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Gio Urshela may be the Yankees’ X-factor down the stretch

Urshela’s regression has been largely overlooked, but make no mistake about his importance to this team.

New York Mets v New York Yankees - Game Two Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Gio Urshela is back in the Yankees’ lineup, as he was activated prior to the team’s Thursday night victory in Oakland. Obviously, there are numerous variables that can swing the Yankees’ fortunes over the season’s final five weeks one way or the other, most of which have been well-covered already. However, Urshela’s performance down the stretch – more specifically, which version of Urshela we see – is going to go a longer way than many of us might realize in determining the extent of the team’s success in 2021.

Despite the club’s recent winning streak, the underperformance of several individual Yankee players has been a constant storyline this season. Whether due to injuries, simple statistical regressions to norms, or a combination of factors, you still don’t have to look far to find a Yankee having a disappointing season overall. Yet both the extent of Urshela’s drop-off in production in 2021 and its impact on the team’s success may be overlooked.

Most Yankees fans don’t need to be reminded of Urshela’s production in 2019 and 2020. Yet just so we can be clear about the rest of this conversation, let’s pause for a reminder of just how good he was: Over the past two seasons, Urshela’s 133 OPS+ was the best among AL third basemen, and his 5.7 bWAR trailed only Matt Chapman and Rafael Devers among the Junior Circuit’s finest at the hot corner.

In 2021, Urshela has been far from a bad player; frankly, many teams would love to have this season’s version of him as their everyday third baseman. By both Baseball Reference’s and FanGraphs’ metrics, he’s been a slightly better than league-average hitter, posting a 106 OPS+ and 107 wRC+ respectively entering play on Thursday. Given his better-than-average glove – 63rd percentile in Outs Above Average to be exact – the 2021 Urshela isn’t All-Star level, but he’s someone who you wouldn’t mind having in your lineup for 145 games or so. (Which, if I may put my amateur sociologist’s cap on for a moment, is likely why his slight decline hasn’t been documented as much as that of other Yankees.)

That being said, some of Urshela’s underlying numbers this season may suggest that his actual output has been worse than it appears at a cursory glance. Although his OPS+ and his wRC+ both stand above average, his DRC+ per Baseball Prospectus is only 96, or slightly below league average. This is significant because OPS+ and wRC+ are more based on actual results and outcomes than DRC+; the latter metric attempts to determine what level of production the hitter deserved.

Let’s look at a couple of other numbers that aren’t based on results or outcomes. Here are Urshela’s expected weighted on-base average and average exit velocity on batted balls for 2019 – 2021*:

*Represented by percentile rank in MLB

Gio exit velo, xwOBA

Season avg exit velo xwOBA
Season avg exit velo xwOBA
2019 75th 65th
2020 86th 88th
2021 47th 47th

Additionally, Urshela’s BABIP is 49 points higher than the league average, despite the less-than-stellar contact. This again may suggest that his performance drop-off might be bigger than we realize given that the gods of randomness and BABIP appear to have been on his side so far this season (though it’s worth noting that he also outperformed the league BABIP from 2019-20).

Is there something to which we can point that might explain the decline? We can start with this: Urshela’s xwOBA against fastballs, off-speed pitches, and breaking balls:

xwOBA vs pich type

Season vs FB vs offspeed vs break
Season vs FB vs offspeed vs break
2019 .368 .359 .315
2020 .357 .524 .367
2021 .378 .224 .267

I don’t have a PhD in theoretical mathematics, but I don’t need to be one to spot the pattern in those numbers. He simply hasn’t performed well against anything that’s not a fastball in 2021 after performing very well against those pitches in 2019-20. If you’re curious about whether or not the league has “figured him out,” the answer is “unlikely,” as the percentage of each type of pitch thrown to him hasn’t changed to a significant degree over the three seasons.

There are a couple of other figures that stand out. Urshela’s groundball percentage is more than five percent higher this season than it was over 2019-20, and he’s striking out at a significantly higher rate compared to league average this season than he did in that stretch. After ranking in the 70th and 90th percentiles in strikeout rate over the previous two seasons, he’s dropped to the 31st percentile in 2021. That may be justifiable if he maintained the .523 SLG that he posted over the previous two seasons, but his current .439 SLG makes it hard to justify that many strikeouts.

Clearly, Urshela hasn’t quite played up to his past pinstriped standards due to a combination of factors. But what would it mean for the Yankees if Urshela could return to his 2019-20 form over the last five weeks of the 2021 season?

A heck of a lot. Let’s look at his WARP (courtesy of Baseball Prospectus) per 162 games from 2019-20, and compare it to his WARP rate per 162 games in 2021. Urshela averaged 4.4 WARP per 162 games over 2019-20 and is currently averaging 1.5 WARP per 162 games this season. With 36 games remaining, if Gio played the remainder of this season at his 2019-20 levels, that projects to .98 wins over the remainder of the season. If he continues at his 2021 pace, he’ll generate .33 wins for the team down the stretch.

Essentially, if Urshela returns to his previous levels of production, he’ll be worth a full win to the Yankees down the stretch but only a small fraction of a win if he continues his 2021 production levels. I know that I don’t need to remind you of the current standings for all of us to realize how enormous one win over the next month and change might be.

Whether or not Urshela will perform to such lofty standards is a discussion for another day. It can certainly be argued that he didn’t magically turn into prime Anthony Rendon over 2019-20 and this current version is the real Gio. Conversely, to say that he hasn’t been 100-percent healthy this season would be a vast understatement, as he’s missed chunks of time due to back, knee, shin, and hamstring issues in a five-month span. It can certainly be argued that if he’s truly healthy now, we may see All-Star level play down the stretch.

Regardless, Urshela’s importance to this team has been mostly overlooked, and his ongoing performance will go a long way toward determining where the Yankees ultimately end up in the standings. This isn’t to say that other Yankees haven’t filled in admirably, but seeing Gio back at the hot corner will certainly generate some smiles in Yankeeland.