BOSTON — As Gio Urshela tries to explain the unexplainable — how an all-field, no-hit player became a bona fide Bronx Bomber — he has a twinkle in his eye.
Urshela says all the right things. He gives credit to the New York Yankees, his third organization in four seasons, for believing in him. He credits his Triple-A coach, Phil Plantier, and his major league hitting coaches, Marcus Thames and P.J. Pilittere, and he talks about better pitch selection and adjustments to his mechanics as responsible for unleashing an unexpected level of production at the plate.
But the truth is that twinkle is there because the baseball world has discovered who Giovanny Urshela is at about the same time he has discovered it himself.
In early February, the Yankees announced they had invited 21 non-roster players to 2019 major league spring training. On that list was a little-known, Colombian-born infielder who had spent parts of three seasons across four years split between the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays and was released by both organizations.
Urshela knew he was much better than the one-dimensional, .225 hitter with eight home runs over 167 major league games whom the Indians and the Blue Jays gave up on. He trusted he had the ability to be an all-around player, just like those talented fellow Colombians he grew up watching and wanting to be like — Omar Cabrera and Edgar Renteria.
And even though it flattered him, it was tiresome to constantly hear his talent was limited to one aspect: a highlight-reel glove.
Urshela needed just one more chance. And it came in February, with none other than one of the few baseball teams with supporters all over soccer-crazy Colombia. But little did the 27-year-old know that spring training invite would be a turning point in his career.
“I recall the first time seeing him in spring training,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “He started spring training about 10 days late because he had a little Achilles thing he was dealing with. But I remember clearly his first batting practices, his first game action; getting my attention immediately with the way he was swinging the bat.
“The way the ball was coming off the bat to center field, the other way, and then taking that into games right away and having quality at-bat after quality at-bat. And it hasn’t stopped since that point in March to now here in September. He’s been a consistent at-bat as we’ve had all year. Just a lot of hard contact day in and out. It’s been a lot of fun to witness.”
Urshela’s significant production increase by the way of hard contact and isolated power has been a work in progress ever since the Yankees re-signed the infielder to a minor league contract after he was acquired from the Blue Jays in exchange for cash considerations in August of last year.
That’s when he first started working with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders’ hitting coach, Plantier, who helped him make the adjustments that he has continued on with until today. Aided by Plantier, and later on by Thames and Pilittere, Urshela made adjustments to his batting stance, keeping it slightly more open and lowering his hands; that allowed him to keep his hands inside and his fists up in order to have more barrel control, which has translated into a remarkable surge in power.
“When I got to the Yankees, I always knew that I had not shown what I could do. Phil Plantier helped me a lot. And it’s your job as a professional to listen and take what is going to help you. You try to apply it, and if you feel comfortable, you continue doing it,” Urshela explained.
“Watching video, I noticed that a lot of times I was hitting foul balls at the beginning of the barrel. So we started working on putting my hands inside so that the ball does not beat me, and trying to take out the barrel with my waist as fast as I can. Now, this year, I’m seeing that my fouls are on the barrel. And Marcus has helped me to continue what I had been working on. We talk about what I worked with Plantier, and he helps me, particularly reminding me of what has worked for me.”
But oftentimes, the most significant changes can come from simple adjustments, and Urshela believes the fact that he stopped watching videos of other players has been key to taking a massive step forward in his career.
“When I stopped watching other people, and focused more on watching my own videos and improving what I needed to improve, and focus on myself, things changed,” Urshela said. “In the past, I focused a lot on watching other players. I watched a lot of video, especially of Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout. Then I told myself, ‘Why am I watching their videos? They’re amazing and some of the greatest hitters of all time, but instead, I should watch more videos of me, because I want to be a better version of Giovanny Urshela.'”
Plantier offered his take.
“It is extremely important for players to not be too consumed with what other people do,” Plantier said. “The sooner that a young player understands what they do well and who they are as an individual, very subtle adjustments can go a long way once the player buys into who they are as. They start living up to their potential.
“One of the things that we really try to do is help players identify who they are as a player first and just make sure that all their work is simply practicing who their best self is. All the credit has to go to Gio for how far he has come in this last year.”
Thames, who has been a coach in the Yankees organization since 2015 and was promoted to hitting coach before the 2017 season, believes that competing in the Dominican Republic also was fundamental in Urshela’s offensive development. Urshela played two years of winter baseball in Venezuela with the Águilas del Zulia (2014 and 2016, alongside his future Yankees teammate Mike Tauchman), but last year he joined the Tigres del Licey of the Dominican Winter League.
“He went over to the D.R., he played, he had success and he brought that right into spring training,” Thames said. “In spring training, you could tell in the cage he just had this aura about him, like saying, ‘I can play with these guys.’ And he brought it into spring training with us and it hasn’t stopped. He found a couple of things that he was doing that made him feel like he could do damage this year. And I continue to let him do them and keep two eyes on him. But I do think winter ball gave him confidence.”
Urshela’s passion for baseball started as a young kid, playing on dirt fields full of rocks and broken glass. He honed his defensive abilities goalkeeping as a 12-year-old while he dreamed of being Edgar Renteria. And while now he wears pinstripes with pride, Urshela understands how ephemeral success can be.
“I always think about how hard I keep working to be where I am, playing with one of the most famous teams in the world, and remembering all the difficult moments I have gone through,” Urshela said. “All those hours practicing every day. I always try to remember that, and I always keep in mind where I am from and where I want to go, and to be an example for kids like me, who had nothing. I used to practice in random fields, not real baseball fields. Just a field in some corner. Sometimes, you’d go to youth championship games and there would be no balls.
“Sometimes, people think that everything has been easy, that I got lucky, but they don’t know the struggle that it takes for all of us to be here.”
Surprisingly enough, that got easier once Urshela joined the Yankees organization. And a lot of the reason for that is the benefits he earned from being with them before he got to spring training.
“Ever since I put on the Yankee uniform, things have changed for me,” Urshela said. “At no time since I got here I have felt any pressure. I think I felt more pressure when I was in Cleveland, because those were my first years in the majors and I wanted to do things right. And that’s probably why sometimes things didn’t work out, because I wanted to make everything perfect and be Mike Trout.
“I always knew that I had to take advantage of the opportunities I was given. And I have been very lucky to have had several opportunities. But when I got to the Yankees, I was already a little more prepared, I was already more focused on how to be a better player and have better results. And now, maybe, people know more or less who I am.”
With his .333/.370/.555 batting line and 50 extra-base hits already delivered for the Yankees before he landed on the injured list with groin tightness, they know who he is. And with the postseason around the corner, thanks in part to what he has done to get them there, they’re getting Urshela back exactly when they need him.
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