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Yuli Gurriel has strange reverse splits

Reverse splits are never as they appear.

Houston Astros v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Yuli Gurriel has been a solid player for the Astros. Yes, perhaps we need to take the performance of Astros’ players with a grain of salt as result of the recent sign stealing scandal, but without knowing exactly how much it helped Gurriel specifically, I have little choice but to take his numbers at face value.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention his racist behavior towards Yu Darvish in the 2017 World Series, for which he received a (much-delayed) suspension and sensitivity training. Regardless, he has some interesting reverse splits for his career.

Nicknamed “La Piña” (Spanish for pineapple) because of his interesting hairstyle, Gurriel defected from Cuba in early 2016, and after being declared a free agent by MLB in June of that year, he signed a five-year, $47.5 million deal with the Astros in mid-July. The 2016 season was included in that, so it is more of a 4.5-year deal. He spent roughly a month in the minors before making his major league debut.

Gurriel did not exactly make a splash out of the gate, but he only had 137 PA in 2016, and he was debuting at age-32. He hit .262/.292/.385 for a 98 DRC+. However, he showed elite contact skills that still hold true with a staggeringly low 8.8 K%. Unfortunately, he also demonstrated poor plate discipline that held over the next couple of seasons, walking in only 3.6 percent of his plate appearances.

For his career, Gurriel has hit .293/.330/.478, and his 112 DRC+ is respectable for a first baseman. He has averaged 3.0 WAR over the last three seasons, which is a great return for a highly competitive Astros team spending an average of $12.4 million per year in that span.

However, that production might be buoyed by the juiced ball last season. Never much of a power hitter, Gurriel hit 31 HR in 2019, which is equal to his previous two seasons combined. While only time will tell how real that power surge is, the good news is that he walked 50 percent more than he had in previous seasons, though a 6.0 percent walk rate is still well below average.

Given Gurriel’s age, low walk rates, high contact rates, good productivity, and this “dubious distinction,” he appears to be a rare type of player in the game. Adding to that, of course, are his career reverse splits. He has a .345 wOBA against right-handed pitchers, and a .330 wOBA against lefties. It is not Yasiel Puig’s absurdly large reverse splits, but it is pretty significant.

I now need to add my usual disclaimer: no hitter has true-talent reverse splits. You can learn more from this FanGraphs article. My upcoming calculations are based on it and will be using ZiPS projections.

A right-handed hitter needs 2,200 PA against left-handed pitchers in order to determine his true talent splits. Gurriel only has 506 PA against lefties. That does not mean that those plate appearances are not informative, it just means we have to regress his numbers towards the mean. Platoon splits are usually discussed in terms of percentages, and not overall difference in wOBA for reasons I won’t get into here.

Gurriel has a career -4.4 percent split. The number is negative because it is a reverse split. To put that into context, the league split for right-handed hitters is usually around 6.1 percent. As expected, regressing his splits towards the mean gives him a positive albeit small split: 1.3 percent. So despite his track record, Gurriel is still slightly better against left-handed pitching.

New manager Dusty Baker mitigated concerns about him when he managed the Nationals, but one has to wonder how he will handle Gurriel’s reverse splits. I have no doubt in my mind that Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch knew better than to believe that he was truly better against right-handed hitters, but they are not there anymore. If Baker chooses to favor playing Gurriel against right-handed hitters, what does new GM James Click do? Coming from the Rays’ organization, I suspect that he is familiar with projecting platoon splits.

Baker is one of the most experienced and respected managers in the game, and Click is a rookie GM who did not even hire Baker himself. What happens if these two not only fail to see eye to eye on Gurriel, but in general? It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Say what you will about the Astros, but they took a big chance handing out a sizable contract to a 32-year-old first baseman with no major league experience, but it has worked out quite well. Gurriel is entering a contract year, and assuming he still hits well, it will be interesting to see if anybody is willing to hand out significant money to a first baseman who will be entering his age-37 season.

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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.