As if the beginning of this season hasn’t already taken enough from us, we now have to watch as Aaron Judge joins the injured list for an indefinite period of time. The only remaining everyday players from the Opening Day roster are now Luke Voit, DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, and Brett Gardner. The team that had championship aspirations at the start of spring training officially can count its key offensive players on one hand.
The result is a team in the midst of open try outs for players trying to stake their claim of their position for both this and future seasons. Players like Clint Frazier and LeMahieu have already forced some of us think about the roster crunch that will occur when the rest of the outfield comes back, or what happens with Troy Tulowitzki when Miguel Andujar and Didi Gregorius return.
It wouldn’t be realistic to believe every role player will over-perform, but to this date, we have seen some truly unexpected performances. Gio Urshela is quietly putting forth his best production since reaching the majors, and Mike Tauchman is showing us former Colorado Rockies just really like New York for some reason. For these two, it doesn’t appear as though they will have much more than bench roles on the team in the medium-term once a few players return from injury, but they could show the rest of the 29 teams what they are capable of and hopefully flash some trade value. Since Urshela has played in three of the last four seasons, it is especially interesting to dig into his numbers, as he is currently playing at a level we just haven’t seen from him before (all numbers as of April 22nd).
Urshela’s Offensive Improvement
Urshela hasn’t just improved his walk rate and BABIP for 2019, but at this point these are the two statistical categories he has improved on most. His higher walk rate has of course led to an increased OBP as well, but in upping his walk rate, Urshela has also managed to run a below-average strikeout rate, as he’s done before in his career. The league’s strikeout percentage has steadily increased in recent years, ending 2018 at 23.4%. Urshela’s now stands at 18.9%, and if he can keep his walk rate up, he could beat the league average in both figures. Out of all the Yankees either on the active roster or the IL, only Gardner and Aaron Hicks accomplished this feat last season.
Looking into how Urshela has increased his BABIP so much to begin this season seems promising because he isn’t doing something foreign from his skill set in this regard. He isn’t one of the leaders in hard-hit percentage on the team; in fact, he’s the exact opposite. Urshela is second-to-last in hard-hit percentage for current Yankees with more than 30 plate appearances. Under the same criteria, though, Urshela also has the second-lowest soft-contact rate at 12%, higher only than Judge, while seven out of eleven Yankees are over 15%. Overall, we know Urshela isn’t going to smash many home runs, but he’s been excellent at staying within his exit velocity limits and avoiding soft contact. Perhaps not coincidentally, Urshela is leading the team in line drive percentage at 40%, with Judge the closest at 31.3%.
When trying to understand why Urshela’s line drive rate has climbed so much, the biggest difference we find has been his success against fastballs. Never having posted an average exit velocity greater than 90 mph against fastballs, this season he has averaged 93 mph with a 15 degree launch angle, resulting in a .467 batting average and .667 slugging percentage:
Urshela’s Statistical Outliers
Moreover, as we saw Urshela’s walk rate increase, here we see one of the biggest reasons why. Urshela is swinging at balls outside the zone about seven-percent less than he did his first two seasons, and he’s managed to make contact on 75.9% of those outside pitches (league average is 60%). This has allowed Urshela to post the third-lowest swinging strike percentage behind only Gardner and LeMahieu.
Out of all the current regulars, Ursehla has had one of the lowest amount of plate appearances. This is all obviously happening in a very small sample size. Even so, it will be interesting to see if he can continue to produce at the level of his 115 wRC+, or maybe even improve on it.