Friday, June 15, 2012

Vlad, A Man Out Of Time

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Vlad Guerrero

Vlad Guerrero has not officially retired, but it looks like his time in the Major Leagues is up. The former Expos and Angels slugger was long one of my favorite players and leaves behind a borderline Hall of Fame legacy that includes an MVP, 449 career home runs, nine All Star appearances, and zero pitches he didn't think he could hit. (He was such a notorious bad-ball hitter that after an altercation this past winter that saw Guerrero punch a bouncer outside a bar, I immediately texted every baseball fan I know, "I guess Vlad really will swing at anything.") (Also, I never said I was cool.) He may be one of the defining players of his generation, but I can't help but thinking that he played in the wrong era.

With high average, homer, and steal totals, Vlad's statistical profile was old-school. A .318 career hitter nearing 500 home runs, he would have been a shoo-in for the Hall had he played in the '70s (you can even bring his line down a bit to account for era, and I think that holds true). In terms of value, though, he didn't bring much else beyond those three things. He had a great arm and blazing speed, but his defensive statistics are solidly negative for his career. And his free-swinging ways mean he barely walked, only twice topping 70 in a season, which is pretty lousy for such a feared slugger. And while he once stole 40 bases in a season, he got caught 20 times that year. He wasn't necessarily a good base-stealer, just a frequent one. In this era that values taking walks and stealing bases efficiently, that counts OBP over average, that tries to objectively measure defense instead of relying on gut and a few highlights, the shine comes off his statistics.

Bobby Abreu

Like my co-writers, I happen to be a big believer in WAR (wins above replacement), and under that lens you can see the problem with Guerrero's legacy. For his career, Bobby Abreu has a higher WAR than Vlad Guerrero: 58.1 to 55.2. I can tell you, definitively, that Bobby Abreu was not a more important player than Vlad Guerrero, but he did a few crucial things better. Guerrero was a perennial MVP candidate because of his counting stats and his demeanor, and Abreu wasn't. In terms of value, it's a lot closer. While Abreu's average, homers and slugging are all significantly lower, he walked a lot more (including eight straight seasons over 100), hit with a decent amount of power and he stole more bases at a much more efficient clip. Strange as it may seem, Abreu, who hit .293 with 285 home runs (versus .318/449 for Guerrero) was probably just as valuable as Guerrero, if not more.

It's jarring to see the two as equals, although players who walk a lot tend to get underrated (sorry, Jim Thome and Tim Raines), but more because they were such opposites. Guerrero played the game like the precocious/arrogant little leaguer who wanted to hit everything and hit it a mile, who wanted to throw out every base runner and run down every fly ball. He probably could only play that way, but he also would have been more valuable had he not played with such reckless abandon, and maybe his legs would have held up longer. Abreu's best skill, on the other hand, was probably working counts, and I'll remember him most for messing up his swing in a Home Run Derby. Only in this value-obsessed era would we think of them at all on the same level. In the 1980s, Vlad's a superstar and Abreu is just another above average outfielder.

Unfortunately, I think Vlad Guerrero also played too early. Very few players could have benefited from YouTube quite like Vlad, but the luddites running Major League Baseball won't let clips of games on the Internet. MLB is notoriously slow about implementing changes (hellooooo, steroid testing), so it's no surprise its attitude toward the Internet is way behind the other major sports leagues, but this is a strange and stupid move for a sport that markets nostalgia. I can get sucked into loops watching almost anything while surfing YouTube and baseball would be a major addition. But as of now, due to the MLB's draconian licensing policies, that's impossible.

Guerrero's destiny was to be the Blake Griffin of the MLB. Griffin's a great player, but he's a spectacle unto himself because his dunks are so ferocious and so well packaged online and on ESPN. Vlad Guerrero could exist on that plane. He had a cannon for an arm and great wheels and instincts when he was younger (and his legs weren't shot). He swung at everything - I distinctly remember him fouling off a pitch that was halfway into the other batter's box, and I know that he famously once hit a home run off a pitch that bounced before the plate. Of course, I can't find that clip online, so maybe the story's apocryphal. He played with (CLICHE ALERT) infectious joy. He would've been a viral superstar.

(By the way, every couple of months I get sucked into one of those aforementioned Youtube vortexes watching the insane dunks from one bad, bad man named Shawn Kemp, a very good player but an even better highlight package. Maybe that's Guerrero's destiny, to be immortalized on Youtube well after his career is over. I just hope he doesn't take Kemp's advice for family planning.)

I'll have my memories of Guerrero doing absurd things on a baseball diamond, moments which I can't disentangle enough to objectively analyze his career. In my gut, he's a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but the stats say it could go either way. He probably would have benefited from playing in a different era, but (SAPPY ENDING ALERT) I'm sure glad he played in this one.

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