For skeptical Yankees fans wondering if Gio Urshela’s breakout 2019 campaign was merely a fairy godmother-aided illusion, the early returns this year have offered up a resounding riposte: he’s no pumpkin.
The 28-year-old third baseman, who transformed himself last year from a fringe major-leaguer with a good glove but no bat into a well-rounded offensive threat, has continued to improve upon those gains in the early going of 2020.
Now, as with nearly all attempts at analysis in this pandemic-shortened season, an important caveat: the sample sizes we’ll be discussing are incredibly small and it would be foolish to draw any definitive conclusions from them, but these early trends can at least give fans something to keep an eye on as the season unfolds. In Urshela’s case, those trend lines are quite positive.
As my colleague Peter Brody noted in June, Urshela’s underlying metrics last season spoke to a change in approach that took him from minor league journeyman and occasional MLB role player to an everyday contributor and quiet star.
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.
It’s only 35 plate appearances, but Urshela seems to have solidified those gains while working on a new dimension to his game: pitch selectivity. He’s swinging less often at pitches outside the zone (23.9% compared to 41.8% in 2019), which has seen his walk rate balloon from 5.3% last year to 14.3%. Again, small sample, but the data could indicate Urshela has tweaked his approach once again and if he’s making a concerted effort to swing at better pitches, the Yankees should see even greater production from their third baseman.
His quality of contact in the early going has benefited from the heightened selectivity. His exit velocity is at 93.8 mph, three ticks better than a year ago; his barrel rate is 16.7%, more than double the 7% mark he tallied last season, per Baseball Savant. An expected slugging percentage of .696 and an xWOBA of .488 far outpace his already impressive 2019 data. Of course, no one expects him to maintain those numbers over the course of even a two-month season, but they offer reassurance that last year was no flash in the pan.
That means he’s a good bet to maintain an iron grip on third base. And as long as he keeps getting big hits like this grand slam against the Red Sox:
And flashing leather at third:
Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.