Astros’ Yuli Gurriel improves with age

In the Astros’ last regular season game, Yuli Gurriel did magic with his first shot.

He shot the ball to left field. Jason Castro came in from third base as a winning point. The Astros’ canoe was emptied. Teammates and coaches invaded Gurriel near the opening goal, celebrating the perfect end to his fairytale season.

Gurriel arrived in Houston five years ago as an accomplished baseball player in his native Cuba. But it took the worst season of his career in 2020 to get him to where he is now: 37 and a batting champion in hopes of winning his second World Series title with the Astros.

“I’m a different person than I was in 2016,” Gurriel said. “I have a much better understanding of what kind of game it is in MLB and how to play the game a lot better.”

Gurriel’s goal in the regular-season final against the As, his only batting of the game, increased his batting average for the season to 0.319 and earned him the American League title. He finished well ahead of second, his teammate Michael Brantley (.3113), who narrowly edged Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Blue Jays (.3112).

Gurriel always felt he had something to prove. He was 32 when he signed with the Astros, older than the vast majority of major league rookies, and joined a roster filled with young infielders. Gurriel is a true superstar in Cuba, but was far from a well-known commodity in the United States when he made his major league debut on August 21, 2016, after just 15 games in the Astros minor league system. .

“I wasn’t a household name like some of the guys we’ve had here and I had to take advantage of it,” he said. “I think (the naysayers) maybe saw that maybe it was a weak part of the roster just because they didn’t know the name, and that’s something I felt I ‘had been trying to take advantage since I got here. “

Gurriel was fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year vote as the Astros won the 2017 World Series and continued their ascent throughout the 2019 season, when he clocked a career-high 31 home runs.

In a 2020 season shortened by the pandemic, however, Gurriel has fallen. He played in 57 of the Astros’ 60 games and slashed .232 / .274 / .384 with an OPS + of 77. He recorded the worst numbers of his career – but the Astros gave him a contract extension. It was a move that at the time seemed absurd and now seems clever.

“It was really good that the Astros trusted me to be able to do better than that,” he said. “It gives me a lot more confidence as a player knowing that the team is behind you and has confidence in you like that when you step on the pitch.”

He worked to rebuild his body and put his health first. Gurriel has played 143 games for Houston this season. Only Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez played more. A nine-game absence in August due to a stiff neck was Gurriel’s only injury.

Astros’ utility man Aledmys Díaz is six years younger than Gurriel. He grew up in Cuba watching Gurriel play for the national team and fondly remembers Gurriel’s role in leading Cuba to the 2006 World Baseball Classic finals against Japan.

“He was one of the guys who took the risk of reaching MLB late in his career, and it paid off,” said Díaz. “You can learn a lot from him. He watches what he eats, takes care of his body, always stretches, has a great routine when he gets to the stadium. It’s longevity, what you see. This guy, at 37, the way he moves on the pitch, we’re just trying to replicate what he does.

Gurriel also learned which metrics to prioritize. When playing professionally in Cuba his goal was simply to hit above 0.300. Since joining the Astros, he’s been paying attention to stats like OBP, WAR, and OPS. He’s shown more patience at home this season while leading Houston in hits (169), goals-on-goal rate (0.868) and percentage on base (0.383).

“I made a promise to myself that I was going to do whatever I thought possible to turn the tide, from practice to prep and everything,” he said. “So I was really happy to be able to have the results and be able to remove the image I had from last year.”

As the Astros prepare to face the White Sox in ALDS Game 1 Thursday at Minute Maid Park, Gurriel’s contributions in offense and defense will be paramount. He finished the regular season with a .319 / .383 / .462 cut with a career-high 59 walks and 68 strikeouts. His five defensive points saved rank fourth among all first baseman.

“I think this year he’s done an amazing job controlling the strike zone, taking balls,” said third baseman Alex Bregman. “He was amazing. He’s a great teammate, he works extremely hard, he hits the ball from line to line which gives him the ability to hit for a high average.

Brantley added, “He’s one of the most underrated players in the game. I’ll say it over and over again. Not just on the offensive side, but also on the defensive side. “

He did it all as the second-oldest player in the Astros roster behind pitcher Zack Greinke, who turns 38 this month. The common joke in the clubhouse is that every year on Gurriel’s birthday he gets ten years old. Two years ago he turned 40. Last year he was 50. Players buy numbered candles and give him a hard time. “He eats a lot of cakes,” Bregman said.

When asked how old he had “turned” this year, Gurriel laughed.

“Like 100,” he said. “I feel really good. “

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