Gurriel has been Astros' most low-key star

August 20th, 2020

will soon play his 500th career game and is approaching an offseason in which he’ll be one of the most intriguing free agents. Yet the Astros first baseman remains one of Major League Baseball’s best-kept secrets.

“This guy is just a ballplayer,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said Wednesday afternoon. “That’s the ultimate compliment I can give anybody. He can beat you in a number of different ways.”

He ticks them off:

• Offense: “Game on the line, you’d just as soon have Yuli up there as anybody.”

• Defense: “This guy is Gold Glove to me. I know [Matt] Olson won it last year. But I mean, but you know how many errors [Yuli] saves our infield? He does it very quietly.”

• Overall: “Big time [impressed]. And as a teammate. He doesn’t say a whole bunch, but he comes to play. He’s a very smart player. He’s a clutch player. This guy is so valuable.”

Numbers back up Baker’s assessment. Here’s how Gurriel has started the 2020 season:

• Tied for fourth among American League position players in Wins Above Replacement (1.2), per Baseball Reference, entering play on Thursday. Among the players he’s tied with: and .

• Tied for first in Defensive Runs Saved (3) among MLB first basemen. Among the players he’s tied with: Gold Glove winners and .

• 16th in the AL in OPS (.921)

• Fourth in AL in multihit games (9) and sixth in total bases (52)

• 24rd in OBP (.368)

For an Astros team hit hard by offensive slumps and injuries, Gurriel has been a bright spot. In August, he’s hitting .319 with four homers, seven doubles and a triple in 17 games entering Thursday.

Gurriel and made their Major League debuts with the Astros a few weeks apart in the summer of 2016. Gurriel had been a splashy signing out of Cuba, Bregman the second pick of the ‘15 Draft.

Those arrivals put in place the final pieces of teams that have been among the most successful in baseball the last five seasons. But the contrast between the two men was striking.

Bregman was 22 years old and a bundle of energy. He could not have been more comfortable on stage, whether it be social media or the postseason.

Meanwhile, Gurriel seemed completely unimpressed by the whole thing. He’d been one of Cuban baseball’s biggest stars, and at 32, began a new chapter of his career with an approach that was decidedly low key. Or as former Astros manager AJ Hinch said, “We had to check to see if he was awake a few times. He’s just not fazed by much.”

Then there would be games like the one against the Yankees in 2017, when he attacked a 102-mph Aroldis Chapman fastball in the eighth inning to double in two runs and give the Astros a comeback win.

His father, Lourdes, was one of Cuba’s biggest baseball stars, so Yuli, 36, is accustomed to the spotlight. He played 15 seasons for the Cuban National Team and one in Japan before coming to the United States. His younger brother, 26-year-old Lourdes Jr., plays for Blue Jays. 

To this point, the only misstep in Gurriel’s career is an inappropriate gesture he made following a home run off Yu Darvish in Game 3 of the 2017 World Series. Darvish accepted Gurriel’s apology and Gurriel served a five-game suspension to open the ‘18 season.

This is the final season of Gurriel’s original five-year, $47.5 million contract with the Astros. With , and also headed for free agency, Gurriel is one of a long list of decisions the club must make.

“Houston’s the only team that I know,” Gurriel said at the beginning of Summer Camp. “It’s the only thing that I know in the big leagues. It’s the only team that I’ve played for. I really hope that I’ll be able to stay here in Houston.”

Gurriel has become extremely popular among Astros fans, in part, because of the wild pineapple-shaped cone of hair on top of his head. Knockoff Gurriel wigs have been a popular item in Astros gift stores.

As for fame, he’s OK with how things have played out.

“We’ve got a lot of talent here,” he said. “There are a lot of stars.”