Yuli Gurriel, now with…plate discipline?!

First basemen were almost a given: big, strong, hulking guys that compensated their defensive shortcomings by providing the precious pop needed to bring home speedsters and hawkeyes playing in harder zones of the diamond.

In what is now officially the Longball, and Strikeout, era this distinction is eroding day by day, as more and more hitters patrolling the keystone, center, and even catchers(!), are not only able but required to bring at least a league-average bat with 10+ HR pop to be allowed into the clubhouse (unless they are called Jeff Mathis).

On a league that is abundant in sluggers first base has become almost a weakness! I mean, now that everybody can mash, your big and slow batter is one of the guys, just with less flexibilty and no defense to boot. On the other hand this “role dilution” made so that nowadays your man on first doesn’t have to be your cleanup hitter anymore, just a bat you need to fit in and don’t know where to field, DH notwithstanding.

First basemen in 2021 are a beautiful melting pot: some relics of the past are still in business (Pujols, Cabrera) and power options are not extinct yet (Alonso, Aguilar), although they have to walk a lot (Votto, Santana) and/or to be Gold Glovers, matching their offensive punch with clean and juicy scoops and saves (Olson, White, Rizzo).

First base is also a place to fit multipositional athletes when there’s no other vacancy, so you want to have a Muncy/Diaz in and all other positions are set. And then there’s a first basemen who doesn’t bring outrageous pop, has good yet not spectacular defensive skills and just doesn’t walk: it’s the Yuli Gurriel Experience.

As an Astros fan Yuli has become a mainstay in his strange nature at first. He has a slightly above-average bat by means of contact: while the pop is 20 HR at best, juiced balls and Crawford Boxes bonus excluded, Gurriel is one of the stingiest ABs in the league, a free swinger with elite bat to ball skills that is everything but Three True Outcomes: no Ks, no walks, some homers, a lot of short ABs and balls in play.

Or at least that’s who he was, because 2021 Yuli Gurriel is a novelty:

Seems like your reliable and steady Yuli: he hits the ball hard but with few Barrels, due to his helicopter swing being a groundball machine-gun, chases a bit but misses rarely, so that he is not strikeout-prone and walks his usual….ton!?

Believe it or not, 2021 Yuli Gurriel, after years in the 10th percentile, has taken residency along with the Trouts and Vottos (and Luis Urias?) of the world in the 95th BB%!

Plate discipline is hard to teach, not to mention that Gurriel at 36 y.o. is not a youngster in need of lessons anymore, but man, this is an unforeseeable rise from the ashes. How is Yuli doing it? Has he got a new pair of eyes? Has he drunk Juan Soto’s Secret Stuff?

Nothing major to point out here: if anything he’s grounding balls at a career rate, although harder than ever and less pull-happy than before so that more seeds are sneaking through the middle and the other way for clean base hits, and that explains a .358/.477/.491 line at least in the AVG and SLG part, but what in the world is a .100+ differential between AVG and OBP for Yuli Gurriel, noted BB hater?

Well hello there! Gurriel hasn’t become a plate savant overnight, he just made a conscious decision: let’s swing less. That is a little undeserving for him though: while he cut his swing rate from 49% to 42% that has to do with him not swinging on pitches out of the zone anymore, a conspicuous drop from 38% to 26%, rather than a unified approach, as he’s actually raised his Z-Swing% from a 2020 career low. The fact that pitchers are throwing in the zone at a measer 36% rate, way below league average, against him doesn’t hurt his newfound swing apaty.

You could imagine that less swings mean less contact, moreso for such an extreme contact-oriented hitter as Gurriel, yet that’s not the truth: his 2021 Contact rates are in line with his 2016–17 seasons, better even on a SwStr reduction.

Look at his value per plate zone in terms of swings and takes:

What was an overswinger became almost a little too passive! 2021 Gurriel dialed down the aggression slider to a low point, taking more and swinging at less pitches than the average hitter in both Heart and Shadow zones, for a combined -2 Run Value. Was it worth it? So far, a resounding yes: he is not chasing out of the zone as he used to, on par with the league in the Chase zone and even above that in the Waste, for a combined +8 Run Value from Take Runs.

One could stop here and acknowledge that, while swinging less in his entirety means both letting go some meatballs but also avoiding horrid chases, Yuli has improved his discipline a notch, and being patient is the engine of his torrid start.

Yet, there’s a small factor not to be underrated:

Baseball is a game of counterparts, so while he’s surely doing something, he’s also down to the mercy of opposing pitchers and they are being extremely kind: he is absolutely mashing fastballs of every sort and he’s seeing a lot of them but the real deal is a switch in the rate of breaking vs offspeed he’s encountering.

That has to do with an head-scratching series of matchups for the Houston Astros: while the season is still young they already went up against a number of lefties. Oakland greeted them with Manaea (x2), Luzardo and Irvin (x2), Seattle sent Kikuchi and Margevicius, Detroit presented Matthew Boyd, the Angels chose Quintana…all in all the Astros faced more lefty SP than righties!

Gurriel then was pitched accordingly, with less sliders and curves and more changeups, and that has been a boon: he is dishelving the cambio while struggling as usual on the sweepers. The blessings for Yuli don’t stop there:

This is where pitchers are throwing their heaters against Gurriel: in the zone and down, which is quite his wheelhouse. While he can extend on fastballs away for opposite field singles and his bat speed allows him to get on both high and in offerings, that red is where damage comes from, a nitro-zone where he can let the helicopter fly and pull some roasters to the friendly LF short porch.

Speaking of luck, you might have been thinking that Gurriel is running a hot streak and indeed he is: a .400 BABIP won’t stick for long, as testimonied by the fact that all his expected stats are 50–60 points lower than his actual ones, from AVG to wOBA.

That said he’s also being decent on the field (2 OAA)and on the bases (27 ft/s Sprint Speed, 0.4 Bsr), but he is, as usual, barreling almost nothing (no Solid Contact, 4.3% Barrel aka a single Barrel in all his Balls In Play) and getting a lot of Flares/Burners, a 39% clip that is ten points higher than his career mark.

So what to do of Yuli Gurriel’s 2021 April resurgence? Is it believable?

Yes and no: while the number of BBE (Batted Ball Events) is near the threshold so that we can consider Swing and Contact profiles as predictive on a full season scope, meaning that a Yuli that swings and chases much less could be fair and square, that doesn’t mean he also made strides with the bat.

On a near future he’s going to get more R-R matchups, a deluge of sliders and benders tailing away from his round bat path and therefore less changeups to crush. He’s also going to see better-placed fastballs and he’ll keep hitting them hard, although his patented slash won’t let him transform HardHits in Barrels as he’ll always lack a bit of LA.

That doesn’t mean he won’t produce, but I wouldn’t bet on him going more than 25 bombs and retaining a Bregman-like BB > K balance: the Yuli Gurriel Experience is going to be a little different, one where he also walks and maybe strikes out more, but it’ll amount to the same old, a quirky first baseman that does it (slightly) above average in his own way, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Plate discipline, batted ball and pitch value stats as per FanGraphs leaderboard, heatmaps, percentile rankings and swing-take profile as per Baseball Savant.

Italian baseball stathead. I’ll write about MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball and Korean dramas/shows. A lot of graphs, Astros related content and references.