Gio Urshela Powers Up

On Thursday, Jay Jaffe examined the terrible injury luck the Yankees have suffered through this season. Twenty-five players have been sent to the injured list—with 17 active stints—for a combined 1,748 days lost to injuries. Still, despite being so banged up, the Yankees are a virtual lock to make the playoffs as the American League East champion. A big reason why they’ve posted the best record in baseball is the unexpected contributions from their replacement players. The most impressive breakout has been from Gio Urshela. The 2.4 WAR he’s accumulated this year is the third highest mark on the Yankees. For a player who was seen as a glove-first utility man at one point, it’s been a remarkable transformation.

Yesterday, Urshela launched two home runs against the Blue Jays, his fourth and fifth in his last three games. That gives him nine home runs since the All-Star break, almost tripling his season total. Since the midseason break, few hitters have been as hot as Urshela. He’s posted a .380/.402/.848 slash line in the month since the All-Star game, a 221 wRC+ that ranks second in the majors. This current hot streak surpasses the good run he had to start the year.

Through the end of May, Urshela had posted a .338/.390/.482 slash line and a 131 wRC+, both excellent marks. But he accumulated just 14 extra-base hits in 154 plate appearances during that early season bender. Since the All-Star break, he has 19 extra-base hits in a little more than half the plate appearances. His isolated power has ballooned to a ridiculous .468! In the minors, the highest ISO he had ever posted was .267 in fewer than 100 plate appearances in Double-A back in 2014. He had never hit for much power until this season — and only just recently.

Back in May, former FanGraphs author and current analyst Mike Petriello investigated the adjustments Urshela made to fuel his breakout. Here’s how Urshela described how he had changed:

“I got to the Yankee organization last year, went to Triple-A, and worked with the hitting coach, Phil [Plantier]. 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.”

The easiest thing to spot was a change in his batting stance. This year, he’s holding his hands a little lower and his stance is a little more open.

It certainly seems like these adjustments to his swing mechanics have unlocked a new level of production at the plate for Urshela. But that doesn’t really explain why he’s suddenly hitting for extreme amounts of power. Let’s go back to the video.

Here’s Urshela’s swing from early May, right in the middle of his early season hot streak:

And here’s another swing, taken from a game last week:

Before the pitch is thrown, the stance looks the same. But as the pitch comes in, his once-pronounced leg kick has become a little less pronounced. In fact, his whole swing looks a little more fluid later in the season. Here’s another example where the leg kick is almost non-existent, but a toe tap is used as a timing mechanism instead:

With the bigger leg kick earlier in the season, Urshela was activating his leg muscles like he talked about in the quote above, but the exaggerated motion caused his hands to drop a bit as he began his swing. That loss of separation didn’t hurt his ability to make contact regularly, but it might have affected his swing plane. With his smoother swing motion in July and August, his hands aren’t dropping as much, helping him stay back and generate additional power.

These changes to his swing and his intent at the plate have affected his batted ball profile significantly. Urshela has always run solid line drive rates throughout his career, but his groundball rate was rather high. Before, that wasn’t necessarily a problem since he wasn’t hitting for much power anyway. But with his swing changes, a change to maximize the hard contact that he’s making now would make sense. Here’s how his batted ball profile has changed over the course of the season:

Gio Urshela, batted ball
Year LD% GB% FB% Pull% Hard%
2015–2018 22.6% 43.4% 34.0% 34.1% 22.8%
2019, Pre All-Star 26.6% 38.3% 35.2% 37.9% 45.3%
2019, Post All-Star 24.6% 33.3% 42.0% 46.4% 50.7%

Since the All-Star break, not only is he making hard contact a little more often but he’s lifting the ball as well. And much of that additional elevated contact is coming to his pull side. During the first half of the season, his average launch angle was 13.4 degrees and his average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives was 94 mph. Both of those marks were above league average but Urshela has been even better in the second half. He’s increased his average launch angle to 16.9 degrees and his average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives is up to 95.5 mph, a jump from the 70th percentile to the 87th for that metric.

The adjustments Urshela made last year gave him a strong foundation to build on as the season went on. He broke out early this season but continued to make changes to his swing and approach to take advantage of the new found power he was generating. All that tinkering has paid off since the All-Star break. He’s been one of the hottest hitters in the majors over the past month and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. If the Yankees ever get healthy again, Urshela has done more than enough to claim a permanent spot in their lineup as they make their run towards the playoffs.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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The Ghost of Stephen Drews Bat
4 years ago

“Hit ball hard and hit ball in air” is hell of an hitting philosophy

4 years ago

Absolutely no question that you are correct, except that for years and years players were taught to “get on top of the ball”, a phrase I still hear from old ballplayers often on many broadcasts. It is truly astonishing that so little was understood about the physics of ball flight and how to adapt swing mechanics to better accomplish the goals of higher launch angles and more efficient energy transfer.

4 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Completely and utterly true. I’m ~15 years removed from my playing days, not so long in the larger scheme of things, and I can only imagine what the reactions of my various coaches would have been if I hold told them that I was going to sell out trying to jack pulled fly balls. They would have been aghast. Hit it on the ground, go to the opposite field, etc.

4 years ago
Reply to  synco

Well back before the balls were made super juicy hitting warning track fly balls was not a great strategy. I feel like the “fly ball revolution” is just a response to the baseballs that go extra far when they’re hit in the air.

4 years ago
Reply to  isavage

The juiced balls definitely play into it, but there were articles on Fangraphs about the A’s searching out guys who hit a lot of fly balls as far back as 2012-13 or so, when they had their unexpected run of 95 win seasons.

4 years ago
Reply to  synco

Not sure if you were playing professionally, but at the amateur level defenses are so bad this is good strategy – for winnings sake, forgoing development.

4 years ago
Reply to  VincentGuilds

Also very true. I topped out in college, where defenses can still be pretty bad.

Another somewhat similar phenomenon is asking playground basketball players to estimate the shooting percentages in their games. You throw out a number like 15% and they’re insulted … until they think about it and realize that means one of every 5 or 6 shots going in, at which point it makes a whole lot more sense (and truthfully is even pretty high for most games).

4 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

aye! i was never much of a baseball player at all, but the handful of hits i had in 2 seasons were all elevated liners…which was a result of my natural tendency to try and hit the ball in the air

“swing down on the ball!” was all the coaches said. nonsense in hindsight.

note: in my instance: the issue was not the swing but lack of coordination.

4 years ago
Reply to  nicketz

Discussing what we were taught as kids, it strikes me that the best strategy for extreme outlier athletes (professionals) might not the best strategy for the average 12 year old. I could be wrong though. Maybe my teammates and I could have been much better hitters with better instruction.