Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. is playing like a man on fire right now, burning through every team that comes up on the Jays schedule. Since May 24, he’s hitting an absurd .355/.401/.739, good for a 194 wRC+. That’s number one in all of baseball. It’s better than Mike Trout, Pete Alonso, Ketel Marte, Juan Soto, Christan Yelich—better than everyone. His 2.1 fWAR since then trails only Trout and Marte.
But May 24 isn’t a random date. It’s the day he was recalled from the minors and first played again for the Blue Jays this season. And he wasn’t sent down before then because of a roster crunch or anything. He was abysmal in the majors at the start of the year. From Opening Day through April 14, he slashed .175/.250/.275. His wRC+ was 41. He was producing in the bottom 15% of all hitters, a far cry off his league-average debut performance in 2018. And now he’s way up in the stratosphere. So what changed?
For one, he may have just found more comfort on defense. Our own Mark McElroy had this to say in the delightful PitcherList newsletter back on June 26:
Gurriel has always been a streaky hitter, but I wonder how much of his success is due to his new position in left field. Since his return to the bigs, Gurriel has looked like a natural in the outfield (tallying six assists, zero errors) and has brought that confidence to the plate slashing .336/.376/.672. I wonder if his early struggles and recent successes are due to his comfort in the field? How many players are struggling because they are playing positions that they don’t enjoy or lack confidence playing? How many players would benefit from a move around the diamond to a new position?
Mark is right, we may never have the answers to those specific questions. But he’s also got a point about Gurriel gaining confidence from having a steady position. There’s something to be said about knowing what you’ll be doing each day when you get to the office, without having to worry about who might be in the hallway about to take your job.
Besides perhaps passing a mental test down on the farm, Gurriel may have also found a physical tweak that’s helped his game. Consider the side-by-side still shots below.
On the left is Gurriel on April 13, the day before he was optioned to AAA. As the pitcher comes set, his hands are positioned so that his bat is horizontal to the ground. Through the pitch, he had a slight bat wag. He ended up popping out.
On the right is Gurriel on May 25, the day after he got recalled from AAA, and as he was about to start his torrid streak. His hands and bat are more vertical. Through the pitch, the bat wag is gone. On this particular pitch, he hit his second homer of the year.
It seems almost maddeningly simple. Like, really? Keep the bat a few inches higher, remove a little wiggle, and become an amazing hitter?
The thing about this particular tweak for Gurriel is that it completely reverses his path of motion toward the ball. At the start of the year he was going from his feet almost right to his hands, to his arms and shoulders, and then through his hips. Being quieter up top now lets him start his motion toward the ball in a far more optimal way: from the ground up. His small leg kick leads to his hips opening up, letting his torso move through to his shoulders while his arms follow afterward. This transition of energy can help his bat get on plane in the zone sooner and stay there longer. And the results speak for themselves.
|Performance Dates||Sw%||O-Sw%||Con%||FB/LD EV|
|Through 4/14||49.1||41.8||70.9||88.4 mph|
|Since 5/24||46.4||33.7||70.5||97.2 mph|
Gurriel is making the same amount of contact now as he was before he went to the minors, but it’s counting more now because he’s laying off pitches that he can’t square up. This is a change we can believe in pretty quickly, unlike an encompassing stat like wOBA that can take the majority of a season because so much goes into it. But the thing that really jumps out at us here is the exit velocity.
Hitting the ball hard is one of the most elementary concepts in all of baseball. Joey Gallo is hitting the ball harder than ever this year and is having an MVP-caliber season. Meanwhile, no one hits it softer than Billy Hamilton, who sports a wRC+ of 50 and probably only has a job at this point because of his speed. The adjustment Gurriel made in the minors seems to have revealed an ability to drive the ball that’s nearly unparalleled right now. He’s in the 95th percentile in the league for exit velocity on fly balls and line drives combined.
Gurriel has added the seventh-most exit velocity on liners and fly balls since last season, and that bakes in his terrible performance at the start of the year. Below is the complete top 10 EV-adders on that kind of contact.
|Player||2019 EV (mph)||2018 EV (mph)||Difference||2019 fWAR|
|Lourdes Gurriel, Jr.||95.9||92.4||3.5||1.8|
For additional context, consider how the league average exit velocity for liners and fly balls in 2018 was 92.3 mph, and so far in 2019 has been 92.4 mph. Gurriel is the only hitter here who was even average; everyone else was easily below. Now, everyone except DeShields is squarely above average. And if we’re going to include WAR here, it’s worth noting that Gurriel has played the fewest games of anyone on the list, easily putting him on pace for the best season of the bunch.
Vazquez not being an offensive black hole has helped stabilize a Red Sox team that has needed just that. Kingery has provided a small sigh of relief as a plug-and-play option for the Phillies in his sophomore campaign, given the season-ending injury suffered by Andrew McCutchen. Kiermaier and Schoop are plugging in contributions to teams fighting for playoff spots. Forsythe may quietly be representative of the Rangers’ season as a pleasant surprise. The rest may not be on playoff contenders right now, but they’ve all been important to their clubs, and their new-found skill of muscling up the ball more than they have in the past has been at the heart of their respective performances.
The sample size since Gurriel’s recall at the end of May is small enough for us to doubt that he can truly drive the ball in the air better than 95% of the league. He probably can’t. But we could’ve said he probably wasn’t as anemic as he was at the start of the year, either. So now we’re playing the “What If” game. What if Gurriel regresses, but with new skills is still good enough to be well above average?
The Blue Jays probably valued him moving forward, given his pro experience and relative versatility, but now he could be a far more legitimate piece on a team that’s already featuring Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and Cavan Biggio, with Bo Bichette on the way. The core of their offense could be set for a long time, and it might even afford them a spare asset to help find a pitcher. Regardless what they do, they’ve got another piece they probably didn’t expect to have earlier this year. The Lourdes works in mysterious ways, and it’s been awesome.
(Photo by Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire)