About two years ago, I wrote an article “Is Yuli Gurriel a HoF-caliber Talent?” after Yuli put up a 3.1 fWAR with a .298/.343/.541 season (131 wRC+). This was an incredible season for him, especially at the age of 35. It made me wonder if you took his age 33-35 seasons and paced them across his MLB career if he would stand up as a Hall of Fame-caliber talent. At the time, showing him coming up roughly with a .296/.333/.486 (.819 OPS) for 2,245 hits, 546 2B, 294 HR, 1,232 RBI (Again, none of this is perfect, but was for discussion, and considering it’s using his decline years after a 2-year gap without baseball, it felt like an under-estimate more than anything)
Admittedly, I thought that 2019 would have been his peak year in the MLB. Yuli is great, but he was 35 and a rapid decline obviously becomes a concern as players get older. I was nonetheless pleased as we got to see him in his glory, and enjoying the “Jala-Pina” days when his bat was truly on fire.
(Video by @HighlightFanat on twitter)
2020 was a strange year for baseball and well, the world altogether. Yuli didn’t have a great year, while it’s easy to point to the .235 BABIP or 30 point difference in wOBA vs xwOBA, there were definitely concerns that his age may have caught up to him.
Then came 2021, where Gurriel not only avoided showing signs of age, he actually had his best season of his career, producing 3.4 fWAR, winning a gold glove, and a batting title! Truly a remarkable age 37 season, with a .319/.383/.462 triple slash being good for 134 wRC+.
The Astros are absolutely packed with some of the best players in the game with Altuve, Correa, Bregman, Verlander, etc standing out as the superstars of the team. But I’m starting to think we’re neglecting to recognize one of the greatest talents in baseball. His 3.4 fWAR last year ranked 8th best in baseball for 1st basemen, 7th best in wRC+, but most impressively he added a new skill set to his arsenal.
In 2021, Gurriel walked 9.8% of the time, which falls right around the line between above average and average on Fangraphs rating stats. What’s incredible about this is that Gurriel did this after posting a career 4.7% BB% to that point in his career.
Yuli has always had elite contact abilities, with his K% usually hovering in the 10-11% range (top 3% in the league every year since 2017). But this past year, he became far more selective on his swings, with him continually improving from 55.4% swing rate in 2016 to 42.8% in 2021 (and a 5.9% drop from 2020 to 2021). In doing so, he improved his contact rates both in and outside of the zone. He also managed to take a significant number of additional walks, providing roughly a .050 boost to his OBP.
It’s unusual to see a player make such a dramatic change as a whole, much less in their age 37 seasons. Doing so, Yuli became a much better offensive force. While we’re talking about him as a top 1B, his bat actually was the 25th by any position in all of baseball (by wRC+). And we’re talking about Gurriel during his age 37 season and the majority of his career being spent in much more defensively demanding positions.
Now don’t get me wrong, some of his performance came from luck as his xwOBA trailed his wOBA by .037, and his sprint speed fell by another .3 ft/s. But the fact that his age 37 season still put up 27 ft/s Sprint Speed (league average) speaks in its own right to his athletic ability.
MLBNetwork released their top 10 first basemen right now, and Yuli somehow didn’t make the list. I was happy to see that the vast majority of comments on the list were bashing that the batting title-winning and gold glove winner was an obvious miss.
Luckily for us, Yuli didn’t seem to rest on his laurels, and while “best shape of his career” stories are a dime a dozen in Spring Training, his before and after pictures really did show him putting some effort into improving physically.
I don’t know how long Yuli will be able to play at an elite level, but far more so than 2 years ago, I think Yuli is a clear Hall of Fame-caliber talent (although he won’t make it due to time played internationally).
For now, I’ll just sit back and enjoy watching moments like this with him as one of the best players to play the sport.