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Yulieski Gurriel isn’t declining, but pitchers have robbed him of his power

The possible red flags are a mirage, but the hole exposed in his strike zone is of concern.

MLB: Houston Astros at Seattle Mariners Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Yulieski Gurriel was an odd example of Cuban emigres, similar to that of Jose Abreu, where an entire international career is already in the past, and now we’re only seeing one half, the older portion, of said player’s career. As a member of the Cuban National Series from 2001 to 2014, and ages 17 through 30, Gurriel hit .337/.421/.582 with 239 home runs and 286 doubles over 5,233 plate appearances. There’s really no debate that in this century, Gurriel is one of the greatest international players.

That doesn’t mean he’s in some rapid decline in Houston and this is his postscript; we watched him hit at a 131 wRC+ just this past postseason, and he hit .299/.332/.486 (118 wRC+) last season. Now he’s “just” at 101 wRC+ with a slightly empty .302 batting average. 101 could be an over-performing 101, meaning that’s he actually worse and then some alarms could go off for a now-34-year-old, or it could be an under-performing 101, which would imply: he’s just as good as he was last year.

My first instinct is that this could just be a blip, firstly because of this:

His wOBA has dropped 30 points, but his walk rate, strikeout rate, line drive rate, and hard hit rate are all pretty much steady from last season. There’s also some good news in his Statcast profile. His average exit velocity was 89.9 mph last year. His average exit velocity this year? 89.9 mph.

There is one thing that raises an eyebrow, though. If you take a look at his radial chart for this season, you’ll notice that even though his average velocity has been steady, the distribution of contact variety may be hurting him a bit:

You’ll notice the obvious: he has just three barrels, or just a 1.5% barrel rate. Last year he had a 3.38% barrel rate.

How could that be? His overall hard hit rate has remained the same, and the underlying peripherals look good, but top-line contact rates have resulted in an ISO drop of 83 points from last year to this one.

When you look at it, it’s actually pretty simple. This is Gurriel’s ISO heat map:

Pitchers saw that scouting report, and the conclusion they came to is obvious: stop throwing him pitches up-and-in. While in 2017 his pitch zone had pitches up-and-in and low-and-away...

...this year they have abandoned up in the zone completely:

So, while it seems that Gurriel is capable enough to produce quality (but not elite) contact against pitchers, it also means the diet of pitches he’s receiving is more limited; the pitches in his sweet spot are now few and far between, meaning his two home runs isn’t some talent level decline but pitchers merely attacking the places with the best chance to succeed.

Now it’s time for Gurriel to adjust as he has done before. ZiPS has Gurriel as a true talent 111 wRC+ moving forward, and that seems about right. He’s going to get dinged a few points for power numbers, but his .300 batting average and doubles power will be enough to keep him above water. The power returning by adjusting to those low pitches could sustain him even more, but even if this is Gurriel’s starting to fade as he barrels towards 35, it’s solace at least that he’ll still be a force in an already-great Astros offense.