Gio Urshela: Is He For Real?

There is little question but that the 2019 Yankees would be in the basement of the AL East without the play of all of the depth players that began the year at AAA Scranton. As good as all of those guys have been, one has stood above the rest: Gio Urshela. Prior to this season, Urshela was considered to be little more than a depth infielder. This season has largely changed that perception. In addition to playing good defense at the hot corner (I know that the metrics are mixed - defensive metrics take larger sample sizes to trust, so I am trusting my eyes on this one), Urshela has hit .341/.396/.505 with a .902 OPS, 140 OPS+, and 143 wRC+. Were Urshela to keep up this level of performance over a full season, he would finish with 5-ish WAR, or All-Star caliber production from 3B. Urshela’s current offensive performance is easy to comprehend, but the aforementioned statistics only tell us how Urshela has performed to this point; they say nothing about what we can expect from him moving forward. The question remains: who is Gio Urshela long-term?

Gio Urshela’s only significant playing time at the big league level came during his rookie season in 2015 and again in 2017. For the purposes of this analysis, I have excluded any data from his MLB service in 2018 due to the extremely limited sample size. In truth, we have nothing but small sample sizes with which we can evaluate Urshela’s performance, however the differences in his batted ball profile are noticeable. First, it is important to understand how Urshela hit the baseball prior to this season. In 2015 and 2017, Urshela’s Exit Velocity was measured by Statcast at 87 MPH in both seasons, which is slightly below average when compared to the rest of the league. Urshela’s launch angle fluctuated from 14.4 degrees to 9.1 degrees, but these average figures are not necessarily indicative of anything significant, as we’ll discuss in a minute.

Fast forward to this season, and Urshela is a totally different hitter. Urshela’s Exit Velocity is 90.3 MPH, 3.3 MPH higher than his previous best, and in the 70th percentile of all batted balls this season, according to Statcast. Additionally, Urshela’s Hard Hit % is 39.2, again higher than his previous best and roughly 5% better than league average. While Urshela’s BB% is a little low, he has dropped his K% significantly, to the point where he is now in elite territory in that category. Rather than become a three true outcomes type of player, Urshela is excelling by putting the ball in play. In order for Urshela to succeed with that approach, he needs to impact the baseball well consistently. Based on quality of contact metrics, Statcast would expect his batting average and slugging percentage to roughly match his performance to-date in 2019.

Many stories of players who have dramatically improved their performance at the plate in the last few years have focused on the launch angle revolution, or deliberate action of increasing swing loft to generate more launch angle on all contact. Interestingly enough, Urshela does not fit the mold of a launch angle darling thus far, displaying an average launch angle of 12.4 degrees, right in-between his previous norms. We need to dig deeper into the launch angle figures than simply the averages in order to determine anything about how Urshela’s batted ball profile has changed.

First, let’s look at the launch angle map of all balls that Urshela hit in 2015 and 2017:

Urshela’s 2015 launch angle map, courtesy of Statcast.

Urshela’s 2017 launch angle map, courtesy of Statcast.

A couple of notes before I show you what the map looks like in 2019. What you should first note is that Urshela hit a statistically significant number of balls both above 40 degrees and below -20 degrees relative to the number of balls he hit in the happy zone of 0-20 degrees. In essentials, we are talking about a high percentage of weak pop-ups and choppers on the infield. Add that to middling, or worse, Exit Velocity readings, and the picture of a player that does not impact the baseball in valuable ways is sufficiently painted.

Compare that picture to 2019:

Urshela’s 2019 launch angle map, courtesy of Statcast.

Most of Urshela’s contact in 2019 is focused in the prime zone for line drives between 0-20 degrees. Relatively few of the balls he is hitting are way outside of those margins. Add in the fact that Urshela is hitting the ball in the hardest 30% of players, and not only are his line drives and fly balls doing more damage, but so are his grounders and low liners through the infield.

I think that it is likely that the Yankees helped Urshela make a mechanical adjustment to change his batted ball profile. It has been said in multiple outlets that the Yankees were excited to get Urshela, so maybe they knew that he could make a mechanical adjustment to become more valuable. I can’t say any of that for certain. What I can say is that Urshela is not just a product of luck or random variability; his batted ball profile shows significant improvement that implies that some positive offensive performance is likely moving forward.

Gio Urshela was a spare part heading into 2019. As a good 3B, who can really only fake it at 2B and SS, Urshela must hit enough to be an everyday 3B to have value at the big league level. The sample size is still small, but the early indications are that Urshela is better than he has ever been. If the batted ball profile regresses somewhat, I am not sure that Urshela is a first-division regular, but I think that the defense/offense combination means that he is likely a big league starter at 3B for someone moving forward. If he maintains the quality of contact he has displayed early this year, then Urshela will be an above-average starting 3B throughout his prime. I think that Urshela is moving into the territory that Voit inhabited prior to the start of 2019. There is enough data to support the intrigue, but we need a little more to definitively say that Urshela is here to stay. All I can say is that I am a lot closer to saying that Urshela is the real-deal than I ever thought I would.