Gio Urshela, New York Yankees shortstop.
In 2018, when Urshela was scrapping for playing time on the Blue Jays, what would you have done if I told you that in three years, that guy would be the captain of the infield for a Yankees playoff contender? You’d probably laugh and be upset that fan favorite Didi Gregoriu, was nowhere to be found. Yet, here we are on September 21, 2021, with Urshela up the middle and doing his best job to end the game of musical chairs that has come about this season.
Between Gleyber Torres, Tyler Wade, Andrew Velazquez, and Urshela, Aaron Boone has had himself one heck of a ride this year with potentially the most important defensive position on the diamond. Hopefully, Urshela holds down the fort for the rest of the regular season and potential playoff run, but one cannot be sure of it.
Don’t get me wrong; Gio is a highly-skilled defensive player. According to the eye test, he has smooth-like-butter hands, great arm strength and throwing mechanics, and a wonderful first step. He has a knack for making highlight reel plays and showing off a flare at the hot corner reminiscent of Padres third baseman Manny Machado. But shortstop? That’s a different story. His skills are best suited for third.
That being said, results matter and it’s only fair to judge Urshela based on some of his results thus far (albeit in a limited sample). We’ll begin with the statistics. In 41 chances at shortstop this season, Gio has fared very well! In that span, he’s accumulated 2 Outs Above Average (OAA), Baseball Savant’s measure of defensive success. I personally prefer OAA over any defensive metric, but of course, it has its limitations. It’s important to know it’s based on opportunity and not necessarily a measure of true defensive talent.
Since OAA includes metrics like exit velocity, launch angle, spray angle, runner speed, and fielder position, it can estimate what a player’s success rate should be according to the average outcome in those situations. That’s exactly why it is very impressive that Urshela has had a four-percent success rate added thus far. Over an entire sample of defending, infield OAA leaders such as Nicky Lopez and Francisco Lindor have a four-percent success rate added as well.
I’m not saying that Gio is going to be that type of shortstop defender, but he has made all his expected plays plus more in his small sample. Given that Urshela is slower than any other shortstop who has over 25 attempts this year, it’s shocking that he has had the range to make unexpected plays. The beauty of a great first step and instincts!
Were these plays just one-off cases? Or were they a display of Urshela’s true skills? Baseball Savant tells us that Urshela has +1 OAA on plays going in and +1 OAA on lateral plays toward third base. My hunch tells me that this is one of the plays that helped contribute to that figure:
A topped line drive hit over 90 mph, requiring a full extension and great first step/reaction — that’s a play up the wheelhouse of third basemen who routinely make diving plays on topped grounders towards the baseline.
Beyond that, Urshela has faced a few choppers, which he has charged with decent urgency. Here are a few:
Urshela obviously isn’t super comfortable at the position. In the first clip, his pace towards the ball isn’t great, but he knew there was a slow runner. In the second clip, he needed to slightly charge the ball. He fielded it just like it was drill work by coming around the ball and directing his feet towards first. It was fundamentally sound, but again, the pace of it is a bit of slow motion. Lastly, Gio fielded a tweener hop with apparent discomfort. You don’t get these types of hops at third base, so that it isn’t shocking.
These next two clips show Urshela a bit flat-footed while waiting for grounders. He has a strong arm which allows him to do so. But in my opinion, these are the types of grounders that prove he is a third baseman.
Urshela gets away with making both of these plays. However, good Major League shortstops don’t routinely sit back on groundballs like this. Third basemen do because at the hot corner, the key it is to be in an athletic position and react in, left, and right as fast as you can. At shortstop, it’d be nice to see Gio continue to move his feet by either working forward with a backhand or intersecting with the point of the ball at a shallower depth.
Even so, Urshela still makes these plays because he has great feel for his arm strength and the speed of the runner. His fundamentals are extremely sound. That leaves me thinking that he can get the job done, but it isn’t going to be impressive. He will make the plays he can make, like an older Derek Jeter. With that in mind, one must consider the Yankees’ former predicament with Gleyber Torres. He is not at all similar to Urshela when it comes to footwork, throwing mechanics, and general feel/instincts.
Because of that, I think the Yankees made the correct decision by moving Urshela in the short-term. If they don’t go out and get a real defensive shortstop for next year, then problems will crop up. Gio is a fine place holder. He is going to make the plays that come to him and that’s an upgrade. But the Yankees forced themselves into this situation by failing to foresee the Torres situation. For that reason, Urshela’s move cannot be looked at in a vacuum, even though he will most likely get the job done for the next 15 games. But let’s hope that’s actually the case.