Brian Cashman has a tendency to strike gold with undervalued position players, but not even he knew Gio Urshela would turn into the player he has been this season. After a hot start to the season and an even hotter post-All-Star break stretch, it also looks like Urshela’s emergence could be real. He might not be able to sustain a .337/.379/.585 line forever, but it seems safe to say he has earned himself a spot in the Yankee lineup when the 2020 season starts.
In a vacuum, that statement isn’t exactly a hot take, but the Yankees do have another pretty good third baseman on their roster too, the injured Miguel Andujar. Except, the numbers show Urshela is by far the superior defensive third baseman. With that in mind, the Yankees would be smart to have Miguel Andujar change positions.
If Urshela was having the season we all thought he’d have or seemed like a flash in the pan after a hot start, this argument falls apart, but it looks like Urshela’s performance might be for real. Earlier this season, Mike Petriello examined Urshela’s offensive mechanics and pinpointed some key differences in his swing. Notably, he opened up his stance a bit, changed his hand placement, and really worked to start using his legs more in his swing. The changes paid early dividends this season.
The changes and adjustments haven’t ended there. As Jake Mailhot of FanGraphs pointed out last week, Urshela’s swing has only become more fluid as the season has gone on, particularly after the All-Star break. He’s calmed down his leg kick, settled down his hands, and unlocked more power along the way. Since the break, Urshela has been elevating the ball more and hitting it harder.
All this to say, Urshela’s continual in-season adjustments and high level of play means he could have very well turned a corner in his career. Given his offensive production and defensive prowess, Miguel Andujar should probably think about switching positions.
Let’s compare the two defensively, starting with Urshela. Defensive metrics see him as a slightly-worse than average defensive third baseman. He’s been worth about -1.2 defensive WAR, which does put him near the bottom of the table for players in his position. He’s put up -4 Defensive Runs Saved, which means he’s worth about four runs worse than a league average defender. However, he has made 32 Out of Zone plays, which is a solid number considering he’s played fewer innings at the hot corner than many other qualifying third basemen. Personally, I think Urshela passes the eye test a bit more than what the metrics say, but the numbers do say he’s just worse than league average.
On the other hand, there’s Andujar, unquestionably one of the worst defensive infielders in the league last year. In 2018, Andujar was worth -14 defensive WAR. The next-worst player was worth -5. Likewise, he was worth -25 DRS, and the next worst player was worth -13. Not to pile on, but Andujar also had the fewest number of OOZ plays of all third basemen. Andujar’s defensive ability at third base is about the same as Edwin Encarnacion or Ryan Braun.
As the Yankees have seen this year, it’s never a bad thing to have multiple guys at one position. Injuries can change things in a heartbeat, but if the Yankees are interested in fielding their best nine players, that means Andujar and Urshela’s bats should be in the lineup together, but Andujar should absolutely not be at third base.
My comparison of Andujar to Ryan Braun and Edwin Encarnacion wasn’t an accident. Both of those players exhibit the kind of player the Yankees could make Andujar. Before his shoulder injury, Andujar had quite the arm over at third, so a move to the outfield could make sense. His arm wouldn’t go to waste there at least. There’s also the Encarnacion route -- a mostly DH and occasional first baseman. This route isn’t as ideal, but again, if Andujar can’t drastically improve at third or hold his own in the outfield, the first base/DH route might be the best way to get him on the field.
There’s no real easy answer here. The Yankees will need to wait and see on Andujar, but they should absolutely give him a look at a different position. Gio Urshela is having a great year, and probably turned a corner in his career. He probably won’t contend for a batting title every year, but he’s probably not the Quad-A player he was before 2019 either. If the Yankees are interested in fielding their best nine players in 2020, Gio Urshela should play third and Miguel Andujar should not.