As the sun set on the Montreal Expos’ 1996 season, a season in which they would finish eight games back of the Atlanta Braves in the NL East, a 21-year-old outfielder stepped to the plate for his first swings in the Major League. The results were largely unimpressive. Over nine games, he hit .185 with no walks and an OPS below .500.
The next season, that same player would launch an assault on baseballs everywhere with a wild, tomahawk swing and a reckless disregard for the strike zone. It would spark a career that would span sixteen seasons, encompassing nine All Star games, six postseason appearances, and a World Series berth.
The player in question, of course, is none other than Vladimir Guerrero.
From 1997, it was obvious that Guerrero was going to be a special player. In the 90 games he played, Guerrero beat the tar out of the ball. He hit .302 with 11 home runs, an OPS of .833, and an OPS+ of 117. Guerrero would finish 6th in voting for Rookie of the Year, behind players like Scott Rolen and Livan Hernandez.
The remainder of Guerrero’s stint in Montreal was no less impressive. In the six remaining seasons he spent north of the US-Canada border, Vlad the Impaler hit well over .300 in all of them. He hit 222 home runs and posted a total WAR of 32.6. He finished in the top 20 in MVP voting five times, including a 4th place finish in 2002.
That was Guerrero’s greatest season as an Expo. Vladdy batted .336 with an OPS of 1.010, with 39 home runs and 111 runs batted in. His OPS+ reached an unreal level of 164. That season also saw Guerrero – never exactly the most graceful defenseman in the outfield – post one of his best defensive seasons, with a UZR of 6.3.
Guerrero’s WAR that year? A whopping 7.2, which is an exceptional season by any standards.
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Sadly, the next season in Montreal would be Guerrero’s last. He lost time to a back injury and, for the first time since 1998, he missed the All Star Game, but Guerrero still posted an OPS over 1 and more than 25 home runs. He even managed to hit for the cycle in September.
At the end of his tenure in Montreal, Guerrero left as the franchise leader in batting average (.323), home runs (234), slugging (.588), and OPS (.978). Perhaps the only blemish on Guerrero’s time in the great white north was his failure to carry his team to a single postseason berth, though it wasn’t for lack of trying.
As a free agent, Guerrero signed a five year, $70 million contract with the Anaheim Angels. In his first season, he carried the Angels to an NL West title and won AL MVP honors with 126 RBI, 39 home runs, and an OPS of .989.
Unfortunately, in the first postseason appearance of his career, Guerrero was a non-factor, posting a meager .167 average as the Angels were swept by the Red Sox in three games in the ALDS.
Guerrero would spend five more seasons with the Halos. He would post an average above .300 all but one year and make the All Star team all but two; he never failed to post an OPS+ above 100. He hit 173 home runs, continuing his run as an offensive juggernaut as he also continued to batter balls that most hitters would consider garbage pitches. Twice during his tenure in Anaheim, the Angels reached the ALCS, but fell short of baseball’s Fall Classic both times.
It was not until he reached Arlington in 2010 that Guerrero finally got his shot at a championship. At the ripe old age of 35, Vladdy joined a Rangers team loaded with young talent that had grown tired of being killed by Guerrero’s wild swings (he hit .395 with an OPS of 1.122 in 108 career games against Texas).
As a DH and part-time right fielder, Guerrero was a key cog in helping the Rangers reach their first ever World Series, though they would fall to the Giants in 5 games. In that series, Guerrero hit an awful .071 with a single and a walk in 16 plate appearances.
Guerrero would play only one more season, this one in Baltimore. In his last season, Vladdy posted respectable numbers as a full-time DH, hitting .290. Unfortunately, Guerrero’s power seemed to have left him, as he only hit 13 home runs in 590 plate appearances. In 2012, he played a few games in the minors for A and AAA affiliates of the Blue Jays before requesting his release on June 12, 2012.
Following his brief time in the minors, Guerrero faded into baseball’s background. He quit on his team after 8 games in the Dominican Professional Leagues, and he failed to ever appear for the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League. Finally, Vladdy decided to hang it up in March of 2014. He signed a one day contract with the Angels and made his retirement official.
For his career, Guerrero finished with 2,590 hits and 449 home runs, a career batting average of .318 and an OPS of .931. He was a nine time All0Star, an MVP winner, and a naturally talented slugger who never met a pitch he didn’t like. It remains to be seen whether Guerrero will make the Hall of Fame; he never reached the sort of milestones (500 home runs; 3,000 hits) that voters favor. But there’s no doubt that Guerrero was a force to be reckoned with at the plate.
Though he never managed to bring home an elusive championship, Guerrero was a key piece of several great teams that fell just short. He played the game with an unquestioned passion and a swing that was as naturally powerful as it was reckless. His mark on baseball over 16 seasons is unquestioned.
And to think that it all started one day in late September in Montreal.