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What’s different about Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s latest hot streak?

What's different about Lourdes Gurriel Jr.'s latest hot streak?

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Even in a sport with a great deal of day-to-day volatility baked in, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has always been more erratic than most.

The Toronto Blue Jays outfielder is liable to take a perplexing route to a ball that costs his team extra bases one inning and uncork a picture-perfect throw to the plate for an out the next. He’ll look lost at the plate months at a time then put the entire offence on his back with a massive multi-hit streak.

While he can’t claim full ownership of the Blue Jays’ recent seven-game winning streak stretch, he delivered its signature moment with a grand slam this past Friday, and he’s hit .333/.400/.857 during that span. At this point it’s not surprising to see Gurriel Jr. go on a tear, what’s interesting is the way he’s doing it.

Since Aug. 1, the 27-year-old has hit .330/.393/.580, and that line isn’t backed by a freakish power surge (his ISO of .250 below the .264 he managed in 2019), or abnormal BABIP luck (his .354 is almost identical to last year’s .351). Instead, his production is based on a strong approach at the plate with a 9.8 BB per cent and 15.2 K per cent, good for a 0.65 BB/K — the 37th-best total among the 185 MLB hitters with at least 100 plate appearances in that timeframe.

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While that ranking isn’t a league topper, it’s impressive in the context of Gurriel Jr.’s career. His biggest weakness as a hitter has always been plate discipline, as he rarely walks and strikes out at approximately a league-average clip. The result is that his career BB/K of 0.25 ranks 217th among 237 hitters with at least 1,000 career appearances since the beginning of 2018, which puts a great deal of pressure on his ability to hit for power in order to produce.

The question with any Gurriel Jr. hot streak is whether there’s meaning behind it or whether it’s a “Lourdes being Lourdes” situation. While there’s no definitive answer for that, Gurriel Jr.’s 31-game stretch since Aug. 1 is simultaneously the best stretch of his career for cutting down strikeouts …

… and one of his best for accumulating walks:

Not only does Gurriel Jr. seem to have a better sense of the zone lately, he’s been beat there less than ever. His 93.6 per cent zone contact since Aug. 1 ranks 15th among hitters with at least 100 PA — and it’s by far the best stretch of his career in that category.

The results of that are twofold. The most obvious is that he’s whiffing on fewer hittable pitches, which has a great deal to do with his lowered strikeout rate. From April to July he struck out on 24 pitches in the zone; Since then he’s done so just once — and it came on a pitch painting the corner up-and-in.

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More subtle is the way that it’s improving his contact quality. Because Gurriel Jr. isn’t missing on pitches in the zone it means he’s putting more balls in play on offerings that are better to hit.

Gurriel Jr. is notoriously difficult to analyze because his performance has more peaks and valleys than a Norwegian fjord. Determining what’s “for real” with him can be a hopeless pursuit. That said, his recent run is encouraging because he’s showing off abilities he hasn’t flashed to this extent before, aren’t particularly susceptible to luck, and tend to be meaningful even in small samples.

None of that guarantees we’re looking at a Gurriel Jr. breakout, but it’s possible that his plate discipline is improving, especially since that’s a skill that tends to improve with age. The worst-case scenario for the Blue Jays is that it has no bearing on what we can expect going forward, and he’s simply on one of his trademark heaters.

For a team in the thick of a close playoff race, that’s not a bad consolation prize.

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