One of the most impressive achievements of the Yankees organization in recent times has been its ability to identify marginal big league bats and transform them into everyday starters. Luke Voit and Gio Urshela were Quad-A players before the Yankees turned them into All-Star-caliber hitters. DJ LeMahieu, Mike Tauchman, and Cameron Maybin come to mind as lesser examples. The team’s success over the last few years is thanks in large part to unearthing and polishing these hidden diamonds.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, it appears that Urshela has reverted back into a lump of coal since returning from injury. He initially landed on the injured list back on August 2nd with a hamstring strain and missed a total of 23 games. Since then, his spot in the lineup has been a virtual black hole. Granted, Urshela has looked a tad better during his last two games, but it is still worthwhile to attempt to diagnose his offensive struggles.
In the first 19 games off the IL, Urshela was mired in a slump — the likes of which we hadn’t seen during his Yankees tenure. In fact, he was the worst hitter in baseball with at least 40 plate appearances. He was slashing .114/.114/.136 without drawing a single walk and striking out 36.4 percent of the time — good for a -40 wRC+ and -0.6 fWAR. It appeared that he had turned back into the pumpkin he was before joining the Bombers.
Urshela has always been known as a free-swinging bat-to-ball type, so the walks and strikeouts are perennially low. That said, going 19 games without a walk is alarming, as is doubling one’s strikeout rate. With that rise in strikeouts has come a troubling loss of contact and discipline in general. Relative to his first two years in pinstripes, Urshela has seen a 10-point increase in chase rate and a 10-point drop in zone swing rate and contact rate. Basically, he’s swinging at too many bad pitches, taking too many good pitches, and whiffing too much overall.
The other concern regards the type of contact that Urshela is making when he does manage to get lumber on the ball. He is at his best when he is pulling line drives — he owned the seventh-highest line drive rate in MLB from 2019-20 and pulled the ball almost 40 percent of the time. During his slump, his line-drive rate has fallen more than four points and pull rate more than 10 points. Additionally, Urshela is putting more than half his batted balls on the ground, which is essentially a microcosm of the Yankees’ greater offensive struggles this season.
The most alarming part to me has been the decline in the quality of contact. He is hitting the ball more than two miles per hour slower. His launch angle is cut almost in half. Prior to the homer last night, he had yet to register a barrel since coming off the IL. Plus, it’s not like Urshela has been getting unlucky. His actual stats are almost identical to his expected stats — he’s doing as poorly as his weak batted balls would suggest. And that’s to say nothing of the lapses in the most lauded facet of his game, his glove. (Esteban will have more on that next week, so be sure to keep an eye out.)
All this being said, Urshela’s bat has shown signs of awakening from its slumber. He went 2-for-3 with a walk in the first game of the Orioles series, and followed it up the next night with a two-run home run — his first since July 4th:
I would be among the happiest fans if he were to render all that I have written moot — the Yankees are a better team with a healthy Gio Urshela crushing the ball at the plate and turning in web gems in the field. At the very least, these last two games offer hope that the cold spell was as much due to rust as anything else.
The Yankees have difficult decisions to make around the diamond in the coming months. Gleyber Torres cannot play shortstop, and pushing him to second moves DJ LeMahieu off his strongest defensive position. Luke Voit’s status as full-time first baseman is up in the air thanks to his health record and subpar glove. And now, the Yankees will have to determine if Gio Urshela is their long-term third baseman of the future, a decision made all the more challenging by his regression in 2021.