Yuli Gurriel is the oldest active rookie in the major leagues. That’s because he barely is one. The 33-year-old played fifteen seasons of professional ball before signing with the Houston Astros last winter and actually fell just one at-bat short last year of losing his rookie status.
However, the Cuban infielder has been on a tear of late and earned himself AL Rookie of the Month honors for July, the first player not named Aaron Judge to claim the award in 2017. Though Yuli’s age differs from that of most prospects, we at MinorLeagueBall must still answer the same fundamental question to which we apply all well-performing rookies: is this performance sustainable?
At age-32, Gurriel signed a five-year, 47.5 million dollar contract with the Astros before the start of last season. It is rare for a team to offer that kind of contract to an international player already past his prime. This speaks to Gurriel’s incredible run of success in Cuba.
In fifteen seasons in foreign leagues, Yuli posted a remarkable .335/.417/.580 line, with 250 home runs in 925 games, which is 43.8 bombs per 162. Moreover, in his final season in Cuba, Gurriel showed absolutely no signs of slowing down, getting a hit in literally half his at-bats, while slugging .784.
But in his first stint in the big leagues, the corner infielder mustered a weak .262/.292/.385 line. The 6-0, 190 lb Gurriel failed to exhibit either the power or on-base ability that got him off the island. Yuli did bat .300 and put up an .853 OPS with men in scoring position, and he would continue that clutch hitting the following year.
Flash forward to 2017: we are starting to see more of the Gurriel that the Astros expected. In 94 games, the rookie has slashed a respectable .286/.312/.471, posting an .876 OPS with runners in scoring position.
Gurriel’s poor showing this May (.200 batting average and .566 OPS) sunk his numbers; in every other month, though, the Cuban has batted above. .300. In July, Yuli’s power finally returned to his bat. That month, he knocked fourteen extra-base-hits and drove in twenty runs. If he keeps hitting like this, Gurriel will be a key piece down the stretch for the Astros.
Can he keep it up?
We do not have a lot of major league data on Yuli, but the numbers we do have are pretty bullish he can keep up this level of offensive production. Gurriel’s BABIP is a reasonable .292, his HR/FB% is near league average at 10.9%, and ZiPS, Steamer, and Depth Charts all project his OPS, which currently sits at .783, to fall between .782 and .796 for the remainder of the season.
Gurriel also makes contact with 92% of pitches inside the strike zone and 66% of pitches outside it, good for an 81.9% overall contact rate. When he makes contact, 84.8% of balls he hits in play are at medium or hard speed according to Baseball Info Solutions, which is well above average and approaching plus.
That tells us that Yuli has remarkable bat-to-ball skills and underrated power. However, with his minuscule 2.3% walk rate, Gurriel does not have a lot of patience. His current 107 OPS+ is right in line with other similar high-contact, low-walk hitters like Starlin Castro, Didi Gregorius, and Wilmer Flores, suggesting this performance is sustainable.
Yuli is too pull-happy
If there’s a clear area in which Gurriel can improve his offensive output, it is in better spraying his hits to all fields. A quick look at the righty’s swing reveals a tremendous bias towards pulling the inside fastball to left field .
Gurriel starts with an extremely closed stance, his right arm and head both angled toward first base, with his back turned 45 degrees toward the pitcher. Then, as the pitcher delivers, Gurriel lifts his front leg in a short leg kick and crouches down even further toward the ball.
He finally turns his hips as the ball approaches, releasing the corkscrew in which he contorts his body. While maximizing his power output if he gets his pitch, this stance makes it very difficult for Yuli to drive outside offerings, as he basically sells out toward the inner half of the plate in an attempt to pull the ball.
The effects of this approach are borne out in the numbers: all of Gurriel’s home runs this season are to left field and the 33-year-old has an incredibly high 45% ground ball rate for a supposed-slugger. I believe that Yuli hits so many ground balls because he attempts to pull outside pitches that he should be driving the other way.
Yuli needs to improve to justify his contract
Despite his positive offensive production, Gurriel’s poor defense necessitates the the rookie improve in order to make good on his 47.5 million dollar deal. Yuli owns a solid 1.4 WAR this season, good for 11th on the first-place Astros, so he is a strong contributor to a championship-caliber team.
However, Gurriel’s -0.8 dWAR and -4.5 UZR hamstring his potential. He currently plays none of left field, third, or first base well and does not hit enough to be an effective pure DH.
By opening up his swing so that he does not rely so heavily on inside fastballs and hanging sliders, I believe Gurriel can move his production closer to the numbers he posted in Cuba. And even if he does not make changes, Gurriel should continue to be an above-average major league hitter in the foreseeable future.
Stats are courtesy of Fangraphs, MLBFarm, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Info Solutions