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Batting title or not, 2021 has been quite the turnaround for Yuli Gurriel

Following a disastrous 2020, a big change at the plate has helped fuel the veteran first baseman’s bounce-back season.

Kansas City Royals v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

It’s not commonplace for players to hit above .290 for three consecutive seasons. Not in this current era where the quality of pitching has never been better. From 2017 to 2019, Yuli Gurriel was one of a handful of hitters who produced a batting average of at least .290 each year. Entering his age-36 season in 2020, the expectation was he’d continue to hit. And then he didn’t.

Gurriel hit .298 with 31 home runs in 2019, and though it came with fairly anomalous data, his slash line diminishing to .232/.274/.384 in 2020 was particularly extreme regression. To be fair, the Astros first baseman was one of many big-name players whose production was hampered by the highly abnormal nature of the shortened 2020 season. But given his age, it seemed possible that Gurriel would no longer be the impact bat he had been in prior years.

This made the Astros’ decision to extend Gurriel last September a curious one. Nearly a year later, however, it’s proved to be one of general manager James Click’s savviest moves.

With less than a week before the end of the regular season, Gurriel sits atop the AL batting average leaderboard. At .317, the Cuban native holds a slim lead over Jays phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr., whose average dipped to .315 following yesterday’s 0-for-4 performance.

Gurriel has made it known how important it is for him to win the batting title. But even if he doesn’t, it would hardly mar his 2021 campaign, one that has seen the 37-year-old display surprisingly good plate discipline.

Before 2021, Gurriel had never posted a Chase rate below 30 percent. Heading into tomorrow night’s game, it currently hovers around 26 percent. This improvement has netted a nearly-double-digit walk rate, which would almost double the veteran’s career percentage.

The tangible result is an on-base percentage north of .380, a figure that’s unrivaled among Astros hitters. Such a high OBP has undoubtedly helped yield what would be the best Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) of Gurriel’s career.

It’s worth noting that the difference between Gurriel’s batting average and Expected Batting Average (xBA) is one of the largest in baseball. But at the same time, it doesn’t negate the refinements he’s made to his approach, nor does the discrepancy guarantee that such regression is imminent, especially when the sample size is close to 600 plate appearances.

In addition to his sterling offensive output, Gurriel’s play at first base has been among the game’s best. In terms of Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), only Cardinals first sacker Paul Goldschmidt ranks higher.

La Piña’s ability to make an impact at the plate and in the field has made him a player the Astros cannot do without. He is again one of the toughest hitters in baseball to strike out, and that skill — along with the rest of his polished game — could greatly aid the club during its impending October run.