Even though the Yankees had 2018 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Miguel Andujar manning third base, surprise abounded when they didn’t aggressively pursue free agent Manny Machado in the offseason. Plenty has changed for those two players since then. Machado took a 10-year, $300MM offer from the Padres and has gone on to post a solid but unspectacular season. Andujar, meanwhile, amassed just 49 plate appearances – during which a shoulder injury limited him to a disastrous .128/.143/.128 line – before undergoing season-ending surgery in mid-May.
The lack of Machado and Andujar could have made the hot corner a black hole for this year’s Yankees, but the position has unexpectedly been a significant strength. Once-anonymous third baseman Gio Urshela is one of many Yankees who have come from nowhere to flourish, thus helping the club to a major league-best 81-42 record.
Urshela joined the Yankees in what looked like a minor trade with the division-rival Blue Jays last August. New York parted with cash considerations for Urshela, whom Toronto had just designated for assignment. It was understandable that the Blue Jays (and the Indians before them) gave up on Urshela. After all, at the time the Jays sent him to the Yankees, Urshela was just a .225/.274/.315 major league hitter over 499 plate appearances. He wasn’t exactly a force in the minors, either.
Despite the less-than-stellar pro track record Urshela once had, general manager Brian Cashman explained to Mike Mazzeo of Yahoo Sports this week that the club “had been trying to acquire him for awhile. We daydreamed about him being a very versatile utility player. We loved his glove. We were very fortunate that we ran into him at the proper time of his development.” Cashman admitted, though, that “nobody thought Gio would be this guy” and “no one expected him to be Manny Machado.”
If the Yankees had splurged on Machado over the winter, they wouldn’t have complained had he opened his Bronx tenure with a .337/.379/.585 batting line, 18 home runs and 3.1 fWAR in 364 PA. Amazingly, that’s the production they’ve received this season from the 27-year-old Urshela, whom the Yankees re-signed to a minor league deal during the winter. His offensive output since then has been an astounding 50 percent better than that of the typical MLB hitter, according to FanGraphs’ wRC+ metric. Urshela ranks eighth in the league in that category among batters with 350-plus PA, sandwiched between Anthony Rendon and Fernando Tatis Jr.
Whether Urshela can continue to handle opposing pitchers to this extent is rightly in question, though there are encouraging signs. Thanks to help from Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Phil Plantier, Urshela’s “staying through his legs more,” said Cashman, who added Urshela has also gotten stronger. Cashman believes those factors have“created a whole new dynamic.”
After entering the year with a nonthreatening .090 isolated power figure, the stronger Urshela has put up an imposing .248 mark this season. He hasn’t had to sell out for it with more strikeouts, having fanned in only 15.9 percent of plate trips and swung and missed at an above-average 10.4 percent clip. With an 81.3 percent contact rate, Urshela sits 5 percent better than average in that regard. His ability to consistently put the bat on the ball has helped offset a paltry walk rate (5.5 percent), and Statcast is mostly buying into Urshela’s enormous uptick in meaningful contact. He ranks toward the top of the league in hard-hit rate (75th percentile), average exit velocity (87th), expected slugging percentage (91st) and expected batting average (98th). Urshela’s also in the 91st percentile in expected weighted on-base average, owning a .382 mark that isn’t a great distance from his real wOBA (.403).
The Yankees may have found a bargain gem in Urshela, who’s on a minimum salary this year and still has three seasons of arbitration eligibility. Come 2020, the presences of Urshela and what should be a healthy Andujar ought to make for an intriguing setup. Having battled a litany of injuries to key players this year, the Yankees will likely be thrilled to have the depth.