One of the best pure hitters in the National League in the 1980s, Pedro Guerrero put up big numbers for the Los Angeles Dodgers, finishing third in MVP voting three times and fourth once.
For some reason, it took Guerrero seven years in professional ball before he made it to the big leagues. He languished in the Cleveland and LA minor league systems before finally earning a call to the majors by the Dodgers in 1980. Part of the reason he was stuck in the Dodger system was the glut of players who came through LA’s minor league pipeline as well as the stars who were playing at the big league level. Still, Guerrero was quite obviously a major league caliber hitter well before the Dodgers called him up. He hit .344 in three seasons at Triple-A from 1977-1979. He had 116 RBI in 134 games in 1978 and 103 in 113 the next season. He hit more than 20 homers and stole more than 20 bases at the Dodgers top minor league level. He was named a minor leaguer player of the year and league MVP in the minors. He went 5-for-8 in a September call-up in 1978 and then earned a month-long look in ’79 but was sent back to Albuquerque. Finally, in 1980, when he was nearly 24, Guerrero was given a shot, but even then the Dodgers made him their fourth outfielder. All he did was hit .322 with a slugging percentage just a tick under .500 in 200 plate appearances.
One of the problems was that the Dodgers couldn’t decide where to play Guerrero. They tried him in center field, first base, right field, left field, and third base in the minors. This was something the Dodgers did with a number of young players in the 1960s and 1970s. Bill Russell, Steve Garvey, and Steve Yeagar were all shuffled around until they were slotted in positions that suited the big league club. Guerrero’s timing was miserable: while his bat was ready to play in the majors by 1977, there was nowhere to play him. Garvey was at first, Ron Cey was at third, and the outfield was filled with the likes of Reggie Smith, Dusty Baker, and Rick Monday. But strangely, when the Dodgers needed a fourth outfielder in the late 1970s, rather than promote Guerrero, they went outside the organization for guys like Derrel Thomas and Von Joshua, players who were far less talented than Pedro.
At any rate, Guerrero finally opened their eyes in 1981 when he hit .325 with 10 homers in the first half of the strike-shortened season and made the National League All-Star team. To most observers he just appeared to be another great product of the filthy rich Dodger farm system rather than a gifted player who had been jerked around for too long. He hit .333 with a pair of homers and seven RBI in the Dodgers six-game victory over the New York Yankees in the ’81 World Series. He belted a solo blast off Ron Guidry in the 7th inning of Game Five that tied the game. Two days later he hit a homer in the clincher. For that, Pedro was named MVP of the Fall Classic.
Guerrero didn’t seem to mind that he’d gotten a late start, he made the most of his opportunity – he continued to hit and hit and hit. He clubbed 32 homers, drove in 100 runs, and swiped 22 based in 1982, finishing third in MVP voting. He had almost the exact same season in 1983, and two years later he carried the Dodgers to the post-season with a .320 average. That year he led the NL in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Throughout his career, Guerrero defied the stereotype of Latin players not taking pitches – he walked his fair share and had a .370 career OBP.
In 1984 the Dodgers tried to make Guerrero a third baseman but Pedro never made anyone forget Brooks Robinson at the hot corner. Within a few years he was splitting his time between left field and first base. In reality, Guerrero was a DH in a non-DH league. Like Rico Carty a generation before, Guerrero was born to do one thing – hit a baseball.
He hit a career-best .338 in 1987 and earned his fourth All-Star selection. It was his last full year with LA, as he was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals the next August for pitcher John Tudor. The trade rocked the Dodger clubhouse. The team, which hadn’t been picked to finish much higher than third or fourth by most experts, was in first place in the NL West at the time, and Guerrero’s veteran bat seemed critical in a weak lineup. The addition of Kirk Gibson had sparked the Dodgers in ’88, and Guerrero had missed most of June and July with an injury. Nevertheless, when he was shelved he was among the leaders in the league in batting. When he returned he slumped a little and his average had dropped almost 20 points when the Dodgers unloaded him for Tudor, who was seen as a veteran arm for the stretch run. The Dodgers won the pennant with a little help from Tudor, but mostly it was Orel Hershiser and Gibson who drove the team to the pennant and World Series title. Guerrero received a World Series ring for his four months on the team, but the sting was undeniable. Guerrero felt a little betrayed by being banished amid the championship season. In some ways, the arrival of Gibson marked a shift in the culture of the Dodger clubhouse and Guerrero didn’t fit in any more.
If Pedro was disappointed in being traded from LA, he didn’t let it show on the diamond. In 1989 he had one of his most productive seasons batting in the middle of the Cardinal lineup. Now 33 years old, Guerrero did his job: driving in speedsters Vince Coleman and Willie McGee. The right-handed slugger drove in a career-best 117 runs, batted .311, and led the NL with 42 doubles. He wasn’t quite as effective the next season and by 1991 the 35-year old was starting to fade. He didn’t earn a spot on the big league roster in 1993 and was granted his free agency. When no other club picked him up, instead of retiring Pedro inked a contract with Sioux Falls of the independent Northern League. Still wanting to hit the baseball, he played in the Mexican League in the winter and spent two more years chasing a return to the majors to no avail.
Guerrero retired with a career average of .300 on 1,618 hits in 1,536 games. He was a five-time All-Star, and won one Silver Slugger Award. He received National League MVP votes in six different seasons. Baseball author Bill James wrote that Guerrero was “the best hitter God has made in a long time.”
Highest Batting Average, 1980-1989 National League
1. Tony Gwynn … .332
2. Pedro Guerrero … .308
3. Tim Raines … .303
4. Lonnie Smith … .301
5. Keith Hernandez … .300
6. Jerry Mumphrey … .295
7. Willie McGee … .292
8. Bill Madlock … .292
9. Jose Cruz … .290
10. George Hendrick … .288