Baseball can often produce an unexplainable outcome, leaving many to wonder why it occurred in the first place. The Toronto Blue Jays, who endured a season of extremes in 2022, are likely to ponder that question involving Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s bizarre offensive performance this winter.
Gurriel had been known for his power through his first four big-league campaigns, slugging .492 with 63 home runs across 347 career games. But then, unexpectedly, the 29-year-old experienced a sudden power outage this past season and couldn’t replicate any of his previous career marks. 
As a result, the 6-foot-4 right-hander posted career lows in home runs (five), slugging percentage (.400) and isolated power (.108) over 493 plate appearances in 121 contests. He still enjoyed a productive showing, however, hitting for more contact (.291 AVG, .346 BABIP) and producing a 114 wRC+ score – seven points higher than last season’s mark (107). His strikeout rate (16.8 per cent) was also much improved, producing a career-best clip.
Those were all positive developments for Gurriel and the Blue Jays, though the reason behind his slugging metrics declining remained unclear. But perhaps it was caused by an injury. After the season, the team revealed that the veteran outfielder underwent surgery on his left hand to repair his hamate bone, which had previously gone undiagnosed until earlier this month.
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While speaking to reporters during his end-of-season media availability, general manager Ross Atkins provided additional details on Gurriel’s injury, saying it was responsible for the left wrist discomfort he had experienced for much of the season. Could it have impacted his power numbers? Possibly, but the Blue Jays GM dismissed that theory almost immediately.
“Could be, but we did not think so, he [Gurriel] did not think so,” Atkins said last Friday. “It wasn’t something that he was complaining about chronically.”
Atkins’ comments have only added to the mystery. If not an injury, what caused Gurriel’s slugging metrics to drop so suddenly? Could it have been some changes to his swing? Perhaps, but his average launch angle only increased by 0.4 degrees from 2021. His line-drive (20.8-23.7 per cent) and hard-hit percentages (42.7-45.3 per cent) each jumped considerably, which should’ve resulted in more extra-base hits, not fewer of them.
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The most notable year-to-year difference, though, involved his barrel totals. Last season, Toronto’s left fielder registered a 9.6 per cent barrel rate, ranking in the 61st percentile of the majors. In 2022, that clip dropped to a career-worst 3.8 per cent, placing in the 12th percentile.
Could both Gurriel and the Blue Jays be downplaying how much this injury impacted him offensively? It is possible, but maybe we’re reading too much into this situation. Perhaps he decided to change his hitting style, opting for a more contact-oriented approach. If it was injury-related, though, his slugging metrics could return to regular form next season.
Gurriel’s recovery timeline post-surgery is expected to span three-four weeks, providing him with plenty of time to rehab his season-ending hamstring injury, as well. Once healthy, the Cuban native can spend the rest of his off-season preparing for a crucial 2023 campaign, as it’s the final season of his seven-year, $22-million contract.
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With free agency approaching, the right-hander will be determined to enjoy a quality performance during his walk year, and avoiding any nagging injuries will be key this time around. Of course, that’ll likely be easier said than done, but doing so may improve his ability to generate barrels.
In 2021, Gurriel covered nearly every part of the strike zone with his barrel, especially the middle-to-inside half of the plate, creating tons of loud contact in those quadrants. He excelled against pitches that finished at the top and bottom of the zone, making him a potent extra-base threat.
This season, however, Gurriel didn’t enjoy similar success. While he still generated barrels on the inside corner of the zone, his production was mostly limited to that area as he only created six total barrels in the other two quadrants.
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What was most shocking is that only three of those batted balls occurred down the middle of the plate – an area he dominated in the previous season. If that wrist injury impacted his swing, it would explain why he couldn’t replicate his 2021 barrel totals.
Then you have Gurriel’s barrel rate against fastballs, which went from a career-best 12.3 per cent in 2021 to a career-worst 4.9 per cent in ’22. Could anything other than his wrist injury have caused such a dramatic decline? It’s possible but pretty unlikely.
Due to that decrease, his SLG (.482-.408) and xSLG (.515-.436) also endured significant year-to-year declines. And yet, his AVG improved from .276-.300 while his xAVG remained the same at .290. So while he hit for plenty of contact, very little was of the extra-base variety.
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It should also be noted that Gurriel’s barrel rate against breaking balls dropped significantly, falling from 6.6 per cent in 2021 to 1.8 per cent in ’22. Having said that, generating hard contact versus soft pitches wasn’t his strong suit before this past season, anyway.
The underlying metrics on his extra-base hits were surprising, though, as they were generated somewhat differently than compared to his previous career marks. Granted, there were fewer of them to judge in 2022, although most featured a much lower exit velocity and launch angle.
Overall, Gurriel’s extra-base hits produced a 97.9 m.p.h. average exit velocity and a 15-degree average launch angle on 21 batted ball events, with a maximum exit velocity of 104.9 m.p.h. and a launch angle of 29 degrees.
From 2018-21, Gurriel’s extra-base hits averaged 101.6 m.p.h. with a 24-degree launch angle on 71 batted ball events, maxing out at 108.5 m.p.h. and 44 degrees. That’s a fairly significant difference.
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If anything, these illustrations display how Gurriel’s line-drive percentage climbed in 2022. Though they don’t tell the whole story, it helps explain how he remained effective despite recording fewer extra-base hits and fly balls. It also leans heavier into the theory that his wrist injury was more impactful than previously believed.
But with Toronto’s left fielder expected to be fully healthy ahead of next spring, he’ll likely be able to put these hitting woes behind him next season. In doing so, he shouldn’t continue to struggle to barrel up pitches, particularly fastballs, at the top of the strike zone. Instead, his heat maps in those quadrants should turn bright red rather than the dark blue they displayed this past season.
The Blue Jays welcomed Gurriel’s improved contact metrics, but when he’s at his best, his contact and slugging results each reap the benefits of his success. And that’s something he’ll be working towards leading into one of the most pivotal years of his career.
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