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Yankees 2020 Season Preview: Gio Urshela

There are reasons to believe Urshela’s 2019 breakout is sustainable.

New York Yankees v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Ahead of the 2014 season, Justin Turner reconstructed his swing under the watchful eye of Doug Latta. The third baseman, who was non-tendered by the Mets just months earlier, responded by hitting to a 158 wRC+ over 322 plate appearances. He has since been a staple in a stacked Los Angeles lineup.

At the same time as Turner underwent his transformation at the Ballyard, J.D. Martinez spent hours rebuilding his mechanics from the ground up. In an ironic twist, the Houston Astros—who have a track record of optimizing the talents of their players—cut the once light-hitting outfielder. Martinez responded by becoming one of the games most prodigious power hitters, authoring a .307/.373/.581 batting line with 207 home runs (151 wRC+) since Houston let him go.

The story of today’s game revolves around teams and players using the best information available to maximize their performances. Could the Yankees have the next great success story on their roster? One needs not look much further than Gio Urshela, the team’s breakout hero of 2019.

2019 Stats: 476 PA, .314/.355/.534, 21 HR, 74 RBI, 132 wRC+, 18.3 K%, 5.3 BB%, 3.1 WAR

2020 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 567 PA, .275/.315/.438, 20 HR, 76 RBI, 98 wRC+, 17.8 K%, 4.9 BB%, 2.0 fWAR

The projections don’t exactly share this rosy sentiment. Why? It helps to understand what the models are in the first place. They forecast a individual’s performance based on two criteria: past results and benchmarks against similar players of the same age. The system would see Urshela’s 2019 as an outlier compared to his previous body of work, and it would also look at how other traditionally light-hitting infielders fared in their age-28 season. The result? A consensus of a player with a sub-100 wRC+.

The projections, however, miss legitimate changes in the approach of a player. Urshela rebuilt his swing under the guidance of the Yankees’ hitting coaches, Marcus Thames and P.J. Pilittere. Consider what he said to Marly Rivera last September:

Watching video, I noticed that a lot of times I was hitting foul balls at the beginning of the barrel. So we started working on putting my hands inside so that the ball does not beat me, and trying to take out the barrel with my waist as fast as I can. Now, this year, I’m seeing that my fouls are on the barrel. And Marcus has helped me to continue what I had been working on. We talk about what I worked with Plantier, and he helps me, particularly reminding me of what has worked for me.

Urshela noted that he focused on his stance, opening it up, as well as dropping his hands. Mike Petriello pointed out the dramatic transformation between his 2015 campaign and last season, but it’s even apparent when one compares 2019 and 2018.

In both instances, Urshela doubled. That’s a good outcome! The process, however, was better in 2019. That’s more important over a season.

Of course, one should expect some regression. He over-performed his xWOBA by 16 points, and his .349 BABIP represented a career high. But the adjustment might not be that severe. He still hit the ball noticeably hard, running an exit velocity in the 76th percentile. Instead of playing like Kris Bryant, he might hit like Didi Gregorius instead.

Even if Urshela does take a step or two backwards at the plate, the Yankees have already committed to him as their starter at the hot corner. “We feel like Gio has shown himself to be our third baseman,” Aaron Boone said in an interview with SNY last month. Miguel Andujar, the natural competition at the position, will instead focus on learning other roles, including the outfield and first base.

While the advanced stats throw some cold water on Urshela’s defensive abilities, he certainly maintains the position better than Andujar. An average bat with solid defense should be enough to secure the job at the hot corner.

Stories like The MVP Machine teach us to not dismiss steps forward out of hand anymore. Teams have doubled-down on player development, and the results speak for themselves. Players have sought out improvements on their own, too, with organizations Driveline coming to mind. Breakout seasons might not be flukes, doomed to come back down to Earth. They might, in fact, represent the start of sustained success. For the Yankees, they should hope that holds as true for Urshela as it did for Turner and Martinez.