If there is one complaint I constantly read about the Astros’ offense last season, it was their propensity to ground into a double play. And those complaints were valid as Houston led the majors (by a fair margin) last season with 156 GIDPs. For context, the A’s were in second-place with 136. And guess who was the chief offender for the Astros? Yuli Gurriel, with 22 double plays, which only trailed Manny Machado (26) and Manny Rojas (23) out of all qualified major league hitters in 2018.
Fast forward nearly an entire calendar year and the Astros still ground into a lot of double plays. Entering Monday, the lineup has grounded into 110 double plays this season, leading the Angels by one. Yes, Houston is currently in charge of the majors, again, in this notorious category. Wait, I think I hear the gnashing of teeth from Astros Twitter right now.
That said, we can’t place a lot of the blame on Gurriel this season. By the numbers, the Astros’ first baseman has only grounded into six double plays. Tyler White, now with the Dodgers, grounded into seven double plays in nearly half of the plate appearances as Gurriel. There are nine current Astros with a higher GIDP total than the resurgent first baseman; in fact, Michael Brantley leads the team with 15 double plays.
So, what is different about the Astros’ first baseman this season?
For one, the age-35 infielder has turned his season around at the plate this summer. Here are his wRC+ totals broken down by month.
Yuli Gurriel’s wRC+ by Month
Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle had a detailed piece here (warning: free trial followed by a required subscription) about the hitting work with weighted balls that Gurriel and his younger brother, Lourdres of the Blue Jays, did in the offseason with their older brother, Yuniesky Gurriel. The exercise’s purpose was designed to basically force the two brothers to barrel up the ball more. Later combined with some sage advice from former teammate, and current special advisor to the Yankees, Carlos Beltran in June, the hard work Gurriel put in has led to an unexpected improvement as a hitter this summer. This improvement has manifested itself, in turn, with a higher launch angle and barrel rate.
When a hitter hits into a double play, they’ll usually hit the ball right into the ground. Trust me as I hit enough of those during my church league softball days to last a lifetime. It is a tale as old as time. Gurriel also did that a lot as supported by his double play total and his ground ball rate of 44.3 percent. This ongoing issue led to a lot of missed opportunities not only for him, but for the Astros as well.
The lower launch angle didn’t help matters in at-bats like the one above. Gurriel was clearly not generating the lift needed. By also closing off his approach, he didn’t grant himself the advantage of a full field of vision. I don’t care what activity someone does, but a lack of proper vision can severely impact the job. Although he was making contact at high rate of 86 percent, he wasn’t generating the most optimal kind of contact. Hitting the ball hard on the ground doesn’t really benefit many players nowadays, especially for a player like Gurriel.
Fast forward to this season and we see Gurriel actually take advantage of a similar situation. Beltran’s advice to Gurriel was essentially to start “hitting with both eyes,” which he apparently took to heart. Instead of closing off his approach at the plate, we now have a hitter giving himself a better field of vision. We also see him lifting the ball more than simply hitting it right into the ground. A combination of these adjustments have led to a better quality of contact, which is still quite high at 86 percent this season.
These changes have helped Gurriel’s ground ball rate drop to 36.7 percent, which would represent a new career-best if the season concluded today. Both his line drive (plus-3.6 percent) and fly ball rates (plus-3.9 percent) have also noticeably improved this season, which has helped drive his impressive offensive performance since late June. Thanks to a slew of adjustments, Gurriel has progressed to a type of hitter that we didn’t know was possible for the thirty-five year old. If he can continue this level of production through the rest of the season, well, that would be absolutely splendid.
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