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Appreciating Yuli’s Surprising Season, and Reflecting on What Might Have Been

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Yuli’s season has been pretty historic for a player his age, good enough to make you wonder how he could have been in the Majors a decade earlier...

MLB: Texas Rangers at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

There have been a lot of things to appreciate this year for the Astros, between Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole dueling for Cy Young, Yordan Álvarez waltzing to the Rookie of the Year, Alex Bregman’s late charge for MVP, the acquisition or Zack Greinke, solid seasons from Jose Altuve and George Springer in spite of injuries… you get the point. But I want to go over the most surprising season of all (and in case you doubted it, it was even the winner of Wednesday’s StroPoll).

Because let’s be honest, nobody foresaw Yuli Gurriel hitting 30 homers this year. After all, this year marked his age 35 season, and in two and a half years in the majors, he hadn’t even reached 20 homers, let alone 30. And sure, that home run total is partly due to the suspect baseballs, which have led to league-wide home run surges. But even within that context, Yuli has stood out; his 134 wRC+, for instance, is both a career-high, and 52nd in the league.

And when you combine that with his age, it makes things even more impressive. For instance, only 38 hitters in history have had 30-homer years in their age 35 season (and there are quite a few other notable Astros on that list, including Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, and Carlos Beltran).

On top of that, Yuli has played a harder defensive slate than most of the names in that group, with 42 games coming at third base (his primary position back when he was in Cuba) and another 4 at second; if you take out everyone who played over three-quarters of their games at first/DH/left field/right field, the group shrinks down to just nine: Yuli, Cy Williams, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Steve Finley, Mike Schmidt, Joe DiMaggio, and Curtis Granderson. It’s not all Hall of Famers or anything, but that’s still a pretty solid list.

His season holds up outside of homers, too. At 3.4 WAR (Fangraphs), Yuli is tied for 117th all-time among 35 year olds. And that 134 wRC+ is tied for 66th all-time for players his age. Being this good this late into his career is impressive, and while not every name right around him is a Hall of Famer, a decent number are, since one of the ways to still be pretty good in your mid-30s is to have been really good before then. Since he got a late start, only defecting from Cuba in 2016 at the age of 31, we’ll never get to know if Yuli could have been that had he started earlier.

In the absence of that, though, I decided to take a look back at his pre-Majors career to get a fuller sense of the scope of his career. Baseball-Reference has pretty robust foreign league stats, after all. If we can’t know for sure how he would have done in the Majors from Day 1, maybe we can at least contextualize it better to estimate.

So let’s just start with the basics. Prior to coming over to the Astros, Yuli Gurriel played 15 seasons in the Cuban National Series (plus another half season with the Yokohama BayStars in Japan), debuting with the Gallos de Sancti Spiritus in the 2001-02 season (the Cuban leagues avoid the summer months) at the age of just 17. He played third base for almost the entirety of that (with just short stints at second base and center field to mix things up), and provided some major offense from a difficult fielding position.

Prior to signing with the Astros, Yuli hit 250 homers, with 239 of those coming in Cuba. And Cuba has never had the home run totals that MLB has, between the lower-scoring environment and shorter, 96-game season; the league leader is usually in the twenties or thirties. In racking up those 239 homers up, Yuli finished in the top ten eight different times. Once, he led the league (the 2013-14 season, his first of three with the other team he played for, Industriales de La Habana), and four other times, he finished third. And if you multiply his total by 1.5 in an attempt to put it on a scale closer to the Majors (96 times 1.5 would get you 144 games), it’s closer to 360, or an average of 24 per year.

His rate stats hold up similarly; Yuli won the batting title once in Cuba, and finished top ten five times total. That batting title came in 2015-16 when he won the triple-slash triple crown, hitting an astounding .500/.589/.874. He won a second slugging title before that in 2013-14, when he posted a .566 mark, and finished in the top ten nine times in total.

Of course, again, it’s hard to compare this directly to MLB, since it’s a totally different run scoring environment. But you can roughly estimate OPS+ if you know the league averages, and that gives us a little more context of how he stood in comparison to the rest of the league. It’s not the more advanced, park-controlled version we’re used to, but it’s good enough in cases like this. And when we compare Gurriel to his league he still looks pretty darn special.

In 2001, at the age of 17, rookie Yuli posted a 97 OPS+ in nearly 400 plate appearances. He would raise that to 121 OPS+ the next year, then post a 144 OPS+ or better every year after that with the exception of his age 21 season. That incredible 2015-16 season saw him reach an absurd 293 mark, but even outside of that, he had another season at 184, three more above 170, and four more in the 160-169 range. Even his brief sojourn to Japan saw him hit 43% above the league average.

Yuli’s Stats, pre-Astros

Season Age League HR BA OBP SLG lgOBP lgSLG OPS+
Season Age League HR BA OBP SLG lgOBP lgSLG OPS+
2001-02 17 Cuba 7 0.3 0.32 0.462 0.361 0.424 97
2002-03 18 Cuba 16 0.291 0.379 0.52 0.372 0.439 121
2003-04 19 Cuba 9 *0.358* 0.419 *0.614* 0.354 0.415 166
2004-05 20 Cuba *23* *0.341* 0.398 *0.608* 0.36 0.4 163
2005-06 21 Cuba 9 0.291 0.345 0.451 0.369 0.42 101
2006-07 22 Cuba *13* 0.345 0.441 *0.537* 0.352 0.373 169
2007-08 23 Cuba *22* 0.302 0.407 0.58 0.372 0.431 144
2008-09 24 Cuba *22* *0.399* 0.472 *0.71* 0.38 0.445 184
2009-10 25 Cuba *30* *0.363* 0.455 *0.686* 0.372 0.45 175
2010-11 26 Cuba 20 0.339 0.436 0.599 0.376 0.45 149
2011-12 27 Cuba *22* 0.324 0.434 *0.586* 0.357 0.407 165
2012-13 28 Cuba 8 0.325 0.423 0.496 0.348 0.381 152
2013-14 29 Cuba **16** 0.313 0.425 **0.566** 0.349 0.373 173
2014 30 Japan 11 0.305 0.349 0.536 0.329 0.391 143
2014-15 30 Cuba 7 0.343 0.432 *0.577* 0.358 0.387 170
2015-16 31 Cuba *15* **0.500** **0.589** **0.874** 0.354 0.386 293
For HR and triple slash stats, league leader status has been denoted with double asterisks, and top-ten status has been denoted with single asterisks

Of course, the big question is how this all would have translated to MLB. No other foreign league is equal in talent with the majors, but they all differ in how close they are. I’ve seen estimates that place Japan at slightly above AAA, Mexico just below AAA, and Korea at High A, but I’ve not found anything estimating Cuba’s relative level.

Clearly, things wouldn’t have been a 1:1 translation. After all, you can count on one hand the number of 17 year olds who have gotten notable playing time over the last century. There’s no way Yuli would hit at a league-average level over 400 plate appearances like he did in Cuba.

But at the same time, Yordan also played in Cuba overlapping with Yuli. In 2013-14, Yordan debuted at the age of 16 for Las Tunas. He would play half a season that year and the next, with OPS+s of 48 and 112. That’s not exactly a comprehensive study or anything, but just going off of that, it seems like Yuli could have been a fixture in the majors by age 22 or 23, back in 2006 or 2007. It feels weird to imagine Gurriel coming up as a contemporary of Justin Verlander, Hanley Ramirez, Hunter Pence, Ryan Zimmerman, or Dustin Pedroia, but that’s where that would have but him.

And clearly, not everyone can be Yordan, but you don’t need to keep a 182 OPS+ to play in the majors. Especially not if you’re playing third or second base, where Yuli would have still been at the time. Zimmerman and Pedroia, for instance, could regularly rack up 4-6 WAR seasons at those positions with OPS+s in the 115-140 and strong defense.

Would that have been manageable for Gurriel? That’s something like a 45 point hit to what he was doing in Cuba; I have no sense if that’s too harsh or not, but he’s still comfortably above average even it it’s not a stiff enough penalty. And it’s hard to know how good Yuli’s defense would have been at his peak, but even the pessimistic reading of this scenario is that he could have easily stuck as a starter in the majors in his early 20s, and likely picked up a few All-Star selections later in his career. At best, maybe he could have even been a version of Hanley who didn’t completely give up on defense after a few years.

Even if we didn’t get to see him in his real prime, it’s good that we get to see this year, which has been incredible in its own way. Few and far between are the players who have age-35 seasons this good, lifelong MLB stars or later-year transplants. Yuli has been integral to the success of this year’s Astros, and it’s as good a time as any to appreciate the totality of his career.