When the Yankees traded for Gio Urshela in the summer of 2018, the transaction was so insignificant that it did not receive a dedicated article on Pinstripe Alley. After all, minor leaguers traded for cash considerations were not uncommon, and considering the Scranton Railriders had been playing the Buffalo Bisons and were in need of a third baseman, it was entirely possible that the team simply purchased his contract and had him switch dugouts since it was the easiest way to fill the roster spot.
After former Rookie of the Year third baseman Miguel Andújar went down with an injury in 2019, Urshela became the team’s starting third baseman out of necessity. He proceeded to dominate both at the plate and in the field, becoming one of the three finalists at third base in the 2019 All-Star voting. Many wondered, however, whether or not he would be able to maintain that level of production, as 2019 was his first season with any semblance of success at the plate.
Despite the brevity of the season, Urshela answered those questions in a big way in 2020.
2020 Statistics: 43 games, 174 plate appearances, .298/.368/.490, 6 HR, 30 RBI, 136 OPS+, 1.9 bWAR, 1.6 fWAR
Contract Status: Second-year of arbitration-eligibility
Compared to 2019, it might appear at a glance that Urshela’s bat regressed slightly after his breakout year, with both his batting average (.314 to .298) and OPS (.889 to .858) dropping between the two seasons. Under the hood, however, the third baseman made great strides. He almost doubled his walk rate, from 5.3% to 10.3%, and cut down his strikeout rate from 18.3% to 14.3% — within the 90th percentile of big leaguers. In fact, according to Statcast data, Urshela ranks in the 86th percentile or better in exit velocity, expected batting average, K%, and xwOBA, and in the 80th percentile in expected slugging percentage and whiff percentage.
Additionally, although his slashline declined slightly from last season, his performance at the plate relative to the rest of the league actually increased slightly, as his OPS+ jumped four points to 136. Considering he saw a 3% drop in HR/FB ratio (17.5% to 14.3%) while posting hitting virtually the same amount of fly balls (33.4% to 32.3%), this apparent decline can be attributed entirely to the slight dip in offense that the league saw that may have been due to the abandonment of 2019’s “juiced ball.”
Urshela has been a known commodity as a good defender, but he took an additional step forward in 2020. For the first time, the defensive metrics, and not just the eye test, attested to his abilities at the hot corner — his 13.2 UZR/150 and 6 DRS represented career highs; only Statcast’s OAA considered him a negative defender, and even then, his -1 score represents his best score from the system. All of this combined to make him a finalist for the Gold Glove Award for the first time in his career, an honor well deserved.
On top of all that, Urshela came up big during the AL Wild Card Series this year. On top of a grand slam during the turbulent Game Two that gave the Yankees a 5-4 lead in the fourth inning, Urshela made a pivotal defensive play in the bottom of the eighth inning that allowed the Yankees to take merely a one-run deficit into the top of the ninth. It was just one of his many defensive highlights from throughout the playoffs.
In truth, it would be possible to do an entire article of Urshela’s defensive highlights from just the playoffs alone; it seemed like every time the team needed a big play on defense to help escape a jam, Urshela would provide it. That defensive prowess, added onto his bat, will give the Yankees a third baseman that just about every team in baseball would prefer over their own.