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The Yuli Conundrum

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.