The Astros Might Need a First Baseman

For most of the winter and a good chunk of spring training, the Astros have been speculated as a potential landing spot for Jose Quintana. Reports are that they’ve made offers to the White Sox to add the left-hander to their rotation, and now that Collin McHugh has been shut down for six weeks during his rehab stint, the fit seems even better than it did over the off-season.

But while Jose Quintana would help any team, I still look at Houston’s rotation and see a pretty decent group there. Dallas Keuchel and a healthy (for now, at least) Lance McCullers are a quality pair at the front of the rotation, and while a back-end of Charlie Morton, Joe Musgrove, and Mike Fiers isn’t the strongest group #3-#5 in the game, all three project as roughly league average hurlers, and McHugh is better than that if he gets healthy. Toss in the possibility of stretching out Chris Devenski — who has looked amazing in his two long relief stints this year — or promoting one of their promising arms from the minors, and there’s depth here beyond a strong top two.

So instead of talking about their starting pitching, perhaps the Astros should start thinking about using their surplus of quality prospects to land a first baseman. Because while it’s still early, the evidence is mounting that they may have a real problem there.

Last summer, the Astros gave Yulieski Gurriel a five year, $48 million contract, hoping he could boost their line-up down the stretch and give them another infield option for the next few years. He didn’t really do the former, putting up just an 82 wRC+ in 36 games last year, and after a slow start to 2017, it’s getting close to the time where they’ll have to wonder whether he’s a starter on a contending Major League team.

Obviously, everything with Gurriel is a small sample size at this point, and no one should be entirely judged on fewer than 200 plate appearances. At this point, Gurriel’s Major League track record is 161 trips to the plate. He would not be the first player to hit poorly for 161 PAs before figuring things out after that. But it’s difficult to find anything in his recent performance record that supports the idea that there’s an imminent breakout coming.

Let’s start with his control of the strike zone, which was supposed to be one of his hallmark skills. In Cuba, he posted some ridiculous BB/K numbers, including a 38/3 BB/K ratio in 2015, his final season with Industriales. His eye at the plate was supposed to be one of the things that would allow Gurriel to succeed quickly in the majors. But to this point in the big leagues, Gurriel has essentially been an undisciplined hacker.

Exactly 400 batters have come to the plate at least 150 times since the start of the 2016 season; Gurriel’s 39.7% O-Swing% ranks 379th out of that group, putting him in a tie with Matt Kemp and Freddy Galvis, neither of whom would be described as disciplined hitters. On swings in the strike zone, his 75.8% Z-Swing% ranks 395th. Swinging at strikes isn’t necessarily a bad thing — some of the other guys with similarly high in-zone swing rates are Freddie Freeman and Corey Seager — but the combination of very high swing rates at pitches both in and out of the zone don’t show a hitter who is comfortable working counts.

The only Major League regulars who have posted a higher overall swing rate than Gurriel since the start of last year are Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop, Brandon Phillips, Yasmany Tomas, and Corey Dickerson. Jones and Phillips overcame their aggressive approaches with enough athleticism to play up the middle positions, while Schoop, Tomas, and Dickerson try to offset the hacking by hitting for a bunch of power.

Gurriel, though, is playing first base for the Astros, and while he might be athletic enough to be an above average defender there, it’s still hard to rack up a lot of defensive value as a 1B. And thus far, we haven’t really seen anything to suggest that there’s the kind of power in his bat that would make up for a swing-at-anything approach.

In 43 games, Gurriel has racked up 11 extra base hits, just under 30% of his overall hit total, which isn’t great. But in this day and age, we don’t have to lean on just results data; we can look at exactly how hard Gurriel hits the ball, thanks to Statcast. But that doesn’t get a lot more encouraging.

Last year, 375 batters had at least 100 batted balls tracked by Statcast. That group’s average exit velocity was 89.1 mph on those tracked balls. Gurriel, at 89.4 mph, ranked just barely above league average. We care more about exit velocity in the air than on the ground, however, since you can hit a ball hard at a low launch angle and still have it be a likely out. Sorting by EV on fly balls and line drives doesn’t help Gurriel, though; his 91.7 mph average was below the 92.1 mph league average and the 92.6 mph league median.

Averages can be deceiving, though. If you hit a bunch of balls 40 to 60 mph, they’ll bring your overall EV way down, but they aren’t really effectively different than hitting a ball 70 to 80 mph, since that whole range is just mostly outs. So, instead of looking at averages, let’s just look at percentage of balls that were hit hard.

That group of 375 batters put 40% of their tracked balls in play at 95+ mph, ranging from a high of 60% (Domingo Santana and Nelson Cruz) to a low of 13% (Billy Hamilton). Gurriel, at 41%, is again square in the middle of the pack. And if we look at Barrels, MLB’s combination of balls hit at ideal exit velocity and launch angle pairs, Gurriel rates even worse; his 2.9% barrel per batted ball mark is just less than half of the group’s 6.0% average, and puts him in a tie with Didi Gregorius, Denard Span, Cliff Pennington, and Angel Pagan. Just ahead of him, at 3.0%, you’ll find Jason Heyward, who had one of the worst offensive seasons in baseball last year. Jason Heyward hit more balls squarely in 2016 than Gurriel did. Yeah.

It’s certainly possible to be a good hitter with most of these kinds of Statcast numbers, in isolation. For instance, Gurriel had a higher rate of barrels than Dustin Pedroia (2.4%), and his average exit velocity is about the same as Bryce Harper’s. His rate of balls put in play at 95 mph or higher is roughly equal to Joey Votto and Anthony Rizzo. But basically everyone who is any good at offense and hit the ball like Gurriel hit the ball last year is either an elite contact hitter, has one of the most disciplined approaches to taking pitches, or more often both.

Gurriel, so far in the big leagues, has combined the plate approach of Yasmany Tomas with the contact quality of Adam Eaton. And we haven’t even mentioned that he’s been prone to hitting a lot of infield flies, which are the plays Statcast most regularly fails to track. Jeff Zimmerman has done good work adjusting for weakly hit balls that Statcast has struggled to track, and once you add those balls back in, Gurriel’s adjusted-EV falls from 89.4 to 85.3, and he’s no longer hanging out with the Harpers (88.6) and Vottos (88.3) anymore.

So, yeah, it’s just 161 plate appearances, but there’s nothing here to be excited about. Gurriel has shown no real ability to discern balls from strikes, and has indiscriminately swung at almost everything thrown his way, making roughly average contact in the process. When he has made contact, it’s been of the league-average variety even before we correct for his infield fly problem. Oh, and he turns 33 in a few weeks, so his skills are probably in decline.

ZIPS and Steamer saw him as a roughly average hitter coming into the season, though for very different reasons; Steamer thought he’d post a very low 13.9% strikeout rate, while ZIPS was forecasting a pretty lofty .203 ISO. So far, he’s looked more like the hitter Steamer expected, with his aggressive approach keeping his strikeout rate low, since he doesn’t get into that many two-strike counts to begin with. But the cost of swinging at everything, and making contact with pitches out of the zone, is that you don’t hit the ball that hard, and it’s hard to see how Gurriel is going to run anywhere near a .200 ISO with this approach.

So either Gurriel’s going to have to make a significant adjustment in his plan at the plate, or he’s going to have to start crushing the ball out of nowhere. I don’t know how optimistic I’d be about either of those things right now, and even decent gains in both areas wouldn’t leave him as more than the average-ish hitter that the projections forecasted coming into this season.

An average-hitting 33 year old isn’t a great option at first base for a contender. While first base is a bit of a black hole around the league right now, this is the real spot where it feels like the Astros could upgrade. And before they spend all their prospect currency to land a guy like Quintana to upgrade an already-strong rotation, it may be worth considering that they may need those guys to get involved in the bidding war for Paul Goldschmidt, if he ever became available. The Astros have a really good team, but if I’m planning future acquisitions to strengthen the roster for a playoff run, I’d be thinking about how I could find a first baseman better than Yulieski Gurriel.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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jupiterslament
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jupiterslament

If only they had a young power hitting 1B prospect in AAA to play, maybe someone who was inexplicably written off after only 122 at bats…

bostonskrong
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bostonskrong

Agreed, Tyler White is the much better option that they abandoned after he struggled in a small sample size

LHPSU
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LHPSU

AJ Reed’s still alive, you know.

drewcorb
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drewcorb

Tyler White didn’t look great across either MLB or AAA last year. I agree w/ the others that AJ Reed looks more promising.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

This. And although he’s a longer shot, they’ve got one at AA too.

J2butter
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J2butter

just a thought, but shoving down 800 calories an hour may not be helping his cause

Spa City
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Spa City

Amen. I assumed the article would address the fact that AJ Reed crushed the ball all Spring, and that he was outstanding at AA and AAA the past 2 seasons.

It is really early to write off AJ Reed. No need to trade the entire minor league system for Goldschmidt until they at least give AJ Reed a reasonable chance.

Stevil
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Stevil

Wrote off? Hardly. He didn’t look ready, and you can bet that he’d be one of the chips to land Goldschmidt, or any other star first baseman.

If you were a serious contender, who would you put your money on: an unproven rookie, or an experienced, veteran star?

I really don’t think it’s about not liking Reed. It’s more about simply giving your team the best chance.

Monsignor Martinez
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Monsignor Martinez

Or the one who was available on the waiver wire for free.