Sullivan: Vlad Jr. hits Buffalo on a Triple Crown pace

Jerry Sullivan

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27 of the Toronto Blue Jays hits a double in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox at TD Ballpark on May 19, 2021 in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

At 7:07 p.m. on Tuesday, Buffalo sports fans will get their long-awaited wish, a chance to witness a regular-season Major League Baseball game in person for the first time in more than a century.

The Blue Jays, who played the latter part of the COVID-shortened 2020 season at Sahlen Field — in front of thousands of cardboard cutouts — will host the Miami Marlins in front of real fans after playing their early-season games at their spring training home in Dunedin, Fla. 

Bisons general manager Anthony Sprague told WIVB.com two weeks ago that Buffalo fans deserved this big-league opportunity after missing out on the Jays games a year ago. He said it wasn’t the same without the familiar ballpark sounds of fans cheering, clapping and booing.

“It was amazing how much it was missed,” Sprague said.

They won’t want to miss a young, exciting Toronto team that figures to be in the thick of a hot American League East race this summer. It remains to be seen how long the Jays will stay in Buffalo. That depends on when Canada decides to re-open the border. 

But however long the show remains in town, Western New Yorkers are in for a uncommon baseball treat, and there’s nothing more amazing in the game these days than marveling at the exploits of rising Blue Jays superstar Vlad Guerrero Jr.

In fact, Buffalo fans might get to see one of the rarest of baseball feats: A Triple Crown. Through the first third of the season, Guerrero is in position to become only the second big-leaguer in more than a half-century to lead a league in the three main hitting categories: Batting average, home runs and RBIs.

Entering Tuesday’s games, Guerrero Jr. was tied for the AL lead in batting average with Boston’s J.D. Martinez at .323. He was tied for first in home runs (16) with Texas rookie Adolis Garcia. He had 42 RBIs, tied for third in the league behind reigning AL MVP Jose Abreu, who had 46.  

Guerrero Jr. also led the American League in on-base percentage (.430) and slugging (.634), and his OPS (on-base plus slugging) of 1.035 was tops in the Major Leagues. 

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27 of the Toronto Blue Jays blows a bubble against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on May 08, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Not bad for a guy who turned 22 in March. If he pulled off the Triple Crown, Guerrero Jr. would become the youngest player to do so. Ty Cobb was 23 when he won it in 1909 (albeit, with only nine homers). Ted Williams was 24 in 1942. Williams did it again five years later.

The only player to win a Triple Crown since 1967 was Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers in 2012. Frank Robinson won it in 1966 with the Orioles and Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox repeated the feat a year later. No National Leaguer has won the Triple Crown since Joe “Ducky” Medwick in 1937.

That tells you how hard it is to finish first in all three. It has become even more difficult in modern times, as batting average has become less glorified and fewer players hit for both power and average in a home run-obsessed era.

Guerrero Jr. is a throwback in that sense. He has the same number of walks (32) as strikeouts this season, which is virtually unheard-of at a time when the average strikeouts per team is up to an all-time MLB high of nine per game. 

He channels his dad, Hall of Famer Vlad Guerrero Sr., who made constant contact and never struck out 100 times in a season. Vlad Sr. retired with 449 homers and a .318 batting average. Only five other players have those numbers: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams and Stan Musial. Pretty good company.

Vlad Sr., who won the 2004 AL MVP, retired at 36 after the 2011 season. Around that time, Vlad Jr. began working out with his uncle, Wilton, in the Dominican Republic. The scouts saw the potential. In 2015, he was signed by the Blue Jays as an international free agent. 

In 2018, as a 19-year-old, Guerrero hit .336 in 30 games with the Bisons before his inevitable summoning to the big club in Toronto. In 2019, he hit .272 with 15 homers and 69 RBIs. In last year’s abbreviated season, he batted .262 with nine homers and 33 driven home. 

The Jays made the expanded playoff field last season, but went out meekly against the Rays, losing two straight as Guerrero went 1-for-7 with four strikeouts. 

You heard the muttering. Guerrero Jr. wasn’t doing enough to justify the inflated expectations that surrounded his arrival in the bigs. What was really inflated was his body. He was 280 pounds when he began the 2020 campaign.

He knew he needed to get serious. “One day, I woke up from bed, looked in the mirror and said, ‘That’s it,’” Guerrero Jr. told Toronto reporters on a Zoom call early this season. 

While still in Buffalo last September, he decided to modify his diet and fitness regimen. During the offseason, working with a personal trainer, he lost 42 pounds. He was swifter and more athletic, more energetic on his 6-2 frame. When the new season began, he looked like a new person.

The numbers reflect it. So does his demeanor. Always a joyful soul, Guerrero has been even more animated this season. He dances in the dugout before games, imitates teammates, reacts with emotion to his big home runs. 

A week ago, the Blue Jays sent out this message on the team Twitter: “At 20, he was overhyped. At 21, he was overrated. At 22, he’s the best hitter in baseball.”

Vlad Jr. retweeted this: “And I know it could be better.”

If it gets any better, this will be an historic season for Guerrero Jr. — and Buffalo could be his home park for the rest of the season. The Jays are only committed to 18 games, but they’re likely to be at Sahlen longer than that. It’ll be 59 games if they play the entire regular season here.

The brief sample suggests the Jays have an advantage in Buffalo. They went 17-9 at Sahlen Field last season. Guerreo Jr. hit .323 with five homers and 23 RBIs in 26 games in Buffalo — mirroring his overall pace this season. He hit only .213 in road games in the 2020 season.

Coming to Buffalo could provide a spark. Guerrero Jr. hit town in a mini-slump over his previous five games, having gone 2-for-14 with no extra-base hits. That followed a surge of five homers in five games, so Vlad might be ready for another breakout when the Jays reach Buffalo.

Guerrero Jr. has been called the early favorite for the MVP in the AL. It might depend on what happens in the AL East race, where the Jays are currently fourth, one game back of the Yankees and 6.5 behind defending surging AL champion Tampa Bay, which has won 16 of its last 17 games. 

Whatever the case, a young Jays team figures to be a compelling story in this Buffalo summer. They have some promising young players, like Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and righty hurler Alek Manoah, who is slated to get his second big-league start against the Marlins on Wednesday.

But the biggest sensation is Guerrero Jr., wearing the same No. 27 as his Hall of Fame dad. He’s already made some history, like becoming the youngest player with three homers and seven RBIs in a game. 

Some day, we might well look back at 2021 as the year Vlad Jr.’s career took off, on a trajectory to the Hall of Fame. Buffalo fans, who waited so long for the big-league experience, can say they were there, rooting him on. 

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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