The Yankees converted their infield plans in an intriguing way when they promoted Rougned Odor and demoted Tyler Wade. Wade’s role on the team was predicated on the fact that he was the only other player on the roster capable of backing up Gleyber Torres at shortstop. Without him on the 26-man roster, a natural hole would be formed whenever Torres needs a day off — or so it appeared.
During spring training, however, the Yankees experimented with the idea of Gio Urshela playing shortstop. The idea was weird for a number of reasons, none bigger than the fact that Urshela was already the team’s starting third baseman, but Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone were apparently confident enough in the results they saw then to roll the dice on such an arrangement.
In his first start at shortstop since he was a member of the Blue Jays in 2018, Urshela acquitted himself well enough despite recording an error on the day. On five chances, Gio recorded two infield assists, two putouts, and one error on a throw across the diamond.
These two caught popups are fine plays, but shed little light on Urshela’s ability to be the Yankees’ backup at short, as they’re functionally no different from the kind of routine outs he’d record over at third. Any reasonable major league level defender ought to make these two catches 10 out of 10 times.
While these two grounders, each from the first inning, are exceptionally easy plays, they demonstrate Urshela’s superior internal clock to that of Torres. On the first of the two outs, Urshela takes an extra shuffle after gathering the firmly struck ball to get the lead-footed plodder, Vlad Guerrero Jr., with plenty of time. Alternatively, on a softer ball hit by a faster runner, Marcus Semien, Urshela smoothly makes the transfer from glove to hand, throwing the ball much more sharply to first all in one motion. The disparity in alacrity between the two plays highlights Urshela’s confidence fielding grounders, especially compared to Torres’ tendency to abide by the Latin expression, festina lente – making haste slowly.
Urshela’s hands and feel make him look like an all-world defender; when he’s able to get to the ball, he almost always makes the play. However, despite having a reputation as a stalwart defender, Urshela’s defensive performance has graded out as consistently average or worse across his Yankee career.
In 2020, he made just a single error, good for a .992 fielding percentage, the best in the majors by any third baseman. Despite making all but one play hit at him, he rated as a net neutral defender. While the analytics community has bashed Urshela for his alleged relative immobility compared to other elite third basemen, it actually seems to be his arm strength that has cost him the most over the past couple of seasons. While he was average or better on balls hit to either side or in front of him, he scored a -1 OAA on balls that forced him to retreat. That weakness currently is exacerbated by the offseason surgery that Urshela underwent:
Gio Urshela, who underwent offseason elbow surgery, has struggled so far at the plate (4-for-18). According to @mlbnetwork, his arm strength at third base has dropped (from 82.3 MPH to 77.6 MPH).— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) April 7, 2021
As plenty of his peers can fire bullets across the diamond in the upper-nineties, Urshela’s arm, especially in its current state, is comparable to that of an average high school infielder. Even if he’s able to get a glove to a grounder, he’s not likely to nab quicker runners at first on plays that also test his range with that demonstrated lack of arm strength.
On the final ball hit at Urshela during his stint at short on Tuesday, he made a fine play by corralling the deflected grounder with his bare hand and slinging it towards first base, but didn’t put enough on it to make it an easy reception for Jay Bruce. A first baseman in training, Bruce absolutely should have picked the in-between hop, or at least come off the bag to keep the ball in front with Bichette easily beating the throw anyways. However, a fielder with a stronger arm wouldn’t have had trouble firing a strike through Bruce’s chest on a ball that carried them to the right side of second base.
Despite his beefy frame, contrasting that of the typically lithe shortstop, it may actually be that Urshela is as competent at short as he is at third due to his underrated range and overrated arm strength. In contrast to Torres, who’s struggled to play a passable shortstop over the better part of the past three seasons, at least Urshela would be able to make the easy plays. While the experiment of Urshela at short was certainly unconventional, it has to be considered a success, even with the error, given the state of the Yankees’ primary alternative at the position.