What’s Going On With Gio Urshela?
By Chris O’Connor
*All stats as of Wednesday’s games
September 26, 2021
The 2021 New York Yankees, aside from a few exceptions, have been an underperforming group. Frustration has been building due to the varying levels of regression from guys like Gleyber Torres and D.J. LeMahieu, not to mention the continued defensive struggles of Gary Sanchez. But, one player who, in my eyes, has seen his struggles go under-the-radar is Gio Urshela.
This might be due to expectations. Gleyber Torres was a top-tier prospect who hit 38 home runs in 2019 and was seemingly destined for stardom. His regression has been difficult to watch. D.J. LeMahieu did not break out until signing with the Yankees, which made his performance across 2019-2020 that much sweeter, but expectations for him this season were heightened when he signed a big contract in the offseason. And Gary Sanchez, well, he was supposed to be a superstar.
Gio Urshela had a similar breakout to LeMahieu when he joined the Yankees in an August 2018 trade with the Blue Jays for cash considerations. With a career OPS of .589, Urshela was not expected to contribute much to the 2019 team, but injuries to Miguel Andujar opened the door for him to seize the third base job. Gio did not look back. With little in his statistical profile suggesting that it was fluky, he slashed .310/.358/.523 with 27 homers and a 134 OPS+ across 175 games in 2019 and 2020. This season, however, has slashed .261/.297/.415 with just 32 extra-base hits in 106 games. That sparks the question: Where has it gone wrong for Gio Urshela in 2021?
For starters, while his plate discipline has not necessarily fallen off, he is striking out significantly more due to an inability to make contact on pitches outside of the strike zone. His strikeout rate has spiked to 25.4% 2021; in 2019 and 2020, it was 18.3% and 14.4%. This has not come with more walks, as often is tied to an increase in strikeouts: While his walk rate ballooned to more 10% in 2020, it is back down to 4.7% this year. That is very similar to the 5.3% rate in 2019, which could be spun as a positive because Urshela has proven that he does not need to rely on walks to make an offensive impact. His swing rates and contact rates on pitches both inside and outside of the strike zone are very similar to what they were in 2019, save for one notable difference: his contact rate on pitches outside of the strike zone is down from 73% to a little over 65%. That is not always a bad thing because hitters obviously make better contact at good pitches in the strike zone. In this case, however, it has caused his strikeout rate to soar without adopting a more patient approach that leads to seeing more pitches and taking more walks.
The other problem is where he is hitting the ball. His ground ball rate has spiked to 47%, up from an average of 41% over the last two seasons. So even while he has maintained his hard-hit rate and home run-fly ball ratio, it has not been demonstrated in his final line because he is hitting the ball into the ground so frequently. His launch angle has fallen from 13.6 to 7.5 degrees from 2019, so while average launch angle can be a flawed statistic, this kind of severe drop is telling. Gio has hit into 14 doubles plays this season, which is tied for 15th in the American League despite him missing 46 games. That makes sense considering he hits the ball into the ground so often and is surprisingly slow – he ranks in just the 22nd percentile in Statcast’s sprint speed. I knew that Gio was not exactly a speedster, but it is difficult to believe that a 29 year-old third baseman/shortstop would be that slow-footed. His baserunning has really tanked his value: per Fangrapshs, he ranks as the fourth-worst baserunner in baseball. He is surrounded by lumbering sluggers like Miguel Cabrera, Franmil Reyes, and Giancarlo Stanton.
At the start of 2019, it would have been difficult to believe that Gio Urshela would have been even capable of disappointing if only because of such low expectations. Gio proved that his breakout in 2019 was not a fluke with an exceptional 2020 (even if it was just 43 games in a shortened season), but his regression in 2021 is concerning for someone without a very long track record of success. For someone with little speed, hitting the ball on the ground so frequently is so often a rally-killing play when it comes with men on base. If Gio can start elevating the baseball more and laying off the truly bad pitches outside of the strike zone he can get back to being the .300 hitter that he was from 2019-2020.
Under team control through 2023, Gio Urshela has proven more than capable of playing a solid third base and a competent shortstop in a pinch. While this has been a disappointing season, he has shocked the baseball world before with massive improvements. For a player with his intelligence and baseball IQ, I would not count him out just yet.