On a team full of struggling players, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. got off to a particularly miserable start this season.
He wasn’t making contact, wasn’t hitting for power, and was striking out far too often. Two and a half weeks into the season, he was batting a lowly .175/.250/.275, looking nothing like the promising prospect the Toronto Blue Jays thought they had.
On April 14, manager Charlie Montoyo yanked Gurriel from the game in the top of the fourth inning. After the game, the Jays told Gurriel he’d be heading down to triple-A. At age 25, less than one calendar year after his major-league debut, his career appeared to be at a crossroads.
Fast forward to today. Gurriel’s batting .303/.354/.622, making him the best hitter on the Blue Jays (by far), and one of the best hitters in all of baseball.
So what happened? How did Gurriel go from potential bust to one of the most dangerous mashers in the league, all in less than three months?
It starts, oddly enough, with defence.
At six-foot-three, 215 pounds, Gurriel never possessed the traditional build of a middle infielder. More than just fighting against body type, Gurriel simply struggled to handle second base and shortstop, grading out as below average by both scouts and advanced metrics. Shifting him to the outfield would prove to be a crucial step on the way to Gurriel’s redemption.
"The attitude," Blue Jays hitting coach Guillermo Martinez said, when asked what the biggest change has been in Gurriel’s game. "He’s more comfortable now. Especially with defence, to be more comfortable in the outfield lets him get more comfortable at the plate."
Martinez said that change in attitude started to show up soon after Gurriel arrived at triple-A Buffalo. By playing left field every day, away from the crush of big-league pressure, Gurriel became "mentally more free."
That improvement in attitude has manifested itself in multiple ways on the field. If we go further back to Gurriel’s lacklustre 2018, we can see some pronounced changes.
As Derrick Boyd recently wrote at Baseball HQ, Gurriel’s engineered a 50 per cent surge in hard-hit fly balls this season as compared to 2018. The result has been a corresponding 50 per cent jump in home run-per-flyball rate, with Gurriel now blasting more than one out of every four flyballs he hits over the fence.
According to Statcast, Gurriel is making far more frequent hard contact in general (as measured by how frequently he "barrels" the ball) while also raising the launch angle on the balls he hits, leading to more frequent deep flyballs (and again, more homers). Swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone enables him to focus more on crushable offerings too.
But wait, there’s more. According to TruMedia Networks, since his May 24 return to the big leagues, Gurriel has been swinging less often at fastballs, and hitting them harder and higher when he does swing, and connect. He’s also benefitted from some luck, posting a batting average on balls in play above .400 on fastballs since that return.
The heat maps below tell the story. Below you’ll find two maps showing Gurriel’s slugging percentage splits, one for his performance during the first two and a half weeks of the season, the other showing his results since May 24, a stretch in which he’s hit a ridiculous .338/.383/.716.
Take his post-May 24 numbers and pro-rate them over a full season, and you get a player on pace to smash 64 homers, collect 108 extra-base hits (which would be the third-most ever, behind only Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig) and amass 141 runs scored and 120 runs batted in, no easy task in an otherwise docile Blue Jays lineup.
Aside from Gurriel’s increased confidence, Martinez said he hadn’t noticed anything drastically new in the left fielder’s approach – just a lot of video study and batting practice to master the art of being on time at the plate.
"When he has been off in the past, he’s just started late," Martinez said. "So just getting started early, staying under control, staying back, that allows him to see the ball better and make better decisions. It’s just making sure he’s getting loaded on time.”
Avoiding being late on pitches is typically an approach used to hammer fastballs. But Martinez noted that Gurriel’s worked hard on keeping proper balance in the box too, regardless of the type of pitch thrown his way. That balance, in combination with a focus on line drives rather than specifically swinging for the moon, can lead to positive results.
The best hitters, Martinez said, can get loud results even when they’re simply trying to square pitches up rather than hit them out of the ballpark. To wit: Gurriel’s slugging a monstrous .776 on breaking pitches this season. No other hitter in baseball with as many at-bats has fared better in that situation.
"He’s a hard worker, and it’s rubbing off on a lot of the other hitters," said Martinez. “He’s a very intelligent player, he studies film, studies the pitchers, constantly talking in the dugout about what he’s trying to do and what the pitcher is throwing. He’s very well prepared before games."
"He’s having a lot of fun."