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What happened to Yuli Gurriel?

MLB: Houston Astros at Oakland Athletics Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It is no secret that the Astros offensive output has either been a feast or famine this season. While the lineup has posted an above average wRC+ (108), they’ve only scored 206 runs this season, which is currently ranked 19th in baseball. Not exactly the juggernaut offense many of us were expecting in 2022.

There are some interesting reasons behind why this offense is struggling to some extent, which I’ll explain more in depth in the near future. In short, without giving too much away, it feels as if a combination of regression in certain situations and the baseball construction issues plaguing most lineups today. There is more to this analysis, but those two points currently have my attention. But today’s post is concentrating on one player who has seen his numbers take a rather noticeable drop: Yuli Gurriel.

We’ve known for a while that the odds of Gurriel continuing to delay Father Time were lowering with every subsequent season. Following a 2020 season when the first baseman slashed .232/.274/.384 with a 78 wRC+, it felt as if the end was quickly approaching. But the 2021 season happened — 134 wRC+ in 605 plate appearances — and Gurriel did the improbable once again, which was become the AL batting champ with a league-leading .319 batting average. With news emerging in Spring Training that Gurriel was entering camp in better shape than what he has done historically, there was hope he could pick up right where left off in 2021. Alas, that is not the case this season, no matter the metric.

So, what happened?

On a macro level Gurriel isn’t hitting the ball nearly as hard as he did in the past in conjunction with a barrel rate that still ranks among the bottom ten percent in baseball as it did last season. There is also a bit of misfortune regarding his BABIP, seeing as it has dropped from .090 points from his 2021 career-high of .336. A regression from this career-high was likely, if not guaranteed, but his .246 mark to start the season remains far below his .297 career average. If anything else, we could see some regression in the other direction as the season ages in terms of his BABIP, which could drive up his offensive metrics. But combine these current factors with an increased strikeout rate and decreased walk rate, well, you have the ideal conditions for underperformance in a hitter.

On a more micro level, there are a couple of factors at play here. First, the almost 38-year-old is swinging more that is on par with prior seasons other than his 2021 campaign, when he maintained a a career-low swing rate of 42.8 percent. This season that rate of 48.4 percent is right in line with his career average of 48.1 percent. But Gurriel is also making less contact than he has in the past. Not a great trend, unless there is massive upswing in power, which hasn’t occurred for Gurriel. To go even further, it is specifically breaking and offspeed pitches that are causing him grief at the plate.

This development again coincides Gurriel’s walk rate dropping and strikeout rate rising, which isn’t a great trend to watch unfold. In fact, he has gone chasing for pitches outside the strike zone at a noticeably higher rate than last season.

Chase Rate Percentile

  • 2021: 59th percentile
  • 2022: 18th percentile

On a year-to-year basis among all qualified hitters, Gurriel has posted a 7.6 percent increase in chase rate from 2021 to 2022, which is the tenth-highest in baseball entering Thursday. Simply put, Gurriel can’t lay off breaking and offspeed pitches as well as he did in the past.

In particular, swinging and missing at offspeed pitches outside of the strike zone — up by ten percent year-over-year — is creating additional issues when combined with batted ball misfortune. The same thought process applies also to swinging and missing at pitches inside of the strike zone. Again, not a great trend.

At its core, it does appear plenty of Gurriel’s hitting blues lie in the fact that he isn’t able to generate positive results against breaking and offspeed pitches, particularly the latter. In any case, he is swinging more, making less contact, and the contact he does make are generating outs. The numbers against the two pitch groups paint an overall underwhelming picture.

Breaking and Offspeed Metrics - 2021 to 2022

The pressing question for Gurriel going forward is two-fold: Will he adopt more of his 2021 approach in terms of selectivness at the plate, and will he eventually regress in terms of BABIP? To his credit, the season is still relatively young, but we’re far enough into it that we can pinpoint areas of concern. I have a feeling once his batted ball luck turns around we might see Gurriel’s offensive numbers rebound a bit. That said, we can’t eliminate the possibility that age is finally catching up to the legendary Cuban. If he is able to reverse these current trends to buck age-related concerns one more time, it may be his greatest performance as a professional yet.