Gio Urshela’s rise from minor league depth acquisition to a key player on one of baseball’s best rosters was perhaps the most improbable individual story in an improbable season for Major League Baseball. Known around the league as a defensive specialist, Gio didn’t just step into Miguel Andújar’s footsteps – he out hit them. He put up a magical .314/.355/.534 (132 wRC+) line for the Yankees last year in 132 games. There can be no doubt that Gio was an indispensable member of the 2019 team, playoff struggles aside.
His performance was so strong that it forced – or perhaps expedited – a move to put Andújar in the outfield. Still, Urshela has his skeptics. Quieting them will require a big year in 2020 to prove that he is more than a one-time fluke. Here are some of the big questions facing Urshela as we look ahead to 2020…
…but first, a brief aside. Let’s just watch one of Gio’s finest moments in 2019, when he walked off the Rays in May:
Randy and I were both at this game and were actually talking about launching this blog a few innings before this. So thanks, Gio, for making VF314’s launch even more exciting than it already was. Onto the questions!
Can He Repeat His Offensive Success?
This, of course, is the obvious one. Urshela’s 2019 performance was so aberrant from his career norm that any serious forward-looking analysis must begin with “was this real?” I mean, look at this:
There are two massive spikes in the data-set, both in 2019. The second – by far the largest – was followed by a pretty significant decline. It seems only fair to point out that the decline brought Urshela right back to his career norm. In common statistical parlance, this is known as regression to the mean – and it is not something Urshela, nor his fans, should want to see. This all raises a pretty fundamental question: what the hell happened in 2019?
One thing is pretty clear: Urshela started hitting the ball much harder last year. It wasn’t exactly out of nowhere, either. When he emerged on the scene early last year, hitting coach Marcus Thames pointed out that Urshela made some vague tweaks to his Triple-A stance toward the end of 2018. Those changes caught the Yankees’ eye and told Thames, at least, that the performance was real.
Perhaps those changes underpin why Urshela started hitting the ball so much harder last year. His exit velocity, for example, jumped 5 mph year-over-year and his hard-hit percentage increased 30 percent. In graph form, this looks like this:
There was a pretty clear correlation between Urshela hitting the ball hard and finding offensive success in 2019. That shouldn’t be surprising! Hitting the ball hard is the fundamental goal for any hitter, of course. Still, I’d be remiss not to point out that the drop at the end of the year. That’s a bit worrisome because it maps right over his overall regression.
It’s hard to know what to make of this all, honestly. I’m of two minds. First, it’s very good that Urshela started hitting the ball hard last year – it provides some level of credibility to his success. He was not just hitting it where they ain’t, in other words, and there was a supposed mechanical tweak that preceded it. That’s all good! However, he also stopped hitting the ball hard at the end of the year, which could either be a slump or a return to career norms. It’s hard to say.
Finally, it’s impossible to decouple all of this from the fact that the baseball was so obviously juiced last year. That variable throws another layer of doubt into Urshela’s performance – and it leaves me wondering what sort of production he’ll be capable of in 2020.
Can He Keep the Ball in the Air?
So, with all that out of the way, let’s get specific. One thing, in particular, seems to really make a difference for Urshela: keeping the ball in the air. He is not a particularly fast runner, so hitting the ball into the ground is not a skill that plays up for Urshela. That much is obvious from a deep dive into 2019.
Take a look at his 15-game rolling averages, courtesy of FanGraphs, with his wRC+ mapped over his ground ball percentage. I think the relationship is fairly clear:
Now, this isn’t perfect by any means. It’s important to look at the scale for wRC+, which is quite high. From games 20-40, for example, Urshela was red hot while he was also pounding the ball into the ground. That’s important to keep in mind. But look at around game 100, when Urshela was impossible to get out. This was the hottest stretch of his career, mind you, and it was also when “holy crap, Gio Urshela is legit!” started entrenching itself in the narrative.
It’s pretty clear what was happening. He was extremely productive and it all seems to have begun right when he stopped hitting the ball into the ground. Adding a third dimension here only further clarifies this point – and helps explain why he found success early on in the year even with a high ground ball rate.
Check out what happens when you add hard-hit percentage into the equation:
At the beginning of the year, Urshela was hitting the ball extremely hard, helping make up for the fact he was also hitting it into the ground quite often. It’s how he found early-season success. But look at what happens after. He stopped hitting the ball as hard and starts hitting more grounders– resulting in a relative slump. When he gets red hot again, he hits relatively few grounders while hitting the ball very hard.
This is a very simple formula that’s obviously not easy to repeat. Aside from that 30-or-so game stretch, Urshela has never had those two things occur simultaneously. But it’s also clear just how important it is to him; once he started hitting the ball into the ground again, and subsequently less hard, he returned back into the hitter we all expected him to be.
I’m not sure what it is Urshela needs to do to replicate the best parts of 2019, but it’s clear what the outcomes are. One can only imagine that he’s working with Thames this spring to further tweak his swing and focus on hitting the ball into the air. As we’ve seen, when he does that, Gio can be a real force with which to be reckoned.
Can He Prove the Defensive Metrics Wrong?
For some reason, advanced defensive statistics just don’t like Gio Urshela. Look, I get it: advanced stats are supposed to fill in gaps and hint at areas where our eyes may be deceiving us. Defense is one of those areas. For example, an outfielder may make a spectacular diving catch on a ball in center field that a better defender – one who is faster or got a better jump – may catch easily. That is the whole point of these stats.
I say all of this because I want to make it clear that I *get* what advanced stats try to do. I just don’t see it with Urshela, though, who clearly seems to be a player with range, a strong arm, and pretty good defensive wherewithal. The stats, though, disagree with me. UZR, DRS, and OAA all rank him as average to below-average with the glove. Statcast’s new stat, OAA, which I like quite a bit, found Urshela as the 75th-best infielder last year. (FRAA, Baseball-Prospectus’ metric, is a bit kinder to our man.) It doesn’t add up with what my eyes are saying.
Now, maybe my eyes are wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time, that’s for sure. But I am generally pretty skeptical of defensive metrics over a short sample – and yes, even a full season is a small sample for defensive metrics, let alone the tiny amount of playing time Urshela had prior to 2019 – so I think there’s still room for some doubt.
I’ve said this before, but I think there’s a pretty large gap between publicly-available defensive stats and the proprietary ones teams have. I can’t think of another reason why Urshela would have been employed without it unless team analysts are as fooled by their eyes are averages Joes like me can be. Given that Urshela played for both Cleveland and the Yankees, two successful and smart organizations, I’m going to go with the former. Perhaps 2020 will be the year the eye test aligns with the defensive metrics. Time, as they say, will tell.
What They’re Saying: 2020 Projections
All of this offensive uncertainty is pretty apparent from the projections, which are decidedly down on the Gio Dude. Here are the three big ones:
- PECOTA: .265/.308/.427 (95 DRC+)
- ZiPS: .282/.319/.461 (103 wRC+)
- Steamer: .268/.312/.430 (94 wRC+)
Not exactly screaming confidence, eh? I think that’s borne out by the underlying data and by the fact that, for now, 2019 is a huge outlier. If, like me, you’re a bigger believer in his defensive value than the advanced stats are, then I think even these outcomes would be fine. The Yankees are going to hit whether Urshela does or not, but his defense can be a real difference-maker. Roughly league-average production plus good defense would be a pretty fine follow-up campaign for Urshela, even if it would inevitably disappoint some fans.
Overall, Urshela is one of the most interesting Yankees to watch in 2020. He emerged out of nowhere in 2019 and became a fan-favorite. Unlike Luke Voit in 2018, though, the underlying metrics aren’t as kind to him. There is still quite a bit of reasonable doubt in projecting Urshela’s 2020. I personally don’t know what to make of him. The range of outcomes here feels dramatic.
I am very excited to see what Urshela does, though – and if 2019 was any indication, he’ll surprise us all once more.