EL PASO — As minor league baseball returned after a full year away due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, there were more questions than normal as players gathered in Florida and Arizona for Spring Training in 2021. Most pressing was how prospects would perform after an entire year either at an alternate training site or, in most cases, away from competition altogether.
This was the backdrop against which Jordan Guerrero made his return to the Padres, having spent his entire age 24 season, ostensibly his Double-A year, at home.
“I spent the first couple of months throwing with my dad in Sarasota, Florida,” Guerrero told MadFriars in a recent interview, “My mom, she’s a nurse, so she took a COVID job in Sugar Land, Texas, and then Dennison, Texas, so when my dad left, I started throwing with a good friend of mine, Greg. We just kept it going, and it helped that if I wanted to go long that day, I would go long, and if I wanted to go short, we’d go short.”
Coming off a 2019 season in which he went 2-3 with a 2.05 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and a 57:19 K:BB ratio in 52.2 innings in Lake Elsinore, Guerrero spent his days working out and sharpening his approach to pitching.
“I learned over 2020, the COVID year, when I was throwing with my dad, just to work on the mental part of the game. Obviously, the physical side shows for itself, but for me it was the mental, remaining locked in and remaining focused.”
The physical side definitely does show, as the 6-foot-5 reliever is approximately 300 pounds of muscle. He first caught the notice of many observers by topping 100 mph with his fastball in 2018 while pitching for Tri-City and Fort Wayne (“I’ve always been a big fastball guy,” Jordan added with a smile).
It’s those physical tools which got Guerrero on the radar of the Padres, who selected him 177th overall, in the sixth round of the 2015 draft out of Polk State College in Florida. Since then, he’s worked to improve his pitch mix, adding a splitter in recent years. “The splitter, I honed it in a couple years ago with Hideo Nomo, so that’s helped me,” Guerrero said.
Despite the big frame and big fastball, it hasn’t always been easy for Guerrero, however. In 2016, he posted a 23:22 K:BB ratio in 37.1 innings for the Tri-City Dust Devils, the then-short season Single-A affiliate of the Padres. Batters hitting .265 against him, and he’d allowed 39 hits.
“My first couple years, I was forcing myself to be someone I wasn’t, because I wanted everyone to like me, and I wanted to be perfect,” Guerrero said of his early experience in the minor leagues.
In a bit of sage advice that is applicable to any facet of anyone’s life, Jordan attributes all the changes he’s made to a core change in himself:
“My biggest improvement is learning myself overall.”
His 2017 season, split between Tri-City and Fort Wayne, paid dividends from that change, with a 2.10 ERA, 52:17 K:BB, and 1.19 WHIP in 34.1 innings. Reflecting on his personal growth that began around this time, Guerrero said “Over the years, I learned mistakes are going to happen, the good outings are going to happen, some guys are going to be your best friends, and some guys are just going to be your teammates.”
Relief pitchers in general should be aggressive in the zone, and in Guerrero’s case, it makes particular sense. If you can touch 100, you should definitely bring it. But even in his home workouts in 2020, he found himself being too much of a perfectionist.
“I’m a big believer that if you’re a pitcher, you should strike everyone out on three pitches. I know some guys don’t believe that. But sometimes I was trying to strike a guy out on the first pitch, rather than the third pitch.”
As Guerrero continued to work on his approach, he found himself learning to take it one pitch at a time, rather than being focused on the result from the get-go. “It was more making that switch, pitch by pitch, knowing the outs would come,” Guerrero added about this change. “Instead of thinking ‘oh, I’m going to strike this guy out’, but it’s an 0-0 count, or it’s a 2-0 count. I’ve just got to take everything pitch by pitch.”
The work paid off, as Jordan returned to the Padres and impressed in Spring Training, including three innings in Major League camp in which he struck out five of the 11 batters he faced without walking anyone. He found himself assigned to the Alternate Site in Peoria until the Triple-A season began, then broke camp with El Paso for the first time.
In a 2021 in which Guerrero went 4-0 with a 4.02 ERA for El Paso, with a 40:18 K:BB ratio in 40.1 innings, he emphasized diving into the advanced metrics of the game more than he ever had before.
“This is the first year I’ve looked into the analytics of it, of how my induced vertical break, my horizontal break work, and what spots work well,” Jordan said. “I’ve also looked into scouting reports a little more this year. I’ve never really done that in the past.”
As his first year in the hitter-friendly Triple-A West unfolded, Guerrero continued his quest to learn more about himself. “Now I know why my fastball plays well up,” he said when asked what he had learned from analytics. “For my entire career, I would just see the catcher put down the “one” sign and it would be top of the zone, and guys would swing through it. So now it makes sense to me why those guys swing through it.”
Unfortunately for the big man, his progression ended early due to injury. A few days after leaving the mound, he underwent Tommy John Surgery on August 17. But even as a season of significant progress is cut short, creating a new challenge ahead, Guerrero looks ahead with perspective.
“I’ve got to take care of that and start the rehab process, and see where everything takes me. I’ll be back in a year or so.
“The toughest part of pro ball is the uncertainty. You just never know what can happen.”