Julio Urias, And A Lot Of Words About Him
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
If you’re not ready for a few thousand word diatribe on Julio Urias and his prospect star, perception, and overall state of the American game, well get ready.
Prospects, when a prospect will get called up, when a prospect will appear on a top 100 prospect list, how well will a prospect do when he’s called up?
It’s the hot idea nowadays, good cheap players are really fun to have, and in an age where that’s quantifiable using things like fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (WAR), baseball reference WAR, surplus WAR, young cheap assets are the most in demand products in the game today. Yoan Moncada‘s market wouldn’t be anywhere near 80 million dollars without this line of thinking being prevalent. Because we have an incredible amount of information available to us, it’s almost impossible to ignore what is being written about guys that are years away, Mookie Betts is getting Ben Zobrist comparisons, Kris Bryant is getting Evan Longoria comparisons, Byron Buxton is getting Mike Trout comparisons, your comparisons are out of control, dude.
But for Dodger fans, the most exciting prospect in recent memory and maybe of all time is the enigmatic Julio Urias. We’ve written extensively on him and so has everybody else, moreso than wunderkind Corey Seager, more than any Dodger prospect in A ball probably ever, and it’s mostly because of his youth.
Urias is well known for being barely legal, he came up to professional ball at 16 years old, dominated from the time he started his first game in late May of 2013 to the end of August when the minor league season wrapped up, he put up a 2.48 ERA with an obscene 4.19 K/BB ratio and having a minuscule 1.104 WHIP. The next season he was relatively better while pitching in the Cal League which is offensively equivalent to the Korean league where teams are scoring 5 runs a game, he posted a 2.36 ERA, a 2.95 K/BB ratio, and a WHIP of 1.106. These are not safe for work numbers coming from a teenager’s age 16 and age 17 seasons.
You’ve heard this before, but if he were in the states from the start of his career, Urias would be trying to figure out women, and contemplating his AP Euro final that he failed, probably, or ~oh my god which UC is going to accept me~. But he’s not and he’s dominating against guys that are 5-7 years older than him, he’s also dominating against the top prospects in the game and have been groomed to play elite level baseball since they were embryos.
A lot of what Urias is known for is being a relative baby in the American game, and this article is by no way diminishing his overall prospect talent for being a major league starter, in some ways it’s actually debunking some of the concerns we normally have about minor league pitching prospects because Urias is different. But it’s also saying that penciling Urias at the top of the Dodgers rotation -since he’s not getting traded if Stan Kasten has anything to say about it- is a bit premature, and unlike most analysis, his age might not be the only thing holding him back from becoming the next Fernando Valenzuela.
So lets start with what Urias is known for, pitching. So much of pitching is mental, whether a player can have confidence in his fastball to throw it for strikes when he’s in a bases loaded jam, or whether a player knows he can punch a guy out by throwing his curveball when he has a runner on 3rd in a tie game and a 3-2 count. This appears to be the side of pitching that Urias excels at. He’s not giving up home runs, he’s getting lots of strikeouts, he’s not giving up a lot of hits, heck, he’s not giving up a lot of runs and that’s because of his plus stuff/advanced makeup. That’s good! He has the stuff to sit in a major league rotation, this has never really been a question. Kiley McDaniel runs one of the best prospect analysis operation available to the public on fangraphs and they have Urias’ fastball/curveball/changeup combination rated at 65/60/60 on the 20-80 prospect scale. That will work, his stuff makes him a good candidate to get major league hitters out. If it feels like i’m stressing this point, it’s because I am, saying Urias is maxed out physically gets people mad for some reason.
The point is, nobody expects him to fill into his body any more than he already has, Urias is a very mature 18 year old in that he’s probably done growing vertically, and he’ll likely only grow laterally. This is problematic for a few reasons, you hear scouts talk about “projection” all the freaking time. Projection is primarily why scouts love high school hurlers, they are young kids, who are two sport athletes most of the time with the ability to add velocity and stamina when given a professional workout program. Nobody expects Sean Reid-Foley (Blue Jays draftee out of high school) to be able to get major league hitters out the day he’s drafted based off of his pure stuff, but given a few years to refine his mechanics, work out, build muscle, and arm strength, the team that drafts these high schoolers might expect the player to be a force in the rotation. Projection is the main reason why Zachary Bird is so well regarded nowadays (ranked 15th in the system by Dustin Nosler), but projection isn’t everything, and many Dodger fans know this.
So projection is what complicates Urias’ prospect star, he’s not a high end athlete, his body has the potential to get very doughy, his body is very mature despite his young age.
As long as he keeps dominating, this isn’t an issue, but that in and of itself is a difficult question to tackle: will he keep up this ridiculous pace?
First, look at the competition he’s facing. Urias is younger than well over half of the guys he’s striking out in Low-A and High-A, this is true, this is also is an oversimplification of a more complex idea. Low-A is well known for having young, extreme risk / extreme reward level prospects go up to their first taste of pro ball and crap out because they have significant holes in their swing, or they’re simply not ready to handle the rigors of non-rookie ball. Jacob Scavuzzo and Joey Curletta are prime examples of this concept, Scavuzzo was actually named the guy to “look out for” before the 2014 season by former Dodgers farm director, Logan White. Scavuzzo then went out and hit .211 in the Midwest League with a .588 OPS, Curletta hit for more average (.277), but a 245 pound behemoth of a ballplayer ISO’ing at .103 (slugging minus average) is simply not going to cut it, these guys are prime examples of the struggle many raw players have adjusting to full season ball. We agree that Urias is advanced, at least physically. I’d compare his physical development to a college player just coming out of college, in that he really shouldn’t expect to add 4-5 ticks on his heater unless there’s some significant mechanical change (we’ll get into that later). So if Urias is physically mature, and has any semblance of control/command of 3 above average to plus pitches, he probably should be expected to rip through 20 year old high school projects. Granted, Hi-A is a more difficult beast to tame, and Urias should be rewarded (he has been) with the ability to pitch well in that climate, but as far as physical development goes, Urias’ body is still more mature and thus more advanced than the average Hi-A ball player.
If you want to win a Low-A championship, drafting a bunch of college arms is the way to go. The “advanced college arm with a useable changeup destroying A ball” club is not exactly an exclusive one, every year, the Ross Striplings of the world get their first taste of Low-A ball and absolutely kill the league, they normally do very well in their first taste of Hi-A ball, and really decide their prospect legitimacy in AA where they’re suddenly facing top 100 prospects and fringe major leaguers every other plate appearance. This year, Julio Urias is going to pitch the majority of his games in Tulsa. The pitcher friendly Southern League is offset by the sheer talent found in the 2nd highest ladder of the minor leagues, Urias is certainly going to face a challenge against the talent there.
And this is not dismissing Urias’ potential. What Urias HAS is youth, and this is always a positive for a minor leaguer. He still has 5-6 years before he’s considered “old” for a prospect. His youth allows him to improve by adding a 4th reliable pitch, or the potential to improve his knowledge of the game while some players are just getting started, or the ability to learn the hitters he’s facing at such a young age. What Urias doesn’t necessarily have is what we normally consider to go hand in hand with age, and that’s projection. Urias’ “flaw” isn’t really a “flaw”, it’s just a question about his development, if he isn’t going to get that much better, how will he fare once his talent level catches up to him?
And listen, this isn’t a bad thing. If Urias was 21 years old, he would still be a top pitching prospect in all of baseball, and likely still the top left handed pitching prospect. Two straight seasons of obscene strikeout numbers mixed in with stellar run prevention numbers are still exactly that, but to expect him to get that much better by adding 5 ticks on his fastball or increase velocity on his slider isn’t going to come through traditional means, it’s going to come via mechanical tweaks.
If the tommy john epidemic is to be believed, then a mechanical tweak to Urias is a scary proposition. Explaining the tommy john surgery epidemic is nearly impossible. I’m not claiming to know a cure, i’m not claiming that the stuff I present is foolproof. What I am claiming is based off of the content Chris O’Leary has presented, there’s a good argument that the idea of “showing the ball to center field”, or “arm drag”, or “power T” increases the chance of a pitcher having to undergo a significant arm surgery over the course of his career.
His rationale is simple: the greatest pitchers of all time look the exact same throwing the ball. Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux all look the exact same, they have their arm in the exact same position, ready to deliver the ball to home plate as soon as their front foot lands, transferring the weight from the lower body to the upper body. They incorporate their lower half just as efficiently as their upper body, and that ultimately leads to a more sustainable way of throwing a baseball at speeds of 90+ MPH.
Nowadays, O’Leary believes that pitching coaches are trying “tricks” and “shortcuts” to add velocity to a pitcher that are ultimately very risky to a pitcher’s health.
He points to Matt Harvey as a prime example of the “power T concept”. By making a T in the middle of the delivery (which demands the pitcher ‘showing the ball to center field’), a pitcher’s arm whips behind him and adds velocity in a quick way. This idea according to O’Leary adds velocity in the short term, but gives a pitcher significant risk going forward. He points to Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey as prime examples of guys who broke down. You can count the number of tommy john surgeries in the game, the entirety of the Tigers bullpen last season succumbed to the surgery, Chris Withrow, Chad Billingsley, both had the surgery, but one of my favorite examples of this idea is Justin Masterson
As a StL fan, fact that Cardinals didn’t see Masterson as a major long shot bet due to his arm action is troubling. pic.twitter.com/7dBAgBX7te
— Chris O’Leary (@thepainguy) December 11, 2014
His hand is faced directly at the Center Fielder, between the Second Baseman and the Short Stop as his front foot plants. What this ends up doing is troubling for the arm. The entire force that is created by a man well over 200 pounds delivering the baseball to the plate is transferred directly to the arm, and isn’t assisted by any other body part. Ryan, Seaver, Maddux incorporated more body parts at the moment the foot planted on the ground, they used the lower body, the core, and their exceptional arm strength to go on hall of fame type careers. I have the need to remind you that this is simply observational theory, looking at the mechanics that most injured pitchers have, looking at blatant overuse, looking at all of these factors brings us to a conclusion.
Whether that’s the theory that pitching is totally random and everybody gets injured, or whether that’s the theory that a pitcher not getting his arm up on time increases the likelihood of him suffering a significant arm injury at some point in his career. Justin Masterson hasn’t gotten injured yet, which is proof that this methodology can’t predict when a pitcher gets injured, it just dictates the likelihood. If the theory is too anecdotal for some, that’s fine, but to completely dismiss is a very counterproductive line of thought, this is a good article to start off with the theory, but all of the pitchers who undergo major surgeries have a lot in common. Matt Moore, Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, Chad Billingsley, Brandon Beachy, Martin Perez, Tyler Skaggs, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin have all had the dreaded UCL reconstruction procedure, they also have unique ways of throwing the baseball (power T, showing the ball to center field, timing problem as a result of the inverted W) that don’t allow them to get their arm up on time like some of the greatest pitchers of all time.
So what does this have to do with Julio Urias? Well Urias and 2014 Dodger first round pick Grant Holmes are similar in very different ways. One is a product of the American youth coaching system, the other is a 16 year old signee out of Mexico, one went to school in the states and was groomed to be a first round pick out of talent, the other one was “discovered” by a couple of dudes who were on a scouting trip for one of the best young OF’s in a generation, one’s right handed, the other’s left handed. But they both share the important things, highly regarded prospects in the Dodger system, who lack projectability.
If you’ve read a report on Holmes, it’s that he won’t get a whole lot better physically, but he probably won’t need to. He has a mid 90’s fastball with a power curveball reminiscent of Chad Billingsley. Many reports say that he doesn’t need to get better when he has “now stuff”. Sounds a bit like Urias, both of their bodies aren’t greatly athletic, so they have to be careful that they don’t become Bartolo Colon in terms of body structure. Point is they lack projectability, and that’s okay because they have plus stuff. Take a look at this vine that was posted from the Winter prospect developmental league
Grant Holmes does that little “show the ball to CF” trick. If he were on a mound tossing to the catcher, his hand would be pointed between 2b and SS. He probably is the best example of what the American coaching system is promoting nowadays. “Showing the ball to CF” even made it’s way to “million dollar arm”, the Disney movie adaptation about the very first professional Indian baseball players, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel. When they began their instruction from famed pitching coach, Tom House, he immediately shifts the hand from facing the corner infield, to the middle infield. Rinku Singh is the only pitcher of the duo still pitching professionally, he also missed the entirety of the 2014 with Tommy John surgery. Millions of kids are being taught similarly, as trip down O’Leary’s timeline illustrates this accurately.
I wouldn’t waste this amount of space for nothing, there’s a reason this is favorable for Urias’ development: he hasn’t dealt with U.S. coaches his entire life, his throwing motion is more likely to be natural, and less likely to pick up on the tricks that leave him prone to serious elbow surgeries. He should be pitching more, he’s pitched very little throughout his professional career, but not having to worry about overuse or fatal mechanical problems is a huge advantage Urias has.
I’m normally down on 18 year old pitching prospects, and i’m still down on his overall prospects to be as good as Cole Hamels, or even Hyun-Jin Ryu as an example. Urias probably wont get better from a physical standpoint, and if he adds 3-4 ticks on his heater, i’d be skeptical of how he did it. But Julio Urias carries immense positives, getting out of Hi-A with his prospect star still intact, having above average to plus stuff, having control of 3 pitches, not being subject to years of overuse and bad habits taught by American Coaches, not giving up dingers in the Valley of California, and yes him being 18 is still a net positive -even if I don’t believe it’s as much of a positive as people are selling it as-.
I’m not sure he’s a top 10 prospect at this point, i’d side with him being more of a top 30 prospect at this point. And there’s absolutely no shame in that, and honestly? Ron Shah thinks he was ready for the big leagues last September. Dustin Nosler will rank him at least 2nd in the entire system likely behind only Corey Seager when his rankings come out sometime this week, MLB.com has him as a top 10 prospect, Keith Law has him as a top 30 prospect, Chris Rodriguez formerly of baseball prospectus had him as the 2nd best pitching prospect in all of baseball things are looking up for the 18 year old phenom and i’m just some dude on the internet.
Pitchers break, and that statement alone might make this statement look foolish in the long run, but despite his young age, despite his lack of projectability, I don’t think there’s a pitching prospect in the minor leagues at this point that i’d take over him, that includes Lucas Giolito. Just don’t be surprised if the Julio Urias we see going forward is very similar to the Julio Urias we saw this past season. Luckily for the Dodgers, that’s more than enough for him to become a productive major league starter.