In the 2018-2019 offseason, I was among the fans calling loudly for the Yankees to make a push to sign Manny Machado. Despite Andujar’s excellent offensive rookie season, he was coming off a historically bad year defensively at third base. And hell, we were talking about Manny Machado, a guy who posted a WAR above 6.0 in three of the four seasons preceding his free agency. Who wouldn’t want that guy on their team?
So when the Yankees instead turned to some guy named Gio Urshela in April 2019, I was less than pleased. This was a career journeyman had never posted a wRC+ above 67 and who, despite his defensive prowess, had amassed a negative career WAR through three seasons. Little did I know at the time that he would soon become one of the most consistent and beloved Yankees, and would seize the starting position so forcefully that Miguel Andujar would become an afterthought just one year after nearly winning Rookie of the Year.
It is not hyperbole to say that the Yankees effectively got Manny Machado for a fraction of the price when they acquired Urshela for cash considerations back in August 2018. In his time as a Yankee, Urshela has hit .307/.355/.513 (131 wRC+), nearly doubling his career production preceding his time in pinstripes. He’s produced 5.5 WAR through 209 games, playing above average defense to match his incredible offensive performance.
Machado’s numbers in that time? A 117 wRC+ and 6.4 WAR in 256 games as a Padre. In other words, Urshela has outhit Machado and produced more WAR per game played than a guy on a 10 year, $300 million contract. He has to be considered among the best transactions that Brian Cashman has ever made.
And while I admit that I was among the many doubters in his first season as a Yankee, Gio has left no doubt that his bat is the real deal. His xwOBA has been above .340 in each of his first three years as a Yankee placing him comfortably above league average and occasionally in elite territory as a hitter.
While he still struggles with plate discipline and does not walk frequently, his xBA (expected batting average based on quality of contact) has been in the 75th percentile or above in each of the last three seasons, even reaching the 97th percentile in the shortened 2020 year. And he does it with damage, also placing above the 75th percentile of all hitters in xSLG in that timeframe.
All of this results in Gio solidifying himself as a top 10 offensive third baseman in the league, in the company of household names like Josh Donaldson, Jose Ramirez, Kris Bryant, and Justin Turner. As much as Yankee fans love Gio for his smooth plays in the field, it’s his bat that makes him truly valuable.
In fact, Gio’s defense prowess at third base is perhaps a bit overstated. His trademark play is the charge and off balance throw off one leg to nail baserunners on slow grounders toward third. But Statcast’s Outs Above Average doesn’t rate his ability to move laterally, actually having him as a net negative fielder overall in his time in pinstripes. That seems a bit farfetched, and Fangraphs fielding metrics agree, putting him at +8 DRS at third since 2019, among the best of all qualified third basemen in that time frame.
I think you’d have a hard time using metrics to convince anyone who watches Gio’s silky plays at third that he’s anything but an excellent third baseman. But ultimately, his defensive ability is all gravy when it comes to his overall value. His bat alone guarantees him a place in the Yankee lineup, and he currently stands as the third most valuable Yankee by WAR since his first game with the team in 2019.
To date, the Yankees have paid Gio Urshela less than $1.5 million for his services. Even with his healthy salary bump from arbitration, the Yankees will have paid him a grand total of just over $6 million in three full years when the 2021 season comes to a close. In other words, they’ll have spent roughly 1/50 of the cost of acquiring Machado to secure a player who has outproduced him in a more than two season sample size.
The combination of payroll flexibility, on field production, and pure joy that Gio brings to the Yankees cannot be overstated. He is simply one of my favorite Yankees, playing with consistency and intensity every time he steps onto the diamond. With 0.8 WAR and a 125 wRC+ through just 34 games in 2021, Gio looks set for another year as a lynchpin in the Yankee lineup. There’s not much else to say but thank you Toronto (and San Diego!) for helping us secure one of the most important players on our team for pennies on the dollar.