Updated: Jun 8, 2022
Happy Birthday, Yuli
38 isn’t one of those milestone birthdays that you go crazy to celebrate. If you’re a bit younger, you are going to have to take me at my word. I turned 38 this past November, and I can tell you that instead of surprise parties, you wake up with surprise soreness. Yuli Gurriel turns 38 tomorrow. Happy Birthday, buddy. While Yuli and I may have age in common, we differ when it comes to our physical abilities. Yuli is a world class athlete. I eat chicken fingers for a living. The closest I get to playing baseball these days is rec league softball. We are not the same.
I have been vocal in my critique of Yuli's performance thus far in 2022 because there is ample measurable data that illustrates a clear difference between the player he has been and the player he is today. Does that mean his season (or career) is over? On the contrary. I believe in data so much so that I'm willing to bet on measurable improvement for Yuli over the rest of the season. If Yuli was a stock, I would be investing in him right now, with the caveat being that I know his value will rise over time, even if it's not going to make me rich.
Yuli Gurriel is one of the better professional hitters of this generation, but because he didn’t come to the states until age 32, the majority of baseball fans are oblivious to how good he was prior to joining the Houston Astros. He comes from the most famous baseball family in Cuba, and Yuli himself became the face of Cuban baseball prior to arriving in the big leagues with the Astros. He’s a gold medal Olympian, a batting champ, a gold glove winner, and a World Series Champion.
Yuli is also struggling at the plate thus far in 2022. Unfortunately, the offense as a whole isn’t hitting like many expected, so Yuli’s slow start is receiving added scrutiny. I decided to dig into the numbers to see what’s contributing to the decreased production and predict what the rest of the year looks like for Yuli.
Throw Away xBA
As a generation of baseball fans, we've traded old stats for real time data thanks to the accessibility of Statcast numbers. I need you to forget everything you think know about these numbers when it comes measuring Yuli Gurriel's performance at the plate.
Yuli has never been the type of guy who barrels a ton of pitches. He's never going to lead the league in exit velocity or hit the longest home run of the season. Expected batting average (or xBA) loves exit velo and launch angle, but it doesn’t account for spray. Yuli is a bat-to-ball hitter who generally thrives by hitting line drives. Because of this, Yuli has outperformed his xBA in every full season he has played. Additionally, when he swings, he rarely whiffs, which means more balls put in play, and inevitably more hits. A batted ball will always produce a greater hit probability than a strikeout because seeing eye singles get through even when they don't have great Statcast figures; a strikeout will never result in a hit.
This batting prowess has always been predicated on Yuli's ability to cover the plate and hit consistent line drives. Fans often like to point out that Gurriel won the batting title in 2021. Those same fans might be shocked to learn that he had exactly ONE more hit in 2021 than he had in 2019. He had just over 600 plate appearances both seasons. What made Yuli such a valuable batter in 2021? He displayed plate discipline that he had never exhibited in prior seasons stateside. He drew walks at a 9.8% clip in 2021. That number put him in the 63% range among all hitters, but more importantly, it more than doubled the career 4.7% walk rate he had from 2016-2020.
Walks, of course, do not count as At Bats when batting average is calculated. They fall under the category of Plate Appearances. His increased walk rate delivered a batting title, even though he had just 1 more hit on the year.
From a Batting Title to Battling his Approach
One of the first arguments people make when defending Yuli is that he didn’t forget how to hit overnight. I completely agree! It is possible, however, that his approach reverted back to resemble the tendencies established his first 5 seasons in the league.
As we just discussed, Yuli’s plate approach in 2021 was an outlier from the rest of his time in MLB which led to him doubling the number of times he walked. In an effort to understand how exactly that happened, I looked at heat maps and swing data.
In 2021, he swung at pitches outside of the zone just 24% of the time, which is a full 6% lower than his career average. He also reduced his swing percentage to just 42.8% of pitches. This combination shows us that he was able to wait for his pitch better than he has at any point in his MLB career, which allowed him to make higher quality contact when he decided to pull the trigger.
The swing data certainly shows us why he was able to perform so well in 2021, but it doesn’t explain his struggles thus far in 2022. If anything, the numbers appear close to his career norms. So what has led to this sudden decline in offensive output?
To understand this, we're going to look at what pitches he is swinging at, and what the outcomes of those ABs are. Let's start with the swings. I intentionally discarded 2020 data because part of this exercise is to look at what Yuli has done in a small sample while also projecting what we might see the rest of the year.
Do you remember those highlights of Yuli turning on pitches that are up and in, getting the barrel to the ball, pulling the ball to left? Historically, he has been really effective at getting around on pitches up in the zone, and by looking at his heat charts, we can see that Yuli still likes the ball high. Unfortunately, nearly 75% of his hits have come on pitches down and away. This is happening, in spite of the fact that the majority of his hard contact is occurring when he is able to get his hands extended on pitches up and on the outer third.
So let's review: Yuli likes the ball up. Yuli is swinging at the ball up. Yuli is getting most of his liners on balls up. Yuli is getting most of his hits on balls down. What in the world is going on?
"We're all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children's game, we just don't know when that's gonna be. Some of us are told at eighteen, some of us are told at forty, but we're all told." - Moneyball
Father time is undefeated. Tom Brady and Justin Verlander are challenging this notion, but the reality is that every athlete slows down just a bit as they age. I hate that I even have to say this the day before his birthday, but the circumstantial data suggests that Yuli's swing may have slowed down a tick.
Look at the steady decrease in line drives on those pitches up on the inner third over the last 3 seasons. To me, that tells me the mind is willing but the body may not be as able as it once was. Yuli has 38 years of hand-eye coordination programmed into his brain, and when he sees that pitch, his instinct is to try to turn on it. This says nothing of the ever increasing velocity we are seeing around the league. It is harder than ever for righty to get around on an inside pitch. This is showing up in his strikeouts, as well.
This is probably where Yuli fans are starting to get frustrated or angry with me. Remember, this is a break down, not a reason to have a breakdown. Take a deep breath. Stick with me. I'm about to tell you why he's going to be ok.
A New Approach
If that ability to consistently make hard contact on the inner third is fading, the key for Yuli is going to be refining his approach a bit to focus middle away. We saw that he has made consistent hard contact up and away, and I want to see him continue to pursue those pitches aggressively. While the results haven't been there just yet, this appears to be a matter of bad luck more than bad approach. His BABIP is just .247 against a career average of .297 meaning you can bet on hits starting to fall over the long run.
Waiting on the law of averages isn't fun, and results don't happen by accident. This change in approach would mean that Yuli would begin to swing less at those pitches up and in, even though we have seen him do impressive things on such pitches in his career. Yuli's current K rate of 14.9% is still elite, but his career number was 10.9% entering the year. The biggest change? Whiffing on those balls up and in with 2 strikes.
The Eye Test
Remember when I told you to forget everything you knew about xBA because Yuli is better than a computer can account for? Let's amend that instruction. I want you to focus on half of the xBA formula, and that's launch angle.
Launch angle is created by getting your bat on plane with the incoming pitch. The higher the launch angle, the higher the arc of the ball. Yuli has been most effective in his career with a season average launch angle between 13 and 14%. His number this year, as of this writing, sits at 15.3%. That indicates that he is popping up or hitting lazy fly balls more than is ideal for him. As we watch the rest of the season, we are looking to see Yuli hit more liners, fewer pop ups and fly balls. You can think of this as the eye test while watching games.
Why Yuli will succeed down the stretch
Yuli is one of the best professional hitters in the last 20 years. Had he spent his entire career in MLB, he would have over 2000 hits. As many of you have mentioned, guys like that don't just forget how to hit overnight. Bat speed does decrease over time, however. The body heals slower during long road trips. Things hurt that didn't hurt when you were younger. Those are all just facts of life. How a hitter responds to the challenges associate with age can add years to their career.
We already saw Yuli get himself in the best shape of his life heading into spring training this year. The dedication is there. The Astros front office and coaching staff are both among the best in the game. To say that he has every tool needed to get himself back on track is an understatement. The numbers are there, as well, as long as he is hunting his pitch. Why should you believe in numbers? Given enough time, they always do what they're supposed to, especially where it concerns averages.
The most important thing we can do is align on what success looks like the rest of the way. If I say, "Yuli will bounce back," and you're expecting him to hit .300 the second half of the season, I think you're going to be disappointed. What we are looking for is a regression to some statistical norms.
We know that Yuli outperforms xBA because he strikes out less than the average hitter. We also know that BABIP should balance out to something in the .270 range, even in the unluckiest of seasons. That information alone tells me that we can project Yuli to be approximately a .250-.260 hitter the rest of the way with an OPS near .750.
I have asked if Astros fans were ready to have an honest conversation about Yuli Gurriel. If you made it this far, thank you for engaging. I just predicted a 130 point improvement to his OPS, but that's still a far cry from his career peak. I have legitimate concerns about his bat speed, particularly the ability to hit the fastball in. You know what I don't have concerns about? A guy with a 750 OPS hitting 6th in my lineup. That makes him a quality player for this 2022 Astros club, capable of driving in runs and keeping the line moving. This is also an incredibly safe projection. Yuli has traditionally been a 2nd half hitter who really goes off in July. There's no reason to think he won't do that this year.