Jeff Q: There's A Lot To Like About Lourdes Gurriel's 2018 Season
2018 has seen Blue Jays prospect Lourdes Gurriel, ranked 81st in the minors by Baseball America, play at three different levels. First, he extended his experience at AA with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Then, he was called up to the big league club. Now, he's getting his first taste of AAA with the Buffalo Bisons.
Over both of his minor-league stops this season, Gurriel has produced. And, while he wasn't productive in his time with the Blue Jays (41 wRC+, .206/.229/.309 in 70 plate appearances), he did a lot of things that should keep Jays fans believing that he can tap into his potential sooner rather than later.
At AA, Gurriel was all about putting balls in play, walking only 5.5% of the time, while striking out in only 10.9% of his PA. He showed some power (.163 ISO) but generated production mainly via base hits (.364 BABIP). Line drives were a key part of that, as he was able to post an above-average liner rate (20.9%). The sum was well above-average production with his bat (145 wRC+, .347/.382/.510 in 55 PA).
Over the last three weeks, Gurriel has been with the Bisons, where he has continued to produce in the upper minors (124 wRC+, .275/.302/.490 in 53 PA). Batted balls are still his bread and butter—he's posted a miniscule walk rate (1.9%) and better-than-average strikeout rate (15.1%). The difference for him at AAA, to this point, is that he has seen a modest power surge (.216 ISO), underlined by three well-struck homers at Coca-Cola Field. The Bisons posted video of only the most recent dinger on Twitter, so here it is for you:
But, another one that is totally worth mentioning was a nearly identical oppo-taco blast to right-centre, while the third was smoked to left. None were cheap. Also, MiLB.tv is worth the subscription. (Ed. And it's kind of cheap-er right now, so here's a link for you to subscribe.)
His success during his time with the Blue Jays was a lot less obvious, as his aforementioned top-line numbers make clear. But, a little bit of digging reveals that he was hard done by batted ball luck with Toronto and was deserving of much better results, something that's true of many Blue Jays batters this season.
The first clue is his BABIP (.245 in the majors this season), the traditional measure of batted ball luck. When a player's BABIP is well below .300, there is a good chance that they had an unlucky stretch. However, with Statcast, we can toss out that .300 rule of thumb and replace it with an xBABIP tailored to a specific batter, based on the launch angle and exit velocity combinations they've generated.
Gurriel's xBABIP as a Jay was .335, putting him in the 61st percentile among major-leaguers during his stay with the big club (minimum 50 PA between April 20th and May 11th). The 90 point gap between his xBABIP and BABIP puts him in the 89th percentile. Simply put, given the contact quality Gurriel produced, we would've expected him to get on base a lot more often than he actually did.
Statcast helps us better appreciate Gurriel's ability to produce high-quality contact. He produced a hard-hit air ball (either liner or fly ball) in 22.9% of his plate appearances (85th percentile). He produced a barreled ball, the most potent of batted balls, in 8.6% of his plate appearances (79th percentile). His xwOBA on batted balls (.449, 68th percentile) and xBA on batted balls (.355, 59th percentile) are both above-average.
Those last two marks contrast markedly with the actual outcomes of his batted balls. He could only muster well below-average marks in terms of both his wOBA on batted balls (.291, 15th percentile) and his BA on batted balls (.275, 18th percentile). As a result, he produced some of the largest gaps between his xwOBA and wOBA on batted balls (158 points, 96th percentile) and his xBA and BA on batted balls (80 points, 89th percentile) during his time in the big leagues.
His power game also reflected a huge amount of shitty batted ball luck. In 68 ABs, he was limited to only one double and two homers, leading to a well below-average ISO (.103, 18th percentile). However, his contact quality supported a well above-average xISO (.266, 76th percentile). What was driving the discrepancy?
Well, six particular ABs stand out and are useful illustrations of his bad luck this season. Gurriel hit six barrels with the Jays. Two went for homers, while four were caught for loud outs—MLB video is available for three of these (1, 2, 3). These six barrels resulted in six extra bases, but were expected to lead to about twelve.
While batted balls are his strength, we cannot overlook his struggles with walks and strikeouts. With Toronto, he struck out more than most (24.3% strikeout rate, 26th percentile) and walked a lot less than most (2.9% walk rate, 10th percentile). The result was a very poor walk-to-strikeout ratio (0.12 BB/K, 8th percentile).
Nevertheless, when we bring together the good and the bad - it’s not that ugly. And we can see a batter who probably should have produced at a roughly average level - not bad at all for a 24 year old getting his first taste of the MLB. While he only produced a wOBA of .232 (5th percentile), his xwOBA was a much better .347 (48th percentile). Similarly, while he only mustered a batting average of .206 (18th percentile), his xBA was a solid .266 (49th percentile).
With Devon Travis and Aledmys Diaz back with the big club, Lourdes Gurriel is best left in Buffalo, getting regular reps at the plate and in the field. There he can hone his skills at the highest level in the minors, readying himself for a call-up back to the bigs. While his first go-around didn't go too well, there was a lot to like about the contact he generated. In such a small sample size (70 MLB plate appearances), large discrepancies between quality of contact and plate outcomes are to be expected. As such, it's important to be cognizant of the good Gurriel produced with Toronto and his continued potential as a big leaguer. Things might be bleak right now in Toronto, but there is a heck of a lot to get excited about in the farm. And Gurriel is a Bison still worth gushing over.
(Ed. You can find more of Jeff's great stuff over at Jays From The Couch, so go check it out.)