Gio Urshela is for real [2020 Season Review]

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I think it’s safe to say that Gio Urshela is a star, no? Since joining the Yankees, Urshela owns a 132 wRC+ in 650 plate appearances and has racked up betwen 5 and 6 WAR, depending on your WAR version of choice. He’s a testament to the Yankees’ incredible ability to unearth and/or develop talent. He may have turned 29 last month and is something of a late bloomer, but it certainly looks like he’s here to stay. Let’s get into his brief but terrific 2020 campaign.

No offensive regression

Urshela’s 2019 performance didn’t feel like a fluke to me, but at the same time, I expected some regression this season. There were a couple of things pointing to a step back, namely a .349 BABIP and a wOBA .016 points higher than his xwOBA. Even so, the underlying batted ball metrics were really good, so I expected another solid season. So when Gio posted a 133 wRC+ after he recorded a 132 mark a year ago, it was certainly a pleasant surprise.

Remarkably, Urshela actually did a few things better this season than last. Take a look:

Metric20192020
Exit Velocity90.691.4
xwOBA.353.364
DRC+121125
K %18.314.4
BB %5.310.3
Chase %40.127.6

Really, the only area that Urshela took a step back in was the power department. Last year, he hit a home run every 23 plate appearances. This year, it took 29. As a result, his isolated power fell from .219 to .192. Still quite good! Part of this dip is due to a pretty punchless September, though. He didn’t hit a homer in 67 September PAs, though he still posted a .390 batting average and .433 on-base percentage that month. I think we can explain away the September power outage, but let’s put a pin on that until the next section. Besides, Urshela’s power returned in a rather big spot in the postseason:

Power aside, let’s get back to Urshela’s improvements from 2019 to 2020, particularly in terms of plate discipline. Not only did Urshela record a 5.3 percent walk rate in 2019, but he also had a career 5.4 percent mark in nearly 1,000 plate appearances through ’19. To essentially double that rate, albeit in a small sample, is quite impressive and if sustained, will help him in the long run.

The third baseman was selectively aggressive this season. He dropped his swing percentage and first pitch swing percentage by 3.5 and 11.7 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, he swung at more meatballs (from 78.5 to 85.7 percent). Based on the numbers, it was as if Urshela simply waited for his pitch to pounce on. And at the same time, he spat on more pitches out of the zone.

Playing through pain

Urshela was on the injured list for ten days, beginning September 4th, due to a right elbow bone spur. This is something that he had been dealing with about a week earlier, though he was able to manage the pain and avoid the injured list for a short while. The last straw, apparently, came after making a diving catch on September 3rd against the Mets. Based on what I can find, it appears to be on this play:

Whether it was actually that play or something else, he irritated the condition which led to the Yankees playing it safe. I guess it was only a matter of time until Urshela hit the injured list as just about every single Yankee did at some point in 2020.

Anyway, perhaps the bone spur explains the lack of power output in the final month of the regular season. Still, it didn’t hold him back otherwise. Urshela carried a thirteen game hitting streak from August 31st through September 24th around his stint on the shelf. Even without the home run pop, perhaps a little rest was the push he needed to deal with the spur in the second half of the month and in the postseason.

Now, Urshela did end October on an 0-for-16 skid spanning Games 2 through 5 of the ALDS. That homer against James Karinchak will be memorable for quite some time, but how Urshela (and the rest of the offense, to be fair) closed out that series against the Rays was very forgettable. Maybe his elbow was bothering him again, but who knows. Fortunately, Brian Cashman stated that Urshela didn’t need surgery this offseason to address the spur.

More stellar glovework

Gio was a Gold Glove finalist at third base, though he lost out to Isiah Kiner-Falefa of the Rangers. Still, it was nice to see his play at the hot corner earn some recognition. It’s hard to come away anything but impressed anytime you watch Urshela play his position. Obviously, he makes a ton of impressive and flashy plays that not many other third basemen seem to make.

In spite of his reputation as an excellent defender at third, there’s some disagreement among the various advanced defensive metrics available. Here’s how Urshela has rated at third base over the past two seasons in New York:

Metric20192020
Innings978.1357.2
OAA-2-1
DRS+1+6
UZR-2.5+5.4

I really don’t know what to make of this, but I’m inclined to believe that Urshela is comfortably above average at third base just from the eye test. I’m certainly biased, but it’s not like the advanced metrics are in total agreement over Urshela’s capabilities there. If all pegged him as a bad fielder, I might re-evaluate my stance. But for now, he looks good to me and has a couple of metrics (DRS and UZR) in his camp.

What’s next?

Firstly, a nice raise. Urshela was slated to earn a $2.475 million base salary in 2020 before the pandemic hit. This year, he could earn as between $3.5 and $5.2 million in arbitration. That’s still an incredible bargain.

In terms of performance, I expect another similar season in 2021. I’m not so concerned about regression anymore, particularly not after he took a step forward in a few facets of his offensive game. Still, ZiPS projects a .283/.331/.459 (110 OPS+) and 18 homers in 508 plate appearances, +2 Def, and 2.5 WAR. That’s good! But as I wrote, I’m betting the over on that. To me, he’s a top-5 third baseman in MLB right now.

It’s pretty amazing that the Yankees acquired Urshela from Toronto for a mere 25 large. What a find on the front office’s part, and a big credit to Phil Plantier and Marcus Thames for unlocking his offensive potential. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for Urshela going forward.

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2 Comments

  1. MikeD

    Do bone spurs simply go away with rest?

    • Dani

      No but it can bring down swelling which reduces pain and increases movement of the joint.

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