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Deep Dive: Yuli Gurriel - How It Went Wrong in 2020

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Taking a closer look at La Piña’s tumultuous, frustrating, downright infuriating 2020 season

American League Championship Series - Workout Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

2020 was not kind to Yuli Gurriel. After posting career numbers in 2019, his production nosedived this year. Despite this, the Astros extended Gurriel late last month, right before the playoffs began. He’s now under contract for next season, with a club option for the 2022 season.

Now 36, Gurriel might be playing on his final contract. There is some uncertainty about the Astros heading into next season. There is significantly more beyond 2021. Simply put, the Astros will need Gurriel at his best next year. The question is if his best is already behind him.

Basic Overview

Yuli hit .232/.274/.384 with 6 HR in 230 PAs during the regular season this year. In 53 PAs in the playoffs, he slashed .114/.245/.114. His walk and strikeout rates of 5.2% and 11.7% are around his career rates. For how helpless he looked in the playoffs, he managed to draw six walks and struck out only three times. Of course, he hit into four double plays in the playoffs, as opposed to six during the much longer regular season. FanGraphs rewarded his efforts at the plate with a wRC+ of just 79.

He was bad. This is known. Let’s look at how this all happened.

Maybe We Should Have Seen This Coming

Unfortunately, the reality is that regression was likely inevitable. In 2019, Gurriel had the third highest difference in his wOBA and xwOBA. In other words, he was the third luckiest hitter in baseball last year, according to that discrepancy. It’s worth mentioning that the pendulum swung back in 2020, as he was one of the more unlucky hitters in the league this year, but I digress.

Going back to 2019, Gurriel’s power output stood out significantly, but for the wrong reasons. He hit 31 HR in 2019, which is great, but he did so with a 3.6% barrel rate. That is nuts.

15 of Gurriel’s 31 bombs were barrels. That means 16 of them were not. How many players hit more non-barreled home runs in 2019 than Yuli? Just one. What’s more, at 387 feet, his average home run distance was in the bottom 30 of the league.

Gurriel was on pace to hit 15+ HR in 2020, were it a full season. His 2019 and 2020 exit velos, launch angles and barrel rates are identical. Barring an abundance of good luck, I think Gurriel’s unlikely to surpass or even get near the 30-HR mark again.

Pull!!

In my Carlos Correa piece, I detailed how Correa pulling the ball a lot was suppressing his production. It’s the opposite with Gurriel.

Gurriel’s pull rate was 41% in 2019. It dropped to 33.3% in 2020. This is a big deal. Here’s why:

Those are terrific numbers. Considering Gurriel’s overall 2020 numbers, that nearly 8% decline in pull percentage is hugely significant.

The data indicates that Gurriel does well when hitting the ball up the middle. The same cannot be said for when he goes the opposite way:

Gurriel’s oppo percentage went up by 6.6% from ‘19 to ‘20. He was quite fortunate with his opposite field results last year, but they drastically went south this year. Like the 7.7% decrease above, the 6.6% increase here is just as significant since the opposite field numbers are awful.

It’s fair to say that the pull/oppo data is unquestionably one of the primary explanations for Yuli’s struggles this year.

Odd Tidbits

In his career, Gurriel has hit right-handed pitching and left-handed pitching evenly. Against the former, his career slash is .292/.324/.469 in 1,502 PAs. Against southpaws, it’s .273/.322/.467 in 614 PAs.

In 2020, Gurriel hit .290/.318/.565 against lefties in 66 PAs and .208/.256/.309 against righties in 164 PAs. I’m obviously not going to compare 164 PAs to 1,500 or put more stock into the far smaller sample size, but there are some notable details worth sharing about Gurriel’s ineptitude vs. right-handed pitching this year.

For reference, here is Gurriel’s swing percentage by zone against righties in 2019:

Keep an eye on the number in the zone at the very top and to the right as we go into 2020:

That’s just an obscene jump from 46% to 62%, and 46% was already high to begin with. What’s interesting is that even though those are bad pitches to swing at, Yuli was hitting .289 against them pre-2020. He then hit .167 against them in 2020 with the crazy swing rate to boot, small sample size notwithstanding.

In addition, the chase pitch low and away from righties is something that Gurriel could not figure out in 2020. As the two images above display, he did cut down on his swing percentage, going from 28% in ‘19 to 23% in ‘20, but the whiff percentage skyrocketed from 38% to 61%.

This isn’t exactly something that I’m concerned about, but Yuli looked at a lot of middle-middle pitches in 2020. His career swing rate against them is 73.4%, but this year it was just 61.7%. Unsurprisingly, he has strong career numbers on pitches that are down the middle. Going forward, I assume that this is a harmless anomaly that can be chalked up to an inadequate sample size in an extremely strange season.

As for the other bits, they may be worth monitoring next season, just to see if they’re actual trends. There’s only so many conclusions that can be drawn from a 60+ game sample size, if any.

TL;DR Version

Gurriel came back to earth in 2020 following a stellar 2019 campaign. It’s likely that his results were artificially enhanced last year, and this year it appears that he dealt with more bad luck than most, though some of it could have been self-inflicted.

Looking ahead to 2021, I don’t think it’ll be quite as easy to project him as it had been the past few years. Penciling in a .290 batting average and 15-20 long balls is still fairly sensible and realistic, but due to his age and the randomness of the 2020 season, Gurriel’s game now has more unknown elements mixed into it than in prior years.

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant