The Astros are currently sporting a 3-1 lead in the ALCS over the Yankees, which is somewhat a wonder considering how Game 1 went down last Saturday. A word of caution, though: The series isn’t over. Both clubs have areas in where they can improve, which may determine how this series concludes this weekend.
Take Houston’s lineup as an example. While the unit has started to show signs of life over the past few games, it still isn’t operating at the full “Death Star” status that we became accustomed to during the regular season. For a club with a historic offense that is still struggling overall in the postseason, the fact that they are up in the ALCS speaks to how well the pitching staff has held up and the quality of timely hits when they needed it the most.
The Astros are hitting .182 and slugging .336 as a team in the ALCS and averaging 3.8 runs per game. Yet, they're up 3-1.— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) October 18, 2019
Postseason baseball, however, is largely dictated on small samples. While momentum isn’t viewed as a “skill”, there is something to be said for clubs who are hot, cold, or somewhere in between. But if enough games transpire, we can start to wonder when the long-term trends will start to make its presence known.
In other words, who is close to breaking out and bucking small samples?
For the Astros, it may be their first baseman, Yuli Gurriel.
Jose Altuve (16 batted ball results) and Yuli Gurriel (17 batted ball results) have an average exit velocity of 88.4 MPH in the ALCS. While the former has a .918 OPS against the Yankees, the latter only has a .174 OPS.— Astros Stats (@astro_numbers) October 18, 2019
In this ALCS against New York, the thirty-five year old has slashed a miserable .063/.111/.063 through 17 plate appearances. In a way, Gurriel has become the poster boy for the club’s struggles with runners in scoring position, or even on-base. He, in fact, leads the club during this series with eleven batted ball results with runners on. However, he has only driven in one run while moving the runner in another, both of which were Michael Brantley. You can also include a fielding error from DJ LeMahieu in last night’s Game 4, which advanced Alex Bregman to third base. But the point remains the same: Gurriel hasn’t had a strong offensive series.
But there are indications that an improvement may be around the bend. For example, Gurriel’s postseason BABIP is currently .194, which is well below his .289 mark in the regular season. Can’t expect that number to remain low forever, although it isn’t a guarantee it’ll improve in the postseason. Also, as noted in the above tweet, Gurriel has posted some respectable exit velocity numbers on batted balls, which is in line with Jose Altuve, who has a .918 OPS compared to Gurriel’s paltry .174.
The primary issue?
His batted balls aren’t simply falling for hits.
Take a look at this line out caught by Aaron Hick in Game 3, when Gurriel came to bat with two runners on. By the way, the expected batting average (xBA) on the line out was .618.
In the ALCS alone, Gurriel has recorded ten line drive or fly outs. One sacrifice fly did drive in a run back in Game 3, but the point remains. He has, more or less, been hitting the ball right at the fielder. Combine that tidbit with manager A.J. Hinch crediting the Yankees earlier in the series for their defensive positioning, and it is plain to see why the veteran first baseman is in a rut right now.
The underlying numbers, though, indicate a breakout may be on the way for Gurriel. Sooner or later, those batted balls have to start falling for hits. His expected wOBA (xwOBA) is currently .297, which is .210 more than his actual wOBA of .087. Those figures currently represents the largest difference for an Astros hitter in this series when the xwOBA is higher than their wOBA. The difference between his regular season average exit velocity (89.3 MPH) and his postseason mark (88.4 MPH) isn’t that far off as well. Only time will tell if Gurriel can overcome his poor small sample showing to remind us what he is capable of in this postseason.