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Yankees 2021 Season Preview: Gio Urshela

Can Urshela’s remarkable emergence continue into 2021?

Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game Two Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

In 2019, Gio Urshela became the embodiment of the Yankees’ “Next Man Up” run of success. After Miguel Andújar went down early in the season, Urshela, who began as seemingly nothing more than Triple-A depth, eventually took over the third base roll and made it his own. In 132 games in 2019, Urshela hit .314/.355/.534 with 21 home runs, while making some highlight reel plays on defense, even if advanced analytics don’t grade him as a Gold Glover.

Urshela showed out in a way that was entirely unpredictable. It would’ve been understandable to have some amount of skepticism on how he would follow that up in 2020.

A year later, there’s not much left to be skeptical about.

2020 Stats: 174 PA, .298/.368/.490, 6 HR, 30 RBI, 14.4 K%, 10.3 BB%, 133 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR

2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 616 PA, .277/.328/.442, 20 HR, 86 RBI, 17.5 K%, 6.5 BB%, 102 wRC+, 2.4 fWAR

While backups like Mike Tauchmann and Mike Ford took a step back, Urshela followed up his 2019 with a 2020 that was just as good as his breakout. He capped it off with a memorable playoff performance against Cleveland, one of the former teams that gave up on him. In Game Two of the Wild Card Series, he hit a massive grand slam after the Yankees had fallen behind 4-1. Later in the game, he made an incredible stop and started a double play which saved a run and allowed the Yankees to take the lead for good in the top of the ninth.

At this point, he been good for a greater portion of his career (2019-20 with Yankees, .310/.358/.523 in 650 PA, 4.7 fWAR) than he’s been bad (2015-17 with Cleveland, 2018 with Toronto, .225/.274/.315 in 499 PA, -0.7 fWAR). There’s not much to suggest that he’s a quality big leaguer.

Baseball Savant

If anything, some of his peripherals suggest he was even better than his stats suggest last year.

Despite that, the FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections and a couple other projection systems still have him coming down to earth a little in 2021. Much of that still probably has to do with his pre-Yankee history not being completely written out. However, his profile as a player is just vastly different than it was back then. Last year in particular, he excelled by not chasing much and, as a result, cutting down on swings and misses.

That resulted in one of the lower strikeout rates in the league. Plus when he did make contact, he made a lot of good contact. Back in 2018, 3% of the contact he made was classified as “weak.” Last year, it was less than 1%.

It does have to be noted that Urshela’s emergence came during the era of the juiced ball. Any players that broke out over the last few seasons face some added scrutiny entering 2021, with the league supposedly deadening the ball this year. A juiced ball was far from the only factor in his emergence, but he did hit 21 home runs in 2019, after coming into that season with less than 10 for his career.

That power is far from the only reason he made the leap. In fact, last year, his fly ball percentage actually went down. He’s not hit a massive amount of home runs that a deadened ball will drastically cut into. Urshela’s become good in part due to a increase in power, but also due to an increase in walks, and just all-around solid play.

The discovery of Urshela has been one of the most fun parts of the last two seasons. Miguel Andújar went from Rookie of the Year runner up to basically being played out of the position. Urshela’s gone from just a random minor leaguer to an established starter and borderline All-Star. Long may it continue.