It’s August 8th, 2019. There is a player who currently has a 136 wRC+ through more than 320 plate appearances. It’s good for the 6th-best at his position. Last year, he managed just a 67 wRC+ in a cup of coffee that covered a meager 46 plate appearances. The player is 27, had basically no prospect status, and has spent time on MLB rosters since 2015. He’s become a mainstay for what is perhaps the league’s most prominent team because of how he’s apparently stepped up his game in a magical way as injuries have paved the way to playing time. And we’re barely talking about him, if at all.
The player is Gio Urshela, third baseman for the Yankees. The context is understandable, perhaps, if we consider who else plays third base around baseball. It’s one of the most stocked positions throughout the entire game, and any single player you can think of either has more track record or more pedigree than Urshela. As he came up through the minors he was thought of as a glove-first utility player. He bounced around the league, spending the bulk of his time in Cleveland’s organization before being passed onto Toronto and then New York last year. At that point, it would have been reasonable to think of him exclusively as organizational depth. But Miguel Andújar got hurt at the start of this season and Urshela has stepped in to be plainly wonderful. Let’s get a sense of how.
Urshela’s plate discipline paints a stormy picture. He chases more than almost 95% of the league. Hearing that kind of number almost instantly causes concern about sustainability — how on earth could a guy keep producing when he’s going fishing so frequently? If he’s gotten away with it for a few months already, how much longer before the league catches up? The questions are fair, but Urshela is making a ton of contact on those pitches out of the zone, way more than league average. He’s also doing it while generating soft contact at a borderline elite level of 12%, which is better than all but 22 players in the major leagues right now. And he’s avoiding grounders at a better than average clip, too.
Overall, Urshela’s performance in regard to pitches out of the zone isn’t even necessarily an outlier. From 2016-18, the league-average chase rate was 30.8%. A total of 25 players who had at least 1,500 plate appearances over that time span had a chase rate of at least 35% and 17 of them made contact at a rate on those pitches that is higher than average. Adam Duvall generated exactly average contact on them. And then other aberrations, like Javy Báez and Tim Anderson, are below average at generating contact on pitches out of the zone but have made their bread by making the most of when they do connect. Chasing for these guys may not really be chasing; instead, it’s almost like they’re just playing with a bigger plate.
Even if the numbers let us believe in Urshela’s production to this point, and potentially moving forward, we still don’t know where it’s coming from.
On the left is Urshela as a Blue Jay last year. On the right is this year as a Yankee. The camera angles aren’t a perfect match, but they’re useful enough. He seems to be doing two major things this season as the pitcher comes set that he wasn’t previously: Standing more upright and emphasizing his heel lift. He’s gone from looking tense and ready to rip to being as cool as a cucumber. Neither approach is definitively wrong unless a player finds one or the other doesn’t work for their individual game. The more relaxed approach working for Urshela makes some sense though — we know that a muscle can’t fire efficiently if it’s tense, and we know that economic, dynamic mobility starts from the ground up. It seems as though he’s found a way to better engage his body’s natural patterns of movement.
Another thing this looser stance might be influencing is how long Urshela takes between pitches. Last year, when he was more rigid in the box, he was also a half-second faster than league-average when it came to getting back in the box. This year, as he’s grown calmer, he’s more than a full second slower than average, and nearly two seconds slower than he was last season. This is one of those tiny things that seem almost insignificant, or maybe even tedious, as a viewer. Changing the pace of the game isn’t exactly small fry though. Pro sports are littered with examples of really good players for whom the game seems to move slower. Urshela has found a way to be deliberate about it.
The Yankees may have acquired Urshela from the Jays for only cash considerations as a depth piece last August, but it’s hard not to think they might have seen more in the tank. A Fox Sports scouting report from May 2013 notes that he “still has a long way to go and he could be a late bloomer offensively.” Maybe it was a throwaway line that could be ascribed to bunches of defense-first prospects, or maybe not. The Bombers seem to have an eye for acquiring players for next to nothing from whom they can extract more talent than the player’s previous team. They did the same thing last year when trading for Luke Voit. Teams know that player development never stops. The Yankees might be the best at practicing that idea, and Gio Urshela is their latest shining example.