada in the late ’70s/early ’80s; Jesse Barfield was my rifle-armed idol as a kid.

  13. Daniel Flude says:

    As an Angels fan, you always wanted to get to the game early when Vlad was on the team, simply to watch him warm up his arm. On his last throw, he would always launch one (I can’t think of a better word for it than “launch”, although that probably undersells it) from the left field foul line into the right field bleachers. And this is at Anaheim Stadium, where the right field bleachers are 20+ feet above the ground. Amazing.

    And his ABs were must-see experiences. I saw him hit a homerun on a pitch that probably would have hit him on the foot if he hadn’t swung. I think his bat was perpendicular to the ground when he hit it. And I’ll never forget the homerun he hit off Brad Penny in the All Star game on a pitch at his neck.

  14. Unknown says:

    I was so glad when he moved out of the NL East, as he was pretty much the quintessential Phillie Killer. He hit .371/.465/.739 against the Phils, which is by a good bit his best OPS vs. any opponent.

  15. Ian says:

    This would be an interesting team – the all “really fun to watch” team. I think the outfield would be Vlad, Puckett and Ichiro but can’t really think of any infielders to go with it.

    • Dinky says:

      Ozzie at shortstop. Brooks at third. Maz at second. First base, nobody really stands out to me.

    • Brendan says:

      Ozzie and Brooks are obvious. For 2nd base maybe Rod Carew? His at-bats were fun – such a calm, surgical approach. For 1st I’d say Mark McGwire. His at-bats were must-watch TV for a while. Just the opposite of Carew…

  16. Dinky says:

    Todd Helton never finished higher than 5th for MVP and played most of his career in the best hitter’s park in baseball. Vladdy has a first, two 3rds, and a 4th, while playing mostly in pitcher’s parks. I know which one I’d put in the HOF first.

    • invitro says:

      Me too. Given that Bob Kelly has a better WAR, WAR7, oWAR, dWAR, a much better Clutch, and a substantially better playoff record, he’s a slam dunk over Vlad for the HoF.

    • invitro says:

      And Helton is probably a quick pick over either for his very large WAR7 advantage… although he gives most of that back to Abreu in Clutch and playoff deficiency.

  17. nscadu 9 says:

    Thanks for that. As an Expos fan, he was the most exciting Expo, though Pedro was up there too. I will always remember him standing in the box gloveless bat cocked forward ready for anything. Rumour was he peed on his hands like Alou.

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