2019 has been a tale of two polar opposite seasons for Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
During his first 13 games of the season, Gurriel looked lost at the plate and had difficulty with the most routine plays at second base. A botched throw to first base on April 14th was the tipping point. He was removed from the game shortly afterwards and demoted to triple-A the following day.
That might’ve been the end of Gurriel’s season with the Blue Jays, but on May 24th, he returned to the Major League club and brought Cavan Biggio along for the ride. Ever since then, Gurriel’s been one of baseball’s hottest hitters. Yes, that Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
His dramatic turnaround has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the Blue Jays’ 2019 in a season devoid of much joy. Gurriel’s fall and rise has been fascinating to watch; the player who had the yips at second base looks like a complete natural out in left field.
Gurriel’s play as of late surely has the organization feeling much better about their $22 million investment as an international free agent. The Blue Jays’ brand new left fielder resembles the same hitter who compiled an 11-game multi-hit streak last July.
During that stretch last summer, there was nothing he couldn’t hit. Gurriel’s putting up a similar hot streak since his May 24th promotion.
That’s nearly triple the sample size from his early season stint and Gurriel has re-discovered his power during his second go-around. These numbers look more like the Gurriel of 2018, not the deer-in-the-headlights version of the same player from earlier this year.
It seems like the big difference for Gurriel at the plate this time is he’s hitting the ball with authority again. Through March and April, his average exit velocity on base hits was 87.8 MPH. Through May and June, Gurriel’s averaging 97.7 MPH off the bat, a 10 mile per hour increase on his balls in play.
As fun as he’s been to watch at the plate, the much more encouraging turnaround for Gurriel has been his defense. Where he was once a liability in the infield, he now looks like a complete natural in the outfield. The man has played 30 games in the outfield this year and already has six outfield assists, tied for the third-most in baseball this year.
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) June 23, 2019
Left field seems like Gurriel’s happy place. At that position, he’s able to emulate of the tendencies he picked up as a shortstop, but he just has a lot more ground to cover and has to deal with fly balls now. At no point has Gurriel looked out of place in the outfield.
Meanwhile, you’d think someone like Teoscar Hernandez was a converted infielder player the outfield, but nope, it’s Gurriel. Last week on the Blue Jays TV broadcast, Buck Martinez gave Gurriel some high praise, saying “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a player make such a smooth transition as Gurriel did to left field.”
In retrospect, the fact that the team signed veteran shortstop Freddy Galvis should’ve been indicative about the organization’s confidence in Gurriel’s long-term ability to play the infield. While Lourdes made some flashy plays at shortstop last season, it was often in an unorthodox fashion and he was guilty of overcomplicating plays when they didn’t need to be.
It seems highly unlikely that Gurriel will ever see the infield again, but by moving him to the outfield, that opened up an opportunity on the infield for Cavan Biggio and very soon, Bo Bichette. Unless Gurriel shifts over to first base, that everyday left field position is his to lose.
I was at the Rogers Centre for this game and was sitting down in section 130 about 10 rows back and vividly remember this play. Off the bat, I was convinced Gurriel had no chance at this play. Given the ground he had to cover, it seemed impossible to make this catch. Somehow, he did.
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) June 8, 2019
Plus, how about his presence of mind to get the ball back to second base on a perfect line right to the bag. These are the type of plays pulled off by defenders who have been patrolling the outfield for years. Gurriel’s been doing it for five weeks.
His robust arm strength in the outfield is an intriguing aspect of his game. Gurriel evokes memories of Jose Bautista’s outfield arm circa 2011 when Joey Bats had 13 outfield assists in right field. If opposing runners continue to challenge Gurriel’s arm, he should have no problem surpassing that mark set by Bautista in 2011.
In case you were wondering, Jesse Barfield has the Blue Jays club record for most outfield assists in a single season with 22 assists in 1985. Barfield doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his cannon of an arm, but that’s another topic for another day.
Even during his early season slump, most people figured he would hit his way out of it. The issue was clearly his defensive ability, which does not remedy itself when it goes uncorrected at the big league level. Hence the demotion to triple-A.
The danger with Gurriel is much like Randal Grichuk, because of his lack of ability to draw a walk, Gurriel is prone to prolonged slumps. The getting’s good right now because he’s putting everything in play and most balls are dropping for hits, but when he starts striking out again and fails to work counts, Gurriel will be frustrating to watch.
At points earlier in the season, Gurriel looked like he might become an eventual cast-off, but along with Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and in the future, Bo Bichette, Gurriel looks to become part of the “core four” hitters who will anchor this Blue Jays lineup for years to come.