Urshela no longer a surprise -- he's a star

August 13th, 2020

After the 2019 season, it was easy to peg Yankees third baseman 's breakout as a one-year wonder.

Urshela was never a highly ranked prospect, and he had a .225/.274/.315 slash line with eight homers over 499 plate appearances with the Indians and Blue Jays before arriving in New York in a trade that sent nothing but cash back to Toronto.

Then, suddenly, at age 27, he started mashing, becoming a key cog on an injury-riddled Yankees club and finishing 2019 with a .314 average, 21 homers and an .889 OPS (133 OPS+) over 132 games.

Urshela didn’t close out the year on the best of notes, however, recording a .655 OPS after returning from an injured-list stint due to a groin strain in September, then going just 8-for-33 (.242) in the postseason, which added to the list of reasons to doubt him entering 2020.

Well, early on in this season, Urshela is proving the doubters wrong. In fact, he appears to be getting better than he was a year ago.

But before we get to that, here’s a quick refresher on what Urshela did to improve so dramatically in 2019. (All stats below are as of Tuesday.)

Urshela’s 2019 breakout

As MLB.com’s Mike Petriello pointed out last year, Urshela’s stance changed from his time with Cleveland and Toronto, as he opened up more and lowered his hands a bit.

Urshela explained that, when he arrived in the Yankees organization in August 2018, he worked with Phil Plantier, the team’s Triple-A hitting coach, to generate more power from his lower body.

His work yielded positive results last season, as he hit the ball with more authority, especially on balls in the air, while continuing to make as much contact as he had previously.

Urshela, 2015-18
Hard-hit rate (all batted balls) -- 31.5%
Hard-hit rate (line drives/fly balls) -- 38.8%

Urshela, 2019
Hard-hit rate (all batted balls) -- 41.8%
Hard-hit rate (line drives/fly balls) -- 50.5%

Urshela also started pulling the ball more, doing so on 37.6% of his batted balls -- up from 29.6% from 2015-18. This paid off in a big way, as Urshela had a .430 average on pulled balls.

And although his overall xSLG was lower than his actual slugging percentage by 29 points, it was still .505, ahead of star players such as teammate Gleyber Torres (.502), Anthony Rizzo (.498), Fernando Tatis Jr. (.495) and Nolan Arenado (.490).

How he’s improved in 2020

As good as Urshela was in 2019, he did have some flaws -- specifically, a tendency to expand the zone.

Urshela’s chase rate last season was a career-high 40.1%, the 11th highest among the 228 big league hitters who saw at least 750 out-of-zone pitches.

In 161 at-bats that ended on a pitch out of the zone, Urshela hit .199 with three homers and a .311 slugging percentage. He also walked in just 5.3% of his plate appearances, which dragged down his xwOBA to .353.

This season, Urshela has cut his chase rate to 24.3%, which has helped him lower his whiff rate (misses/swings) to 17.3% (22.2% in 2019) and increase his walk rate to a career-best 11.7%. He has remained aggressive on balls in the zone, meanwhile, swinging at 72.6% of them, while his contact rate on in-zone offerings has jumped to 89% (82.2% in 2019).

The result? Urshela ranks among the elite in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, xBA and xwOBA, and his barrel rate is way up. Here are his percentile ranks in all of those categories, with his 2019 ranks included in parentheses.

Urshela’s percentile ranks, 2020
Average exit velocity: 93rd (75th)
Hard-hit rate: 93rd (67th)
Barrel rate: 82nd (41st)
xBA: 98th (92nd)
xwOBA: 97th (73rd)

From a visual standpoint, it means he has a whole lot of dark red on his 2020 chart.

Despite going 0-for-8 in New York's two most recent games, Urshela entered Wednesday with a .288/.367/.538 (153 OPS+) line, three homers, four doubles and 13 RBIs through his first 16 games this season.

And yet, the Yanks had slotted him in as the sixth, seventh or eighth hitter in the order in every game before bumping him up to fourth Wednesday with Giancarlo Stanton on the IL and Aaron Judge out with lower body tightness.

On a club with so many talented hitters, Urshela may continue to fly under the radar. But it's time to recognize him as a star in his own right.