by Kevin Kunzmann (@KevKunzmann)
MLB Columnist for The Grandstand Gazette
I think a major problem amongst sports fans’ arguments is the usage of titles: Tom Brady is elite but Joe Flacco isn’t, LeBron is great but Michael is the greatest, Joey Votto is the 3rd-best first baseman, etc. We like to categorize and distinguish players and teams through these titles that have absolutely no value beyond the purpose of argument, and it ultimately creates some kind of faux order that a great athlete must ascend to reach status as a legend. I do it all the time — to my own regret — and I hear it every day in one way or another: Player X is great, but where does he rank to Players Y and Z?
What makes this so impractical to sports is that we divide players into certain subdivisions, as if everyone in that subdivision is similar to one another. That’s not how athletes are; LeBron isn’t a better player than Jordan, because they have polarizing styles of play that aren’t comparable. So when you divide them into such categories, some fall into the cracks to be forgotten beyond a trip through online databases. Specifically, Vladimir Guerrero fell into the crack.
His physique was awkward, his swing was violent, and his career was unique. 16 years, nine All Stars, one MVP, one World Series win, one Home Run Derby win, one Comeback Player of the Year Award, four different teams. He was as known for his absurd pitch selection as he was his pine tar-laced helmet and rocket arm from right field (129 assists as a right fielder is 2nd amongst active players). He was a paradoxical icon: a stark contrast to the fundamentally sound ball player that carried himself as if he was one. Hell, there’s a chance that Vlad’s disregard for proper technique made him the most consistent player for a decade. How else do you explain 11 straight seasons of receiving MVP finalist votes?
Now, he’s 38 years old and two seasons removed from the game. His last stint was with Baltimore, hitting a career-worst .290 with 13 home runs and 63 RBIs a year before the O’s returned to the postseason. He spent 2012 in the Blue Jays’ organization, and is currently playing in his native Dominican Republic. He seems to be wildly forgotten amongst the world of baseball and the front offices of teams that sign outfielders with a fraction of his talent every season. Why doesn’t anybody want Vlad Guerrero? Who wouldn’t want him? Let’s see where he would stand amongst the league today, as per the comparisons we try to make between athletes everyday.
Vlad played many different roles in his career: being a two-time member of the 30-30 club, scoring 100+ runs in six seasons, and reaching 35+ home runs five times. However, he was at hist best as a pure contact hitter. He hit over .300 in 13 of his 15 full regular seasons, hitting over .320 seven times. That’s as many times Hank Aaron hit over .320 in his 23 seasons. Guerrero’s career average is also 13 points higher than Aaron’s.
However, this does not imply that Vlad was in any way a slap-hitter: he had more career doubles (477) than Mike Schmidt (409), and reached 80+ extra-base hits in a season four times in his career, ousting Pete Rose (none), Rickey Henderson (none), and Ken Griffey Jr. (three). To put that feat in perspective: Mike Trout only had 65 extra-base hits last season, and his 315 total bases would have been 8th amongst Vlad’s seasons. Additionally, Trout hit .326. Guerrero posted both a higher average and total bases count in four separate seasons. That’s four years of hitting statistically better than Trout’s historic rookie season.
But he must have surrendered power to get on base so often, right? Well, 17 percent of his career hits are home runs, a rate higher than Chipper Jones’ and fellow bad-ball hitter Yogi Berra’s. His 449 career home runs are diluted by handfuls of injury seasons. He played in 2,147 out of a possible 2,439 games. Had he been healthy for those games, common math shows his total home runs to raise to 510, putting him above Gary Sheffield, Eddie Murray, and Lou Gehrig. He would also have the least amount of seasons played (16) amongst players in the 500 club.
He struck out nearly half as much as Mickey Mantle, had as many Silver Slugger awards as Cal Ripken Jr., threw out more batters than Duke Snider, and has as many MVP awards as Babe Ruth — that’s right, The Babe won it once. But a guy like Vladimir Guerrero is never going to be out into conversation with these men, and is likely a borderline Hall of Famer at best. We must stop recycling the talking heads’ blather about an athlete having to reach an imaginary, near impossible “elite” status before earning the right to be as revered as his faux counterpart. Just respect the talent of play in front of you before it’s too late — it is too late to appreciate Vlad, and someday it will be the same for LeBron and Trout and everyone else.
And if I haven’t won you over yet, here’s the two stat lines of two men in their ages 35-36 seasons.
- Player A: 293 games, .276 average, 59 home runs, 173 RBIs, 527 total bases
- Player B: 297 games, .295 average, 42 home runs, 178 RBIs, 528 total bases
Player A is Willie Mays. Player B is Vlad. I don’t think I have to tell you which one fell in the cracks.