One of last season’s great stories in terms of unexpected breakouts came from Giovanny Urshela. Coming into the season, Urshela had the reputation as a glove-first third baseman, and the less said about his offense the better. We all know the story: Urshela became an offensive force for the Yankees, hitting .314/.355/.534 in 476 plate appearances and Urshela seamlessly replaced the lost expected production from Miguel Andujar and locked the third base job down for the foreseeable future.
This season, Urshela is picking up right where he left off in 2019, as he is mostly replicating his strong results at the plate with a .367 wOBA that is nearly identical to his .369 mark from a season ago and has been one of the main anchors in the Yankees lineup, especially so after the most recent batch of injuries to Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and DJ LeMahieu. The many questions about whether or not Urshela would be able to maintain that level of performance from 2019 into 2020 look a little bit silly at this point, as Urshela looks like the real deal.
Looking back, it isn’t all that surprising, as Urshela’s batted-balls looked quite legitimate. Thanks to some swing and mechanics adjustments, Urshela was able to start to pull the ball more, hit the ball harder, and ultimately, get those outstanding results. His 2019 profile looked pretty sustainable as mentioned in this piece by fellow Pitcher List staffer Lucas Zenobi. To make things even better, Urshela’s 2020 Statcast profile looks more encouraging than last season, with a greater rate of hard-contact and barrels that have helped get him towards the top of the hitter leaderboards in expected batting average, expected slugging, and expected wOBA. This all looks stellar and helps show just how much of a force Urshela is at the plate.
The one thing that didn’t look too good in his 2019 profile though was his plate discipline. Although not overly bad, as Urshela had a low 18.3% strikeout rate last season, he still would not be confused for a plate discipline guru given his poor chase rate. Among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances last season, Urshela’s 40.1% chase rate ranked 11th-highest in baseball, supported by Urshela’s free-swinging tendencies. Again looking at hitters with at least 400 plate appearances, Urshela’s 56.5% swing rate was the ninth highest. As a result of this combination, Urshela walked at a minuscule 5.3% clip last season, among the lowest in baseball. This doesn’t look like a huge concern on its own, and it isn’t. There are plenty of hitters who are able to still be productive despite a profile like this, and Urshela definitely qualifies to be included amongst them. It just looks like that this is who Urshela naturally is as a hitter. It is also less of a worry when a player hits the ball like Urshela does. The one negative is that a profile like this may limit his ceiling a little bit, especially when it comes to getting on base.
So far this season though, Urshela’s plate discipline looks a lot different, and the improvements he’s made here are likely driving his even better performance in 2020. Not only is Urshela striking out even less than last season at 15.7%, but he is also walking a lot more at 12.9%. It looks like Urshela has greatly improved his plate discipline, but how exactly has it happened?
One look at Urshela’s plate discipline profile shows that Urshela has really cut down on his two main plate discipline-related weaknesses from a season ago. Remember that 11th-highest chase rate that he had in 2019? Well, he’s cut that down tremendously through this early portion of the season:
|Name||2020 Chase%||2019 Chase%||Difference|
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||17.9||29.8||-11.9|
Among hitters with at least 50 plate appearances in 2020, Urshela has experienced the single largest drop in chase rate from 2019 to 2020. Urshela’s chase rate still isn’t super elite or anything, but for additional context, his 24.4% chase rate is actually better than the league average, and considering where he was last season, this is an extremely acceptable level to be at.
Now about that exorbitant swing rate from a season ago. Urshela has also seen some differences here, and is again, one of the largest year-over-year decliners in this department:
|Name||2020 Swing%||2019 Swing%||Difference|
Again we see how greatly Urshela has improved. While he is not all of a sudden turning David Fletcher-esque in terms of swing rate, Urshela’s rate is nearly identical to the league average rate of 46.6%.
So how has Urshela gone from super high swing and chase rates to much lower ones, and how is he walking a lot more? Is it luck? Small sample noise? A combination of the two? Well, it doesn’t look like it. It appears as though Urshela has made tangible improvements in this area. The difference this season is that he is focusing on when to swing and waiting for the right opportunity to swing. In essence, Urshela is waiting for the pitches that he knows he can do the most damage on and is crushing them.
This was a change that Urshela started to make last season, but he is really honing in on it this year. Compare, for instance, Urshela’s swing charts from pre-2019 to 2019:
While the pre-2019 version of Urshela did like to swing more on pitches on the inner-half of the plate compared to the outer-half (Urshela is right-handed), the 2019 version of Urshela did that a lot more, as evidenced by the darker shades of red. We also see where he was chasing more in 2019: right alongside the edges of the inner part of the plate that he already liked to swing at. This looks like a pretty simple adjustment to make in theory. The logic behind it is for a hitter to swing more at pitches in their hot zone, and do more damage overall. It did pay dividends for him last season, as shown below. Urshela got his best results last season by far in that area of the strike zone:
Focusing more on which pitches to swing at to go along with refined hitting mechanics is a good combination for the unlikely breakout Urshela experienced a season ago. This is all fine and dandy, but we are on to 2020 here, so we need to see if he is still at it this year. Turns out, Urshela has been fine-tuning this approach so far in 2019. This time, let’s compare his swing charts from 2019 to 2020:
The main area of focus is still on the inner-half of the plate, but the main difference in 2020 is that Urshela is now focusing his swings even more so on the bottom-half of the inner-half of the strike zone, for lack of a better term. We also see that Urshela is avoiding pitches away, as well as the chase rate improvements. It looks like if Urshela is chasing, he is most likely going to be chasing pitches that are still around the area that he does the most damage on, and he can likely still get good results on those pitches. This again makes sense as Urshela now knows where in the zone he gets his best results, so he is going to try to swing more at the pitches that he knows he will have a better time hitting than the ones that he likely won’t. And yes, Urshela is still getting those tremendous results that he expects to on that portion of the plate:
It is not the most scientific of adjustments to make, but it has clearly been an effective one for Urshela. Let’s see now if we can see some of this in action. On August 8th against Tyler Glasnow, Urshela had a sequence that pretty much shows visually the entire point of this post. Let’s take a look at his second plate appearance against Glasnow pitch-by-pitch in GIF form. Starting with this 96 mile-per-hour fastball from Glasnow up in the zone:
Not a bad pitch from Glasnow, but we know that this season, Urshela is not liking pitches up in the zone all that much. He doesn’t get good results on them, so he swings at them less. A good take from Urshela, and now for pitch number two:
Behind in the count, Glasnow goes back to a high fastball. Urshela swings this time, and misses, as nobody is perfect after all. Now having seen two high fastballs, Urshela should know that he’s better off laying off them. With the count now even, Glasnow goes to another fastball:
Another good take from Urshela here. It looks like Glasnow is trying to play to the scouting report, knowing where Urshela has previously been weaker and trying to get him to go after those pitches and hopefully make an out. Urshela rightfully lays off and gets ahead in the count, and now Glasnow comes back with another fastball that Urshela fouls away:
It is on the outer half of the plate that Ursehla does not like as much. If Urshela takes this pitch though, it is going to be called strike two anyway, so Urshela fouls this one-off and is maybe better off for it. But now, Glasnow has the advantage and can finally show Urshela his breaking ball, which he does:
It’s not the best breaking pitch that Glasnow has ever thrown, as he left it hanging up in the zone, and Urshela doesn’t exactly hit it all that hard, but he does still take it and deposit it into centerfield for a double and drives in two runs. While the pitch doesn’t land in that super-dangerous zone that Urshela typically feasts on, it still is in the inner half of the plate that he prefers. The point though is to show that Urshela’s improved plate discipline gets him into this position in the first place. Urshela took two pitches in this at-bat that he likely would have swung and made weak contact on in previous seasons, and instead waits and eventually gets a pitch that he can do damage to. Urshela has been doing this all season, but this at-bat in particular was a good example of it in action.
While Gio started making this adjustment last season, so far in 2020 he has been doing it even more and it is surely playing a role in his even improved performance. Urshela now knows which pitches he should be laying off, which pitches he should be waiting for, crushing them, and thus, having success. His overall plate discipline looks a lot better from 2019 to 2020, with him chasing less and walking more, which are both very encouraging signs. In what has already been an unlikely source for a breakout, this is perhaps the most unlikely part of Urshela’s game to come around like this, but it is happening and it has been very fun to watch.
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)