HOUSTON -- Yuli Gurriel was a little hesitant. In his 15 seasons in Cuba, Gurriel hit .335 with 250 home runs and 1,018 RBIs. In 2015, his last season before signing with the Astros, Gurriel hit .500 with 15 home runs and 51 RBIs in just 49 games at age 31. He had grown into an international star, but up to that point he had done all his damage as a third baseman.
When scouts were looking into signing Gurriel as an international free agent in 2016, the biggest draw was his innate ability at the plate. The initial thought was that the Cuban infielder was going to be a Major League third baseman, but there was speculation that Gurriel would end up as a designated hitter once he got older.
In his first season with the Astros, Gurriel played 176 innings at third base, while also getting partial playing time at first base, DH and in the outfield. But as Alex Bregman established himself as a perennial All-Star at third, the Astros decided to move Gurriel to first in order to keep his bat in the everyday lineup.
“He wasn't begrudgingly going to first, but it was a change for him,” said Astros manager AJ Hinch. “He hasn’t taken a first base glove and gone to first and caught balls from them; he’s put real work in to be good around the base.”
After playing 36 innings at first base in 2016, Gurriel served as the team’s everyday first baseman in ‘17, playing 131 games at the position. It was a new challenge for Gurriel, and it didn’t always go smoothly.
Gurriel finished that season with a -6.2 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) -- a defensive metric that takes into account errors, range, outfield arm and double-play abilities – at first base. With a -6.2 rating, Gurriel was considered a below-average defender.
With a full season at first under his belt, Gurriel saw a significant improvement with his defense the next year. His UZR spiked to -2.1 in 2018, closer to league average.
This season, Gurriel took another step forward, finishing with an 0.8 UZR and was named a finalist for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award at first base, along with Toronto’s Justin Smoak and Oakland’s Matt Olson.
“How about his defense?” Hinch said. “We’ve been very aggressive in how to place him off the line or where he plays, and he’s embraced that because he’s a third baseman-shortstop stuck in a first baseman body, so to speak. And I’m proud of him for that. I think he’s embraced it as a real position and not just somewhere that you go.”
During the postseason, Gurriel has continued to show off his improvement defensively. Just ask Nationals shortstop Trea Turner. In the seventh inning of Game 4, Turner hit a grounder in Gurriel’s direction. The first baseman stumbled initially, but was able to recover in time and lunged himself at the base in order to retire Turner.
The exit velocity on Turner’s ground ball was only 94.4 mph, but Turner, who is known for his speed, raced down the line with an elite sprint speed of 30.3 feet per second.
But Gurriel didn’t stop there. Just 24 hours later, Turner smoked a 102.4 mph grounder down the first base line. Gurriel handled a short hop, turned his hips and sprinted over to the bag. Gurriel and Turner were set to meet at the bag yet again, and that’s when Gurriel dove head first (again) to beat Turner for the out (again).
“I’m not sure if I’m more impressed with catching the balls or beating Turner to the base,” Hinch said.
“‘You might be a little older than Turner, but you might be faster than you think,’” Hinch recalled telling Gurriel during Game 5.
Gurriel’s development at first base has allowed the Astros to form one of the most potent lineups in the American League. By sliding Gurriel over to first, the Astros have been able to slot him, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Bregman in the lineup at the same time. But aside from that, Gurriel has also found a way to extend his career and not worry about being limited to the DH spot as he finishes out his current deal (he is signed through 2020).
The move was a risk for both sides, but it’s one that could pay off with a second World Series ring in three years with a win on Tuesday.
“When we first moved him over [to first], he’s like, ‘You know, I don’t want to DH,’” Hinch recalled. “He said, ‘You go from third base to first base, from first base to DH, and from DH to home. I want to play a really long time.’ I kind of remind him, you’ve been a good first baseman, it’s going to extend your career.”