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Yank's unexpected breakout demands closer look

Third baseman has .341/.396/.505 line over first 101 PA with Yankees
@mike_petriello
May 15, 2019

Gio Urshela didn't hit at all with Cleveland. In parts of two Major League seasons (2015, '17), he hit a mere .225/.273/.314 (56 OPS+) in 453 plate appearances, one of the weakest Indians lines from a non-pitcher in modern history. Across nearly a decade in Cleveland's Minor League system, dating

Gio Urshela didn't hit at all with Cleveland.

In parts of two Major League seasons (2015, '17), he hit a mere .225/.273/.314 (56 OPS+) in 453 plate appearances, one of the weakest Indians lines from a non-pitcher in modern history. Across nearly a decade in Cleveland's Minor League system, dating back to 2009, only once did he have an .800 OPS, back in 2014, when he hit .280/.334/.491 between Double-A and Triple-A.

So last May -- a year ago last Thursday -- they DFA'd him and then traded him to Toronto for a player to be named. Urshela didn't hit for the Blue Jays either in the Majors (.233/.283/.326, 70 OPS+, in 46 plate appearances) or the Minors (.244/.275/.279 in 91 Triple-A plate appearances), so no one noticed when he was dealt to the Yankees for cash considerations on Aug. 4.

Urshela, it should be noted, then did hit for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders in 107 plate appearances after the trade, posting a .307/.340/.475 line. He did hit for the Yankees in 29 Spring Training plate appearances, putting up a .321/.345/.679 line. And he certainly is hitting for the Yankees in the Majors this year, with a .341/.396/.505 line in his first 101 plate appearances as a Yankee.

This has become sort of a "thing" for the Yankees. You think about massive salaries when you think about the Bronx Bombers, but it's also about finding unheralded players via trade and turning them into stars. In 2014, it was their acquisition of Didi Gregorius from Arizona and a little-known pitching prospect named Domingo Germán from Miami. In 2015, it was getting Aaron Hicks from Minnesota and Chad Green from Detroit. In 2017, it was picking up Tommy Kahnle from the White Sox. And in 2018, it was swiping Luke Voit from St. Louis.

Less than a week after they acquired Voit, the Yankees made a trade that even fewer people paid attention to, acquiring Urshela. So far, he is out-hitting Voit. He's out-hitting every Yankee (minimum 100 plate appearances) other than Gary Sánchez .

He's out-hitting veteran stars Justin Turner, J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts. He'd pushed Miguel Andújar to designated hitter, even before Andújar went back on the injured list. So now everyone wants to know: Is Urshela the next member of general manager Brian Cashman's heist list?

The answer, as it so often turns out to be, is yes ... and no.

We noted the Spring Training numbers above not because they matter -- they don't, really, though they're shiny -- but more for the reactions they elicited from Yankees management.

"We saw a guy that was really not only hitting well and having good at-bats, but impacting the ball and hitting the ball with authority to all fields," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said to MLB.com on April 6. "I asked him about that; 'Have you made some adjustments and some things you've done?' He said yes. I think he's using his body, using his strength and legs a little bit better overall."

“When I saw him in Spring Training, he hit a couple long home runs, but his BP is gap-to-gap and I never really saw it like that," Yankees hitting coach Marcus Thames told NJ.com earlier this month. "You can hear that. It’s a different sound.”

Boone is right, and it's not hard to see how, and when. On May 8, the Yankees tweeted a video that referred to Urshela as a "New York icon" -- icon! -- where Urshela was asked about those changes.

"I got to the Yankee organization last year," Urshela said in the video, "went to Triple-A, and worked with the hitting coach, Phil. We talked a lot about hitting, about a lot of stuff. We basically talked about using my legs more. ... Right now, that's what I'm doing."

"Phil" is Triple-A hitting coach Phil Plantier, who played parts of eight seasons in the Majors and was the Padres' hitting coach from 2012-14. The change is easy when you look at the video, comparing Urshela in Yankee Stadium in 2015 with Cleveland to what he looks like in pinstripes this year. His hands are slightly lower, and his stance is much more open.

So far, this is all good. We have a player who never hit coming to an organization that's done a good job of getting the most out of players who hadn't consistently performed before. We have him succeeding almost immediately after arriving with that organization, and we have evidence -- both visual and confirmed by the player himself -- of changes being made.

In addition, even when Urshela wasn't hitting, he showed at least one plus tool with the bat, the ability to make contact. In his pre-Yankees Major League career, Urshela's strikeout rate was 18 percent, better than the Major League average of 21.7 percent over 2016-18 (and this year, he's down to 15.7 percent). In his Minor League career, that was an even better 13.2 percent. He never hit for power, but he made contact.

These are all great signs. Now, what do the numbers say?

* * *

The first thing you'd think of when you see an unheralded player come out of nowhere to hit like that is whether he's been "fortunate" -- whether he's had a run of balls finding holes that he's not likely to sustain.

That's true, to a point. Urshela has a .392 Batting Average on Balls In Play. That's far higher than the .291 Major League average, and it's tied for the 11th-highest in MLB this year. Since Urshela is neither terribly fast (38th percentile in Sprint Speed, the Statcast foot speed metric) nor does he crush the ball at an elite level (55th percentile in hard-hit rate), that's a number that is probably going to come back down.

But that's not the same thing as being "lucky," either. Urshela has the third-highest average (.341) in baseball right now, among the 232 players with 100 plate appearances, behind only Cody Bellinger and Jeff McNeil. He has the fifth-highest Expected Batting Average, which is Statcast's way of looking at quality of contact (based on launch angle and exit velocity) without worrying about the effects of great or poor defense (or ballpark) on a player's stat line. That he's top five in both tells you a little about how "real" this is.

Best Expected Batting Average, 2019

.390 -- Cody Bellinger, Dodgers
.350 -- Jose Martinez, Cardinals
.345 -- J.D. Martinez, Red Sox
.329 -- Christian Yelich, Brewers
.328 -- Urshela, Yankees

Another, if slightly more complicated, way to look at this is with Expected Weighted On-Base Average, which accounts for power in a way that batting average doesn't, much like OPS. Urshela's actual wOBA is .388, which is good -- the Major League average is .319 -- and his expected number is .377. That's more or less a negligible gap.

It's also true that Urshela is simply hitting the ball harder in general, and especially on the fly balls and line drives where damage is really done. In his previous stops, he wasn't really hitting it any harder in the air. With the Yankees, now, that's changed.

Urshela, with Cleveland/Toronto

Hard-hit rate (all batted balls) -- 31.5 percent
Hard-hit rate (liners/flies) -- 32.5 percent

Urshela, with Yankees

Hard-hit rate -- 39.5 percent
Hard-hit rate (liners/flies) -- 48.6 percent

Unsurprisingly, this has led to more of his production, as he hit .300 with a .463 slugging on liners/flies with Cleveland and Toronto, and is now hitting .667 with a 1.083 slugging on flies and liners with the Yankees.

We can't promise that Urshela will keep this up, because he probably won't, mostly because of that .392 BABIP, or that pitchers won't figure out a way to attack a hitter who spent most of a decade not hitting. (An early weakness might be on offspeed pitches, where he's got just a .161 average and .250 slugging.) But what we can say with near-certainty is that this is not just "good luck," not based on the data.

Urshela has earned this, to date. The changes he's made have been clear, and it's come with an organization known for doing exactly that. With the odds of Andújar's return any time soon seeming less likely by the day, Urshela, who is a massively better defender than Andújar could ever be, is going to get his chance to prove he's the next Voit. Based on the Yankees' recent track record, it's not something that can be ruled out.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.