The Sustainability of Giovanny Urshela

Gio Urshela has been a superstar in 2019 and 2020, but will it hold?

The New York Yankees’ third baseman, Giovanny Urshela, had an ADP of 226.2 coming into 2020 drafts. Steamer’s projections predict that he’ll only have a .269/.312/.430 slash. Both of these are based on what? I’m not quite sure, but it isn’t reality. Urshela had a .314/.355/.534 slash in 132 games last year. That’s not a particularly small sample size, although there have been one-season wonders before. It’s not hard to argue why Urshela would be one. His bat was abysmal before coming over to the Yankees in 2019. In his half-season stints in the majors with the Indians in 2015 and 2017, he had a .608 and a .551 OPS, respectively. His brief cup of coffee with the Blue Jays in 2018 yielding a repeat of his 2015 season with a .608 OPS. His bat wasn’t much to write home about in the minors either. The emphasis was really on his defensive skills.

That is, until Urshela moved over to the Yankees in 2019. After the reigning 2018 AL Rookie of the Year, Miguel Andújar, went down with an injury early on in 2019, Urshela was likely seen as little more than a placeholder until the rising star of Andújar returned. Yet during this time from his move to the Yankees and his rise to the majors, he reconfigured his swing with the Yankees’ AAA coach, Phil Plantier, and changed his philosophy at the plate to stop trying to hit the ball the opposite way. What resulted from this change?

For one, Urshela started absolutely crushing the ball. His average exit velocity sat at 90.6 MPH, and while that is good for the 64th best in the league for 2019, it’s pretty substantial considering where he started. This resulted in a respectable 21 homers in his 2019 campaign with the Yankees. As was intended, Urshela also starting pulling the ball a lot more. The swing change resulted in harder pulled contact and was really the only major change in his batted ball profile in 2019. It was a small change that led to an .889 OPS and a .314 average in 2019.

If you think that such a small change couldn’t possibly have drastic effects, then look at somebody like the third/first baseman on Urshela’s old team, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Guerrero absolutely crushes the ball, but that power isn’t really maximized because of his batted ball profile. He has a massive tendency throughout his major and minor league career to hit the ball on the ground…a lot. Throughout his whole professional career, he hit the ball on the ground 50.7% of the time! If Guerrero started elevating the ball, he would be MVP caliber with his ability to crush the ball. Even though this hasn’t happened yet, it is one example of how a small change in your batted ball profile could yield big results.

Unlike Guerrero, the results are here for Urshela! His 21 homers in 2019 are not necessarily standout in the contemporary framework of baseball, but he also hit for a .313 average with an xBA in the top 8% of the league. He is already taking 2020 by storm with 3 homers, 1 steal, and a .313/.393/.583 slash in 15 games (as of the end of August 8, 2020). Even better, he has 13 RBI and 10 runs in only 15 games. But I get it…the real question for Urshela is whether or not he can sustain this level of production. Here is why he can with some “Reasons for Sustainability”:

 

Reason for Sustainability #1:

Expected Stats

 

While Baseball Savant’s expected stats are not the end-all-be-all of determining sustainability (as they can still support the numbers during a hot streak), Urshela had an xBA in the 92nd percentile of the league in 2019, and his xBA so far in 2020 is in the 99th percentile of the league! Urshela does a great job at hitting line drives and his swing change has turned him into a high BABIP hitter. If nothing else, Urshela’s batting average is probably the safest thing to bet on with his breakout.

His xSLG sat at .512 in 2019, which goes for the 51st best in the league among qualified hitters. This isn’t as MVP caliber as the results, but he bests his teammate, Gleyber TorresJose Altuve, Fernando Tatis Jr., and the hitter known for his power, Eugenio Suarez. Ironically enough, his average home run distance of 407 feet was also good for 51st best in the league in 2019. This tied him with both Ketel Marte and Christian Yelich! Even with these solid power stats, he is already improving in 2020 with an incredible .626 xSLG, which puts him in the top 5% of the league. The xWOBA and xWOBACON are even better, sitting within the 99th percentile of the league.

 

Reason for Sustainability #2:

Pitching to Urshela is Impossible

 

As a pitcher trying to strategize against Urshela, it must be incredibly difficult. In 2019, Urshela had an average exit velocity at or above 90 MPH in all areas of the strike zone except one.

 

 

You might say, “Oh, well just pitch to that one part of the zone!” Okay, with what pitch? Urshela doesn’t have a weak spot when it comes to pitch type. In 2019, he had a BA and xBA of at least .283 for every pitch type. This trend of hitting every type of pitch well is continuing in 2020. This lack of a weak spot when it comes to pitchers’ arsenals is probably the biggest key to the sustainability of Urshela’s breakout.

 

 

Reason for Sustainability #3:

Playing Situation

 

The playing environment for Urshela is an almost incalculable advantage. The Yankees have the fourth most runs and RBI in 2020, and they were first in runs and second in RBI in 2019. Urhsela is already 19th in runs and 8th in RBI in 2020. Judging by the Yankees’ track record (#subtlepun), these counting stats should likely continue for Urshela.

A big reason for Urshela not being drafted until the late rounds (or not at all) in 2020 was playing time. Many were unsure if Andújar would reclaim his role as the primary third baseman for the Yankees or if they would split time. During the actual Spring Training held for the 2020 season, the Yankees were trying Andújar out in the outfield. On top of that, Urshela has played in 15 of the Yankees’ 16 games (as of the end of August 9, 2020). Andújar has only played five with four starts in left field and one start at third base. Urshela has started each game at third base. It seems fairly clear that the Yankees are committed to Urshela as their primary third baseman, and with the results he is putting up, it doesn’t seem like that will change at all. I mean…look at his Baseball Savant rankings in 2020 already. Urshela is baseball’s next big thing.

 

 

Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire and Keith Allison/KA Sports Photos | Adapted by Rick Orengo (@OneFiddyOne on Twitter and Instagram)

 

Lucas Zenobi

Lucas Zenobi is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and a life-long Pittsburgh Pirates fan. His other interests include film, music, and any and all things Pittsburgh.

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