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1B Yuli Gurriel
Here’s to you, Yuli Gurriel. Thanks for everything. pic.twitter.com/K4iQD3SMKA— The Crawfish Boxes (@CrawfishBoxes) March 10, 2023
- Made professional baseball debut at 17 years old in 2001 with the Sancti Spiritus in the Cuban National Series.
- Became one of the best hitters in Cuba over his 15-year career, slashing a combined .340/.425/.599 from 2001 to 2016.
- Signed with the Houston Astros July 16, 2016 at 32 years old.
- Won the World Series with the Astros in 2017.
- Won the AL Batting Title with a .319 average and the AL Gold Glove at first base in 2021.
- Won a second World Series with the Astros in 2022.
- Signed a minor league deal with the Miami Marlins on March 9.
- 2023 will be Gurriel’s age-39 season.
Yuli Gurriel has been one of the best contact hitters in the league since coming stateside in 2016. During his seven years with the Astros, Gurriel posted an 86.1% contact rate. For context, the league average contact rate hovers around 76.6%. This is great news for the Marlins, who had the 7th-worst contact rate in 2022.
Contact hitters seem to be the theme for the Fish this offseason. Gurriel’s 85.7% contact rate was 17th-best in 2022. Two other players general manager Kim Ng brought in this offseason, Luis Arraez and José Iglesias, were among the few hitters ahead of him in that category. Arraez made contact on 92.9% of his swings which led the league, and Iglesias on 86.8% of his swings which was 9th-best.
A byproduct of Gurriel’s extremely high contact rate is that he doesn’t fall victim to striking out very often. Again, this is good news for a Marlins team that struck out in nearly a quarter of the team’s plate appearances.
Another area Gurriel succeeds at is against left-handed pitchers and—you guessed it!—that’s an area the Marlins struggled last season. The Fish were the worst team in baseball against lefty’s last year, posting a dismal .208/.273/.325 slash line and 71 wRC+ against LHP in 2022. (A league average wRC+ falls right at 100.) Despite a steep drop-off in Gurriel’s production last year, he still performed better than league average against left-handed pitchers in 2022.
Gurriel put up the best numbers of his MLB career in 2021, slashing .319/.383/.462 with a 132 wRC+. His 42.0% hard-hit rate was above average, partially thanks to improved plate discipline. He posted a better-than-average chase rate for the first time in his career, managing to lay off pitches he couldn’t do damage against and punishing the pitches he could.
In 2022, however, his plate discipline evaporated and Gurriel was back to chasing pitches out of the strike zone. The same bat-to-ball skills were still there, so he was making poor contact on bad pitches and getting bad results.
Leo Morgenstern wrote a really great piece on Gurriel for FanGraphs a few weeks ago, detailing why he isn’t keen on a bounce back for the soon-to-be 39-year-old. You should give the full article a read, but here’s the gist:
In 2022, he was still good at the things he did well, but he was worse than ever at what he already did poorly. No longer could his other skills pick up the slack...To sum it all up, Gurriel’s biggest weakness—his lack of power—became an even bigger problem last season. Meanwhile, the newfound plate discipline that briefly helped him defy the aging curve completely disappeared. He still possesses elite contact skills, but those skills are far less valuable when he’s swinging at worse pitches and hitting without thump.
Although Gurriel played second base and third base earlier in his professional career, he hasn’t started a game at either position since 2019. If the Marlins are actually considering deploying him there, it could handicap an already suspect defense. If not, there will be a lot of pressure on his offense to rebound to make him usable as a first baseman/designated hitter.
2023 Marlins Role
Gurriel isn’t likely to assume an everyday role for the Marlins, and that’s a good thing. His improved 2021 season appears more like a fluke than the ability to defy the typical aging curve. That doesn’t mean, however, that Gurriel can’t provide an occasional reprieve for first baseman Garrett Cooper or serve as a bench bat against left-handed pitchers.
Even for a team that’s seemingly taking an unorthodox approach to defense this year, using Gurriel around the diamond feels like a stretch. The Marlins are taking a flier on his bat and he ought to be on a short leash if that aspect of his game continues to be below replacement level.