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The Urshela Question

The Indians appear prepared to enter the 2016 season with large question marks at both third base and center field. Question marks are not always bad things and often questions can become fulfilling answers.

However, for a team with a core at its peak and a clear opening in the A.L. Central, questions are far more unsettling than they are open-ended and positive.

Question marks are often when no baseline for production can be projected with any rational confidence, but the key to good questions is whether the requisite upside exists to produce a positive answer.

My friend and fellow EHC scribe Adam Burke has already considered the question mark that is Abraham Almonte, and it appears that question merely adduces more questions.

Which brings us to the Urshela question. The better than league average glove is unquestioned, and if his bat ever allows him to play a 150-game season it is likely that it would be Gold Glove Caliber. On a team which is structured around run prevention, this is undoubtedly valuable.

His bat still must meet a certain threshold in order to keep his glove in the game. The central question for Urshela is whether his bat can get close enough to league average to play 150 games and allow his defense to carry his value.

This is a question that I discussed in brief with August Fagerstrom and will attempt to build on in the forthcoming paragraphs.

Lets start with the big league sample: Urshela posted 288 plates appearances in 2015 with a slash line of: .225/.279/.330. Underwhelming stuff, which  helping him post a weigh runs created (wRC+) of 68. Meaning that Urshela was 32% worse than the league average hitter. Some of this can be attributed to back issues if one is looking for reasons for optimism. I am not sure it played a vital role.

Since the production was underwhelming, lets move to the root cause. It is not K% as Urshela has always made contact at an average to above average rate. The root issues are twofold: limited walk rate and poor contact quality.

Indeed, it seems at times that Urshela sacrifices contact frequency for contact quality, his exquisite hand eye coordination allowing him to put too many bad pitches into play. Urshela is better than league average at making contact when chasing pitches outside the zone which helps extend at bats but also can deflate contact quality.

Urshela's poor contact quality led to a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .266, whereas league average was .299. 

At first, one might simply expect his BABIP to regress to the mean, meaning improvement for his batting average as a whole, but for Urshela it is not quite this simple.

Only 22% of Urshela's contact was hard contact in 2015. Small sample size alert. In 2015 his exit velocity was mediocre at best:

While this small sample size data is in some ways revealing, it is necessary that we pare it with other information in order for it to have any use.

In minor league baseball, we don't have the constantly growing amount of information regarding contact quality that we see at the big league level now.

A proxy for such information is BABIP. In the minors, high BABIP's are a good indicator because they don't suggest regression but rather contact quality.

This is where it gets particularly dire. Urshela's highest minors BABIP at a level with over 100 games is .290 and his lowest was .258. Generally, Urshela sat in the .280s.

A rule of thumb for the transition to the big league is that you knock 20-30 points off the minors BABIP to project the big league BABIP.

Which would put Urshela between .255-.265, essentially his 2015 BABIP. This is a dynamic problem for Urshela as he does not walk frequently and shows below average power. For Urshela to succeed offensively enough to let his defense carry him, the BABIP needs to be at about .300 or higher. If Urshela continues to BABIP around .270, which is perhaps optimistic except for occasional variance, he will likely never hit higher than .235/.240, which without power and a competent walk rate, hurts.

This outlook may be dire, and it likely should, but Urshela has a big league caliber glove that will always make him a useful player. Indeed, it is easy to say that Urshela is big league caliber but not a big league starter. However, Urshela is only 24-years old, and coming off an unhealthy season. There is time for adjustment and improvement.

But relying on a player to make significant, and ultimately dramatic improvement is not ideal when attempting to compete for a pennant.

Jose Ramirez is a similar defender with a higher offensive baseline, and if both are carried, Ramirez should get the dominant portion of playing time.

More likely the Indians will address the position in the upcoming weeks with a signing of Juan Uribe or David Freese. 

The Urshela Question is unanswered but of the range of outcomes, positive seems unlikely.
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