When Miguel Andujar went down with a year-ending labrum injury at the beginning of the 2019 campaign, the fledgling season appeared to hang in the balance. Didi Gregorius was already on the shelf recovering from Tommy John surgery, and with the loss of the their Rookie of the Year runner-up third baseman, the Yankees were short a starting infielder. Up stepped an unlikely candidate to grab the hot corner job with both hands.
Last Wednesday, I explored what it would take for Miguel Andujar to win back a starting role for himself. If he smashes extra-base hits like he did in 2018, the Yankees will find a way to get his bat in the lineup. However it probably will not be at third base, because the man who supplanted him there has a lock on the position.
Back in February, Aaron Boone revealed that third base was Gio Urshela’s to lose, expressing an early confidence in the right-hander’s ability to replicate his performance from 2019. That trust is well-founded, as it appears the leap Urshela took in the batter’s box is down to concrete changes in his approach, rather than a fluke season.
Urshela is just another example, alongside Luke Voit, Mike Tauchman, and Cameron Maybin, of the Yankees hitting department’s ability to unlock the untapped potential in their players’ bats. Indeed, the Yankees third baseman confirmed some of the tweaks he made were due to advice from Triple-A hitting coach Phil Plantier. Urshela opened his hitting stance while holding his hands slightly lower, and also focused on transferring strength from his legs more effectively.
The adjustments paid immediate dividends. Among full-time third basemen, Urshela ranked ninth in the league in OPS (.889) ahead of guys like Justin Turner, as well as ninth in wRC+ (132), ahead of the likes of Nolan Arenado. Basically, the Yankees were getting near-All Star caliber offensive production for around two percent the cost of the Rockies superstar.
Urshela epitomizes the Yankees methodology of hunting a pitch to hit and doing damage. From 2018 to 2019, Urshela increased the percentage of meatballs (middle-middle grooved pitches) he swung at by over 17 percentage points. He was third on the team in swing percentage on pitches in the zone and fourth on the team in contact percentage. That he was third on the team in wRC+ despite having the highest swing percentage and lowest walk rate speaks to his impressive contact skills.
Another of Urshela’s strengths is that he does not struggle against any particular pitch. He batted at least .286 against fastball, breaking ball, and offspeed while maintaining an xwOBA in excess of .300 against all three pitch types. He also ranks in the top-third of the league in having both a low strikeout and whiff rate.
These results at the plate are supported by improvements in the underlying metrics, suggesting a sustainability to his growth as a hitter. The quality of contact that Urshela made in 2019 is astronomically higher than his previous seasons as a big leaguer. His average exit velocity increased by almost five miles per hour from 2018 to 2019 while his hard hit percentage jumped by more than ten percentage points. This resulted in an almost 100 point improvement in his xwOBA and almost 200 point improvement in his expected slugging percentage.
The Yankees truly unearthed a diamond in the rough when they gave Gio Urshela a shot at the starting third base job. The hitting coaches turned the rough fringe player into a polished product whose skills with the bat rivals that of the man he replaced at the hot corner. Given the tremendous upside Urshela offers over Miguel Andujar with the glove, the Yankees may very well have found their third baseman of the future, and are justified in the faith they have put in him so far.