Normally, annually, I give a run down on the Hall of Fame ballot newcomers and holdovers separately, but it isn’t every year Vladimir Guerrero makes his debut on the ballot. But it isn’t every year that a newcomer looks like an obvious, no-questions-asked Hall of Famer in spite of his flaws. And, despite the likelihood that he may not make it first ballot because what’s with or ahead of him looks just that good.
Just that good, but not even close to Guerrero’s league for the joy that bordered on the terminally hysterical. He entered the on deck circle looking as though he’d crumple if he didn’t get to take his turn at bat like five minutes ago; he entered the batter’s box as if he wanted to holler at the pitcher to hurry it up lest his fun be spoiled on the spot. He probably had more fun striking out than most players have hitting tape measure home runs.
I voted for Guerrero on the annual Internet Baseball Writers Association of America (IBWAA) Hall of Fame ballot. He may be likelier to win that ballot than the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot that actually puts men into the Hall, this time, which means I won’t get to vote for him next year, more’s the pity. You wish you had men like him, performance papers and infectious fun alike, to vote for every year.
Until Mike Trout (who also wears Guerrero’s former uniform number 27) happened along Guerrero was the most electrifying player in an Angels uniform. It isn’t even close. He got standing ovations in Angel Stadium just stepping into the on-deck circle, and that was even more telling than the similar joy he stirred in Montreal before signing as a free agent with the Angels. General Electric had nothing on this guy.
He didn’t just hit home runs, he hit howitzer shots. Even if he didn’t hit one into the seats what he hit scared the opposition’s poor souls having to catch or field it. “I watched this guy destroy us,” says Doug Glanville, remembering Philadelphia days against Guerrero. “Everything you threw up there, he hit hard. It was ridiculous. He hit balls that didn’t make sense. And he would hit balls with crazy English and crazy spin. It was like there were chainsaws coming at you.”
Quick. Name the best and most dangerous bad ball hitter in baseball history who isn’t named Yogi Berra. It isn’t even close. Vlad the Impaler would swing at anything he thought his bat could reach. Which is to say, anything he could see that wasn’t a) straight over his head; or, b) closer to the on-deck circle than the plate. Think I’m exaggerating? Don’t ask Rheal Cormier. In 2001, the Phillies pitcher threw a pitch Glanville swears was located in the other batter’s box. Guerrero smashed it for a game-ending home run.
Angels third base coach turned bench coach Dino Ebel tells a story: Ebel consented to pitch to Guerrero during one year’s All-Star Game Home Run Derby. On the advice of teammate Garret Anderson, who’d won the Derby the previous year, Guerrero decided not to swing at just anything. “He took more pitches from me than he did in his whole career,” Ebel cracked.
I almost said Guerrero would swing at anything that didn’t hit the ground, but he also swung at pitches that looked reachable even if they did hit the ground first. And, he’d get base hits off them. Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, working as an Orioles broadcaster, watched Guerrero smack one that bounced in front of the plate and remarked it was the first time in 47 years in baseball he’d ever seen a hitter do a drop kick with a bat.
Yogi Berra was notorious for calling any pitch he’d hit a letter high strike even if it didn’t arrive anywhere near the plate’s area code. He also averaged—brace yourselves—32 strikeouts per 162 games. For any hitter that’s off the chart. For a bad-ball hitter that’s the most unheard-of thing anyone ever heard of.
Guerrero was that kind of unheard-of: he averaged a measly 74 Ks per 162 games and struck out more than 80 times only once. The difference between his and Berra’s K averages is easily explained: Yogi didn’t face pitching as tough as Guerrero did. And observers became accustomed enough to their production that they were maybe the only two bad-ball hitters at whom nobody screamed, “What are you swinging at?!?”
It’s tough to argue with a guy who hit .318 lifetime with a .379 lifetime on-base percentage and a little over a third of his hits extra bases—including 449 home runs. Only ten retired players (Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols are still active) have hit over .300 lifetime and 400+ home runs: Guerrero, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Frank Thomas, Mel Ott, Lou Gehrig, and Stan Musial. If it matters to you, the only thing keeping Guerrero from the 500+ home run club was injuries, particularly when his back and legs began showing the effect of all those years playing on the Montreal rug, but also the occasional knee and shoulder issue. (He once suffered a frightful shoulder separation diving into home plate.)
Guerrero took his hardscrabble Dominican youth into baseball and played the game with second-to-none enthusiasm borne perhaps of some of that boyhood desperation. The problem was when it bordered on reckless, especially in the field. He had comparable tools in right field to what he had at the plate, but he was too eager to use his throwing arm (it was one of the best in the business) to discipline it.
He threw too many airmails trying to gun runners down at third or at the plate. It gave him more errors than he probably deserved, and served as a kind of object lesson about tempering enthusiasm with concentration. But it did keep a lot of third base coaches busy trying to keep their baserunners from advancing too far. If there’s a record for most runners held in check despite throws sailing past bases or into the seats, it’s probably a fair guess that Guerrero is in the top ten.
Vlad the Impaler won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in his first year with the Angels. He crowned it by almost singlehandedly keeping the 2004 Red Sox from marching too soon into their fateful American League Championship Series. With two out and Mike Timlin on in relief of Bronson Arroyo for the Red Sox in division series Game Three, he hit a monstrous game-tying grand slam about a mile over the Green Monster on a strike one pitch in the top of the seventh. It took David Ortiz to send the Red Sox to the ALCS on a sweep in the bottom of the tenth with a game-and-set-ending blast.
Guerrero looks better on the traditional stats than the advanced ones, but it’s enough to make him a Hall of Famer according to the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor (he’s at 209—109 points above the average Hall of Famer) and the Bill James Hall of Fame standards (he meets 58, eight points above the average Hall of Famer). He’s also in the top fifty for lifetime win probability added, and finished top ten in his league seven times, four with the Angels.
He did hit into a lot of double plays, which might surprise you considering his running speed: he had a .658 lifetime stolen base percentage. Again, the answer is simple: Guerrero hit balls so hard that when he shot them on the ground they sped up to infielders and gave them time to turn the DPs even though he was gunning it up the first base line.
Big Daddy Vladdy (nicknamed thus by then-Angels broadcaster Rex Hudler, with fans picking up on it affectionately) was also a terrific teammate, especially after beginning to make serious money: stories abound about about Guerrero and his mother making sumptuous meals for both teams on his homestands, and his was the kind of infectious pleasure that required no translator in the clubhouse. All he had to do was flash his Christmas tree-like smile—which he did more often than not.
On a ballot less crowded with either obvious first ballot candidates or those returning candidates with better shots of making it, Guerrero might be a first ballot Hall of Famer. But he’ll get in sooner or later. He deserves to get in sooner. In six words: this guy was a wrecking machine.
The wrinkle: A small majority of his Hall case comes from his Montreal seasons, but he chose to retire as an Angel when offered the chance to do so. (Guerrero played a season each with the Rangers and the Orioles at the end of his major league career; the Expos moved to Washington to become the Nationals during Guerrero’s Angels years.) And, when he was healthy, there’s no question but that he played like a Hall of Famer in his Angel years, too, and they wouldn’t have won without him. It’s even money which cap will appear on his head when his plaque is struck, bearing in mind two Hall of Famers (Gary Carter—who preferred otherwise—and Andre Dawson) appear in Expos caps on their plaques but none appear with an Angels cap.
A personal note: My son Bryan idolised Guerrero for as long as he was an Angel. Once, when we were sitting in the uppermost of the Angel Stadium nosebleeds down the left field line, with the Angels hosting the Mariners, he bellowed out through the racket, “Hit a home run, Vladimir Guerrero!!” Sure enough, two pitches later Vlad the Impaler drove one into the left field seats, opening the bottom of the fifth by getting the Angels on the board for the first time after going in the hole 5-0 through four full.
That was the same game, against Seattle, in which Hall of Famer-in-waiting Ichiro Suzuki opened the top the ninth off Troy Percival with a first-pitch, line drive homer into the right field bleachers, tying the game at seven. The game went to extras.
Bryan urged me to take him down to the lower seats now that the park was emptying. By the time we got to the left field bleachers, behind the bullpens, with Curtis Pride aboard and nobody out against Eddie Guardado, Jose Guillen drove a strike one pitch twelve rows behind the bullpens and in front of us to win it.