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June 13, 2012

Pebble Hunting

Swinging from His Toes to His Nose

by Sam Miller

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For a little bit Tuesday morning, we heard that Vladimir Guerrero was retired, but then we found out he was not retired. This is fitting, because when I watch Vladimir Guerrero swing I assume he is about to be retired (by the opposing pitcher) but he often turns out to be not retired (by the opposing pitcher). He swings at bad pitches and manages to hit them, is what I'm saying. 

So he's not retired, but he asked to be—and was—released by the Blue Jays, which is to say he very well might be retired and he just doesn't know it. Maybe not, but he wasn't in demand three months ago, and he is exactly three months older today. Rather than write his official obituary, though, which is what I was planning during that little bit Tuesday morning, we can flip our perspective and admire these GIFs of Vladimir Guerrero as a teaser of what we are in store for if he does find another job. Or what we'll miss out on if he doesn't. I went through the PITCHf/x logs looking for: Vlad's worst swing of 2011, Vlad taking a called third strike, Vlad's worst swing on a 3-0 count and (going back three years) Vlad's worst swing that produced a hit. These are more or less the results. 

1. Vladimir Guerrero swinging at a pitch. 

Vladimir Guerrero is, in many ways, the last unGIFfable athlete. Obviously, he can be GIFfed; this is a GIF of him. But GIFs don't really capture him as well as good old-fashioned still photography does. What you see above is Vladimir Guerrero swinging at a pitch that hits the plate, as he is prone to do, but he doesn't look all that different from, say, Jeff Francoeur swinging at a pitch that hits the plate, as he is also prone to do. But here, in the single frame, the essence of Vladimir Guerrero emerges: 

Vladimir Guerrero looks unusual playing baseball—the first time I remember seeing an Old Hoss Radbourn tweet was during the 2009 ALCS, and it was something to do with Guerrero running like a polio victim—but it isn't quite the motion that is funny. It is each individual still that is funny. He is a flip book of neo-expressionist portraits. 

This, incidentally, is the pitch before that swing and miss: 

It was the exact opposite pitch. It was a ball, but it took an appeal to first to get him the call. 

And this, incidentally, is the pitch that came two pitches earlier: 

2. Vladimir Guerrero taking a two-strike pitch. 

He took three called third strikes all of last year. One was a breaking ball that he got fooled on, one was a fastball that the umpire made just an awful call on, and this one. A few pitchers earlier, Robertson had thrown a slider and Vlad had swung well out of the strike zone for it. The pitch before, Robertson had thrown a slider and Vlad had taken it. Clearly, he thought this was going to be a slider, but it wasn't, and that was that. 

Three parts about this, which are all clear in this frame:

The pitch was not quite a strike. It was just a little bit off the plate, according to PITCHf/x, but Vlad's body language is completely resigned to being called out. Vladimir Guerrero doesn't argue called strikes, because every pitch he sees looks like it is in the strike zone. "Oh, that was definitely a strike," he probably told the umpire just before the strike was called. Also, even when he takes a pitch, Vlad's body gets into a strange, unathletic posture. He takes a pitch like he's in a pie-eating contest. And, finally, this takes place in front of a Johnnie Walker advertisement. I wonder how different the world would be if Vladimir Guerrero had somehow been nicknamed Johnnie Walker as a kid. Maybe he would have drawn walks! See?

3. Vladimir Guerrero swinging at a 3-0 pitch. 

This is actually the best I could come up with for Guerrero swinging at 3-0. I expected better, but Guerrero isn't all that aggressive on 3-0; less aggressive than, for instance, Torii Hunter. That pitch would have been a strike, probably, but it is just about the worst possible pitch that could have been a strike. Moving on. 

4. Vladimir Guerrero doubling on a garbage pitch. 

I was talking to somebody about bloopers recently. This person doesn't like bloopers. Why celebrate the bad, his argument went, when there is so much amazing accomplishment? I like bloopers, because there is something dark and jarring about seeing these perfect physical machines lose their precision. The motion of top athletes is so breathtakingly beautiful that to see one of these machines malfunction takes on an uncomfortable significance. It is, even, a stand-in for death, if I can go so far. But I also appreciate what that guy is saying. It's pretty jerky to watch achievement after achievement and then pick out the isolated mistake. So Vladimir Guerrero is the compromise. Vladimir Guerrero is a blooper. Vladimir Guerrero is an achievement. Vladimir Guerrero can double on a pitch and look like this: 

I mean, his leg. What is his leg doing? This is exactly the posture Vladimir Guerrero would be in if a car had driven down the first base line and, at this instant, plowed into him.

I think we've probably seen the last of Vladimir Guerrero. If so, that's too bad. There will be players who swing as often as he does, and who hit as well as he does, and maybe who hit as well as he does while swinging as often as he does. But nobody will ever move like he does, and make you marvel at how that big clunky machine can work so well. 

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Vladimir Guerrero,  Blue Jays

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