The headline of the Yankees’ 2020 postseason so far is easy enough to figure out: the bats are back with a vengeance. The lineup, finally healthy, is clicking in a way that seemed all but impossible to imagine a few short weeks ago. The bouquets tossed at DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Judge and company have been well earned.
But credit is also due to their pitching (mainly Gerrit Cole) and, yes, their defense, specifically third baseman Gio Urshela, who has essentially made the playoffs thus far his personal highlight reel:
For anyone watching the playoff broadcasts, there appears to be unanimity in the assessment of Urshela’s defensive play: he’s a stellar glove man at the hot corner whose contributions with the leather have been crucial to the Yankees’ success. Except that opinion isn’t unanimous: Statcast kinda thinks he sucks.
Statcast is, of course, MLB’s player tracking system, analyzing and cataloging player performance on an almost elemental level. Pitcher spin rate, batter launch angle, fielder catch probability: all these (and much more) are captured by Statcast and made available on MLB.com’s Baseball Savant. Their broad metric for defensive value is outs above average (OAA) and it apparently has little love for what Urshela does, ranking him in the bottom 20% of the league:
Among third baseman in 2020, Urshela is tied for 27th with -1 OAA (for reference, the Rockie’s Nolan Arenado is tops with +7). He had 121 fielding attempts and had a 90% success rate. The estimated success rate on those balls was 91%, however, his success rate added was a net negative. The -1% success rate added was tied for 25th among third baseman across the league.
It’s not just a 2020 small sample size issue as well. In 2019, he was worth -2 OAA, which ranked 24th in the league. In limited time in 2017 and 2018, he accrued a combined OAA of -6.
So what gives? Maybe his overall numbers suffer when the Yankees shift and he’s fielding in the traditional shortstop zone? That’s not the case. In fact, in his limited opportunities — just 14 — fielding balls at shortstop, Statcast grades him as a plus defender, with +1 OAA and a +6% success rate added. No, according to Statcast, his vulnerability lies when his starting fielding position is deep behind the bag. You can see the large blue square in this graphic, indicating his weakest starting position, from which he made 58 fielding attempts and registered -3.6 OAA.
It’s difficult to square those metrics with what we’ve become accustomed to seeing. Also keep in mind that other defensive metrics are kinder to Urshela: he’s been worth 6 defensive runs saved this year, according to Baseball Reference; and Ultimate Zone Rating also grades him as an above average defender (5.4 runs saved above average, according to Fangraphs.
So maybe Yankees fans will just have to put up with the oddity that Statcast sees things the rest of us don’t. That’s fine. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between what you see (and, yes, feel) and what certain numbers tell you. In the case of Gio Urshela, I can yell at Statcast’s clouds and cheer when he makes a diving stop on a scorcher down the line. In this case, ignorance may be bliss.