There has been no greater surprise for the Yankees this season than Giovanny Urshela, the 27-year-old utility infielder who was acquired for cash considerations last August and has worked his way into the starting job at third base. Urshela, a career .225 batter entering 2019, is slashing .333/.383/.470 in 39 games this season and has been the definition of clutch since he was called up on April 6. Urshela’s breakout has been well documented, but what makes the current version of Urshela different from the player that the Indians and the Blue Jays decided wasn’t worth keeping on their rosters?
Urshela’s calling card has always been his defense, and he has been a huge defensive upgrade over Miguel Andujar at third base. His offensive contributions have to be a surprise, however, even for those who believed he had big league talent. He currently holds a 5.6% walk rate and a 16.1% strikeout rate, neither of which is a huge outlier from the rates he posted in 167 games over the past three seasons. The difference is that Urshela’s quality of contact is much improved. According to Statcast, Urshela has a 41.9% hard hit rate. That means 41.9% of balls he’s put in play have an exit velocity of 95 mph or greater. Urshela’s previous career high was 34.3%, and that was back during his rookie year in 2015. That number dipped to 27.4% the next season, so there’s been a vast improvement from his career averages.
The third baseman ranks fourth in all of MLB with a .336 expected batting average (Statcast), removing any argument that Urshela has simply been lucky so far this season. Expected batting average is calculated using three factors; exit velocity, launch angle, and in some cases, sprint speed. Although Urshela’s hard hit rate is a career high, he still ranks 98th in MLB in that category and 64th in average exit velocity. He also has below average speed. That means Urshela’s launch angle is highly optimized for the type of contact he’s been making this season, and is likely the primary difference maker in his sudden success. His 13.3 degree average launch angle seems to be the happy medium between the 9.1 he posted in 2017 and 18.2 in 2018.
Credit Urshela for making some mechanical adjustments, abbreviating his leg kick and shortening his swing this season to find more consistency at the plate. Just look at the comparison between Urshela during the 2015 season with the Indians and Urshela this season.
It’s a relatively subtle difference but Urshela’s simplified mechanics could be a huge reason his batting average against breaking balls has gone from a .203 career average to .302 this season.
It might come as a bit of a surprise that Urshela’s batted ball profile closely resembles that of last season’s breakout star, Luke Voit. Urshela and Voit have comparable average launch angles at 13.3 and 13.2 degrees, respectively, as well as identical 41.9% hard hit rates. Voit ranks fifth in MLB in sweet spot percentage (46%), while Urshela ranks ninth (44.7%), according to Statcast. It’s starting to look like the Yankees turned cash considerations into a legitimate starting third baseman and a 2019 American League All-Star.