Giovanny Urshela one of Yankees' unexpected heroes this season
Injuries affect every franchise, yet it feels like no club has been as grievously wounded as the Yankees this season. The sheer quantity of high-quality players on the injured list is astounding. Despite the obstacles in their path, however, the Yankees have a robust 41-25 record nearly halfway into June and are tied with the Rays for the division lead.
Success of this magnitude wouldn't be possible without a few unexpected heroes. Heroes like Giovanny Urshela.
The 27-year-old third baseman was called to action when Miguel Andujar initially landed on the shelf with an eventual season-ending shoulder injury. While nobody expected much from this apparent stopgap, Urshela has filled Andujar's shoes admirably, and his performance has not gone unnoticed. Through the first ballot update, he ranks second among third basemen in AL All-Star voting.
After Tuesday's games, over 194 plate appearances, Urshela is batting .312/.366/.468 with five home runs. He is also well-regarded as a fielder -- providing an upgrade on Andujar's defensive struggles from a year ago.
In fact, Urshela's plate discipline and batted-ball profile are surprisingly similar to the guy he replaced. He too is a tactically aggressive hitter who skews slightly towards ground-ball contact. Although lacking Andujar's raw power, Urshela still stings the ball.
According to FanGraphs, he has made hard contact on 46.9 percent of balls in play, which is well above league-average. His expected batting average, per Baseball Savant, is .320. Nothing about his performance reads as especially fluky.
How did Urshela come to be a Yankee? His path to pinstripes was anything but easy or typical.
Despite being summoned from Triple-A, he's not a product of the farm system. The Indians originally signed him as a 16-year-old in 2008. For the next decade, the Colombiannative climbed through the Cleveland system. His Major League debut in 2015 featured 288 plate appearances with a tepid .225/.279/.330 batting line. He then spent the entirety of 2016 in the Minors and managed only 165 Major League plate appearances in 2017.
With his development apparently stalled, the Indians designated him for assignment last season. Urshela landed with the Blue Jays who eventually called him up for an unimpressive 46 plate-appearance stint. In June, Toronto too designated him for assignment.
At this point the Yankees swooped in to acquire him. He finished the 2018 season with the RailRiders, hitting .307/.340/.475 over 107 plate appearances. Although a solid performance, there was little expectation of a breakout. He was invited to return in 2019 to fortify the Triple-A roster as organizational depth.
From there, you know the story -- Andujar hit the IL, and Urshela rode to the rescue.
Whether Urshela can maintain his output remains to be seen. It's not unheard of for advanced scouts to suddenly discover a player's secret weakness. Regression could strike in a number of ways -- his line-drive or hard-contact rates could decline. His strikeout rate may climb. He might also experience positive regression -- there is plenty of potential for his home-run rate to surge.
Going forward, the return of Didi Gregorius could affect Urshela's role. With Gregorius carefully working up to full-time at shortstop, Gleyber Torres will be displaced to second base with DJ LeMahieu bouncing around in an infield utility role. LeMahieu may eventually settle at first or third base. There will be yet more pressure when Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge return.
Injuries opened the door for Urshela. Very soon, he will have to earn his starts. Nonetheless, he's proven he's on the right path and a valuable part of the Yankees roster.