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Gio Urshela and the flaws of the eye test

Before I get accused of being negative, let me start with this: Gio Urshela, plucked out of the depths of irrelevancy by New York in late 2018, has been an absolute blast to watch this season.

The spunky 27-year-old arrived as a breath of fresh air, and he’s helped bring a newfound energy to the Evil Empire this season. If there’s one certainty this season, it’s that these aren’t your parents’ Yankees. No, this team is truly fun.

Urshela got off to a blazing start at the plate, hitting for a .354/.416/.532 slash line with a .401 wOBA and a 153 wRC+ from the beginning of the season until May 9. Out of nowhere, the career “defense-first” utility infielder was a superstar with his bat. As expected, the regression has come, but his stats since May 10 are still dwarfing his career stats – in the first 499 plate appearances of his career entering the 2019 season, Urshela had a .225/.274/.315 slash with a .261 wOBA and a 57 wRC+.

But no matter what you think of his bat, the seemingly undeniable benefit Urshela brings to a team is superb defense. So far this season, he’s been an absolute highlight machine. That was certainly evident on Wednesday night against the New York Mets, when the Colombian national made a trio of spectacular plays at the hot corner.

The flashy moments are all well and good, and they’re certainly excellent fodder for social media clips and SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays, if anyone even watches SportsCenter anymore. But sometimes looks can be deceiving. With that being said, let’s take a look at Urshela’s defensive numbers.

There are three ways to evaluate defense. The first is using errors and fielding percentage, which have been the standard of defensive analysis since baseball statistics were invented until advanced metrics were introduced. Personally, I think those “stats” are rather dumb, as they don’t tell a full story. Rangier defenders may pick up an error on a play a less athletically-inclined defender doesn’t even get to. However, I’ve learned that sabermetrics and advanced stats aren’t for everyone. In that case, let’s see where Urshela ranks in these two categories.

Errors: Tied for the most among the 18 qualifying MLB third basemen

Fielding percentage: Worst in MLB among qualifying third basemen

Well, so that’s that. Might as well wrap up the article here. If you are a believer in basic stats, like errors and fielding percentage, to evaluate defense, then Urshela has been the worst fielding third baseman among qualifying players this season. Case closed.

Just kidding. That wouldn’t be a fair evaluation. As I said previously, I think errors and fielding percentage are horrible tools for evaluating defense. For example, Matt Chapman, widely regarded as one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball, had the second-most errors in baseball last year with 20. Miguel Andujar, by comparison, only had 15 errors.

So what makes Chapman an elite defender? Advanced metrics and analytics. DRS, or defensive runs saved, a stat in which “players are measured in “runs” above or below average.” Last season, Chapman had a +29 DRS. Andujar had a -25 DRS. Now we’re getting somewhere. If you look at the other stats, like UZR, UZR/150 (same as UZR, but projected over 150 games), and FanGraphs’ Def, the numbers will show a similar story.

Why are these stats important? Because our eyes are inherently flawed. As FanGraphs says, “Even your eyes aren’t going to do a great job measuring defensive performance because you simply can’t watch and remember enough plays a year to have a good sense of exactly how well a player stacks up against the competition. You might be able to judge a single play better than the metrics (although that’s debatable), but your ability to recall every play and compare them is limited.”

People don’t like to hear it, but your eyes can be deceiving. Someone can make an error or badly misplay a ball in the first inning, but if they made a highlight-reel diving snag in the 8th inning, a fan is likely to forget the first play even happened. That’s just human nature. Recency bias can cause opinions to change drastically, and that’s why quantifying what we see is vital to true understanding.

So where does Urshela rank in the advanced stats among MLB third baseman?

DRS: Tied for 15th among the 18 qualified third basemen

UZR: 16th

UZR/150: 17th

FanGraphs Def: 16th

Right now, you probably think I’m lying to you. Some of you may even be quoting Star Wars without being aware of it.

But I’m not. I promise. Check out all the info here. It’s all factual. However, defensive metrics, as well as any form of statistics, get more reliable with more data inputted. So perhaps Urshela isn’t *this* bad. Entering this season, in 1,225.2 innings across 167 games, he’s been roughly average in the field. But, like his hitting, that’s a small sample size as well.

If you’re still convinced Urshela is a great fielder, you probably rely on your eyes and absolutely nothing else. That means you’re comparing him to something, right? If you’re a Yankee fan, that means you’re comparing Urshela’s defense to the former third basemen in the Bronx. That’s Miguel Andujar, Chase Headley, an aging Alex Rodriguez, etc. Gio can be better than them (he certainly is better than Andujar (everyone is)), but he still may not be all that terrific.

To cap it off, close your eyes (figuratively speaking, that is. You still need to read this). Think about as many of Urshela’s plays as you can. Try to avoid just remembering Wednesday’s plays and expand your base of knowledge. It may be hard, due to recency bias, but truly give it a shot.

Got it? Great. Open your eyes. Watch this video.

Did you remember any of these plays? If you did, great. Your memory is above average. Most people probably couldn’t recall a single one off the top of their heads. And that’s precisely the point. It’s easy to remember the highlights, but in reality, there have been a lot of bad plays as well.

So there we go. If you use the most basic of defensive stats, Urshela has been a bad fielder. If you use advanced metrics and analytics, Urshela has been a bad fielder. As for the eye test, I hope I’ve shown what the flaws may be. Nobody remembers every single play someone makes (or doesn’t make) over the course of the season, because that’s an impossible task. The other problem with the eye test is comparison. Urshela is definitely better than Andujar. But he’s not better than Chapman, Nolan Arenado, Evan Longoria, Brian Anderson, etc.

Unless you’re an MLB scout and/or watch every team an equal amount, your eye test is flawed. Trust the stats. They exist for a reason.

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