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The Evolution of El Piña

How Yulieski Gurriel has developed as a Major League first-baseman

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MLB: Houston Astros at Seattle Mariners Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Not many fans knew what to expect when the Astros signed the little covered Cuban infielder, Yulieski Gurriel, to a five-year, $47.5-million deal in the midst of the 2016 season. The 32 year-old had hit well in Cuba and Japan, but the MLB would be a different animal, and it wasn’t clear if Gurriel could shake off the rust in time to boost Houston’s offense down a crucial stretch.

Gurriel’s debut with the Astros in 2016, 36 games and 137 plate appearances in total after a late August debut, ended as a bit of a disappointment. It probably shouldn’t have, since it was a small sample, he had a .267 BABIP, and the last time Gurriel had played professionally was in 2015. But nonetheless, his .262/.292/.385 slashline and 83 wRC+ raised concerns about his viability manning the right side of the infield long-term.

Its not as if people were up in arms about Yulieski, but there wasn’t an abundance of optimism either. After a slow start in 2017, articles like this one suggested the Astros may need to look elsewhere for a first-baseman, and projection models were unanimously bearish on Gurriel, now 33 at the time.

Most of all, people still weren’t sure what to expect from the man with crazy hair they called El Pina, but that soon changed.

Approach at the Plate

One of the major criticisms of Yuli in 2016 was his lack of discipline at the plate. His swing rates at balls both in and out of the zone ranked at the top of the league, and he didn’t make up for his all or nothing approach with enough power. For someone who was louded for his BB/K numbers coming into the league, this was not an encouraging sign, especially since Gurriel was not seen as much of an defensive asset.

In 2017, he remedied this. The first part was obvious regression - Gurriel’s BABIP rose from .267 in 2016 to .308 in 2017 - but give credit to Yuli for making big strides as a Major League hitter.

In 2017, Yulieski took a noticeably slower approach at the plate - his O-Swing% dropped from 38.4% to 32.8%, his Z-Swing% from 73.2% to 66.6%, and his SwStr% from 8.7% to 8.1%, all of which helped Gurriel do a better job of working counts.

With more favorable counts, the next step was waiting for the right pitch and swinging with conviction. From 2016 to 2017, Yuli’s wRC+ rose from 83 to 118, his ISO rose from .123 to .187, and his slashline improved from .262/.292/.385 to .299/.332/.486. It was clear that the veteran rookie just needed a little time to get accumulated to MLB pitching, and he was beginning to look like what the scouting reports said he’d be - an aggressive above-average hitter with good contact and solid power.

In 2018 the luck has continued to sway towards Yuli’s side, with his BABIP currently sitting at a dangerously high level of .327, but there are reasons to continue to be optimistic about Gurriel offensively. Yuli has always had great bat on ball skills, and that his risen to new heights this season, with career bests in contact (85%) and zone contact (93.1%). El Piña makes contact on pitches in the zone more often than anyone on the Astros, and his Z-Contact% is 14th in the Majors. Yulieski makes contact at a decent rate on pitches of all variety, but it is clear that when he waits for strikes, he’s going to put a bat on it.

Part of what makes Yuli effective is his aggressive approach at the plate, but it seems like if he were a bit more selective he would have better results overall. Yuli will never be a guy whose on-base-percentage is a hundred basis points over his batting average, but his career 4 BB% means he is nearly never a threat to steal a free base. He already very rarely strikes out - just pare that with a semi-reasonable walk-rate and you’ve got an even more dangerous hitter.

Gurriel’s 117 wRC+ on the season may be unsustainable, based on his BABIP and decline in power (.134 ISO), but he should continue to put a lot of balls in play and hit for a decent average.

Big Time Players Step Up in Big Games

It doesn’t matter if you don’t buy into the notion that players who have performed well in the clutch will necessarily continue to do so - el Piña has already delivered in such monumental moments that he could never get a hit with runners-on again and we could still call it even with the baseball gods.

This home run off Clay Kershaw might be the greatest moment in World Series history. Things were looking bleak for the Astros, with arguably the best pitcher ever operating with a comfortable lead, but Gurriel was not letting Houston go into Los Angeles facing elimination. Say what you will about Joe Buck, but the call “Gurriel has tied it”, as simple as it was, was nothing short of legendary.

The home run ignited one of the most back and forth, high-intensity games of baseball I have ever witnessed. The crazy thing is if Gurriel just slightly miss-hits this, do the Astros win a World Series? Nobody knows, but I’d say most are pretty content with what Yuli has accomplished in crunch time so far in his career.

But the crazy thing is he isn’t slowing down - he’s only getting better. One would usually expect players hitting exceptionally well in high-leverage situations to regress, but the opposite has been true for Gurriel.

Gurriel’s Situational wRC+

Year 2016 2017 2018
Year 2016 2017 2018
Men on Base 71 132 145
Men in Scoring 129 135 196

I’m no mathematician, but I have a feeling that if the guys who wrote the Book updated the section concerned with the unsuitability of “clutch” performance, they would have to add a major asterisks to their thesis concerning “the pineapple”.

Defensive Improvement

The last thing I want to praise Yuli for is his vast improvement as a Major League first-baseman defensively.

When I said earlier that some were initially skeptical of Yuli, I doubt that his colossal glove did much reassuring.

But give credit where its due - Yuli has settled in nicely as a serviceable first-baseman, and has progressed from below average to about par. I omit his 2016 season because he only logged 36 innings playing the field that season.

Gurriel Defensive Metrics

2017 -5 -6.2
2018 1 -0.8

If we dig even deeper, using Inside Edge fielding from Fangraphs, we can actually see how well Gurriel does on specific plays on a basis of difficulty. Based on the numbers, Gurriel does fine making plays deemed “routine” or “easy”, has room to improve on plays with “average” difficulty, and actually does pretty well on defensive plays with a “remote” success rate.

Gurriel Inside Edge Fielding

Season Impossible (0%) Remote (1-10%) Unlikely (10-40%) Even (40-60%) Likely (60-90%) Routine (90-100%)
Season Impossible (0%) Remote (1-10%) Unlikely (10-40%) Even (40-60%) Likely (60-90%) Routine (90-100%)
Career 0.00% 8.30% 18.20% 25% 78.30% 97.10%

What does this tell us? Hard to say, because you need a lot of data to take much from fielding metrics (which is why I used his career numbers rather than splitting by year), but one could probably assume he is a player with raw defensive talent that needs a bit more grooming - which is consistent with what we’ve seen and his scouting report coming in, being a natural third-baseman.

Putting it all Together

Yulieski Gurriel has developed into a very serviceable Major League first-baseman, and he will enjoy an elevated status in Houston sports lore due to his relevance in bringing the city their first ever World Series, and because of his continued cold-blooded performance in the clutch.

Gurriel is already 34, but any impending regression should be somewhat off-set by continued improvement at first-base defensively. Overall, I’d say “el Piña” has been a pretty good investment by Luhnow & Co.