Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
"“I’m getting goosebumps,” he says. “You know he’s a Dodger. You know he’s a lefty. You know he’s from Mexico. And I bet you a lot of the Mexican people are waiting for another Fernando.”"
As unfair as that is, you better believe it’s going to happen. When Julio Urias comes up and starts his first game as a Dodger, the ESPN announcers will be all over it. “Left handed, Mexican teenager, gotta be the next Fernando Valenzuela.” Whether or not it’s a truly defensible position, looking at the body types and their respective repertoires, the arm action, windups (!), is certainly up for debate. But conventional thought escapes Julio Urias, time and time again. 16 year olds aren’t supposed to pitch in the Midwest League. 17 year olds aren’t supposed to thrive in the Cal League, 17 year olds aren’t supposed to dominate MLB hitters in spring training, 17 year olds aren’t supposed to dispose of MILB futures game participants as if they were Dominican Summer League projects.
It all came so fast, and up until the future’s game, it seemed almost like a myth. Who is this Julio Urias, and how could he go from a shocking call up to non-Rookie League minor league baseball in the summer of 2013, to be declared essentially big league ready by multiple highly respected prospect gurus (even DeJon Watson) in 2014 which puts him on track for a late season call up to the bigs in 2015, at least.
It’s important to keep things in perspective, because I don’t need to remind you that pitching in the big leagues as a teenager has serious ramifications for a ballplayer. Most of which are bad.
If you click on that link, it’ll take you to an article that was written when the last teenager to pitch in a big league game did so, Felix Hernandez. I took the list that Alan Schwarz made of “Pitchers who debuted in MLB who were younger than King Felix” and made a chart so it’s easier for you to visualize teenage pitchers in baseball. It’s not an exact science, since debuting at 20 is probably not all that different than debuting at 19, but it’s a good way to see how tender these arms really are.
Most of them were considered “special can’t miss talents”, not unlike Urias.
[table id=6 /]
So there you go. There are some genuine hall of fame talents. Bert Blyleven and Felix Hernandez are top 30 pitchers of all time, and that may be underselling them. There are some horrific busts, Jay Franklin, Tim Conroy, Lloyd Allen most notably, and there are a lot of averagish to above averagish pitchers Joe Coleman, Mike Morgan, Gary Nolan, Britt Burns, Terry Forster, Don Gullett.
And it makes sense, some pitchers were rushed, some pitchers couldn’t handle the pressure, some pitchers got hurt, some pitchers, everything went right for them.
I’ll be the first to admit that this is nowhere near perfect if only because the results are still skewed from King Felix and Lloyd Allen, but if I remove the highest and lowest values of bWAR from that list -which makes sense because Urias can never realistically be expected to be as great as Blyleven was, nor as awful as Tim Conroy proved to be-, the average teenager who debuts in the big leagues compiles a career bWAR of 13.4.
Which is honestly, a disappointment. Now granted, all of these pitchers are different, not all of these pitchers put up a 2.36 ERA, a 0.4 HR/9, and a 11.2 K/9 in the Cal League. King Felix is the best example of a pitcher who was able to succeed greatly in the Cal League as a teenager, and we all know how he turned out. I dare you to find me one example of a teenager dominating two straight leagues (Low-A and High-A) where the average player was about 6 years older than him and struggled in the bigs.
However this brings me to a different point.
Urias isn’t even stretched out.
He’s thrown a total of 142 innings in his 2 minor league seasons. This year, he pitched 4 innings or more exactly 16 times. In the games he started, he faced approximately 15.15 batters, and has faced 356 total batters spread across his 20 starts and 5 relief appearances. For comparison, in 2004, Felix Hernandez threw in 16 games, started 15 times, exhibited the same strikeout rate, far better control and command (3.8 BB/9 for Urias compared to 2.5 BB/9 for Hernandez), while Urias had a 0.1 edge in HR/9. 2004 King Felix also faced 385 batters in High-A, while also facing an additional 235 in AA due to a promotion (because he could handle it).
What’s my point? Urias isn’t stretched out. He has not shown he can go into the 6th, or even 7th inning consistently, the last teenager who has pitched in the big leagues has him beat at the same level statistically almost everywhere (including IP), and even then, Felix still went on to hurl 57.1 innings in AA as a 18 year old.
Julio Urias is exciting. He is. He’s as close to an untouchable pitching prospect this organization has had since like Clayton Kershaw. He’s not going anywhere, and you’re wrong if you don’t think i’m awaiting the day he debuts as a Dodger. But there are significant things keeping him from being Fernando Valenzuela’s 2nd coming. The fact that history is not on his side. I’d normally brush that aside, but looking at other teenagers and seeing how they fared and what developmental route they took to get to the end of their career is very relevant because of how different a 19 year old starting out in the bigs is from, say, a 23 year old just getting started. The fact that he has never pitched beyond the 6th inning, ever. The fact that the injury devil could appear at any time, snatch him up and carry him away to the land of Jay Franklin. A terrible place, but a realistic one. The fact that Urias hasn’t even seen the 2nd best level in the minor leagues, let alone AAA competition.
These are a lot of things that can’t simply be brushed aside because “OMGOMG HE’S 18 YEARS OLD”.
The organization is handling him properly, not making him throw so many innings, not allowing him to go into the 7th, 8th and 9th innings like his high school surely would have had he been given the chance. This could very well be saving his career from disaster, elongating the amount of pitches he has in his left arm and ultimately maximizing his potential. But to also say he’s a sure thing to debut next year deserves some rebuttal because of the accepted knowledge of There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect TINSTAAPP, or simply TNSTAAPP if you’re into the whole brevity thing. He could eat himself into being Bartolo Colon which is something that has been said before by Marc Hulet.
-important to note this was written August 26th, 2013-
"The southpaw is listed at 5-11 and 160 pounds. In actuality, you can probably add another 20 pounds on there and be more accurate. This is important because, even at 17, Urias’ body lacks projection. In fact, he’s going to have to be very careful and watch his weight to ensure he doesn’t swing in the direction of Bartolo Colon. Right now, I’d place a No. 3/4 starter ceiling on him. But, a lot can happen in the next few years. He could shoot up five inches. Or even three."
Not an statement of what will happen, simply a caution of what could happen. That ceiling has changed, but body types generally stay the same.
Julio Urias is definitely exciting, but surely worth being cautious over. I fear to think what could happen if the Dodgers aren’t.