Balancing the future of young pitchers’ arms is an expedition that no major league team seems to have mastered, including the Dodgers. From pitch counts to inning limits to upper management watching bullpens, teams go to great lengths to monitor their young gunslingers.
For the Dodgers, no arm is closely watched as Julio Urias, the 20-year-old phenom that has made his presence felt in his three starts at the big league level so far this year. For as good as he has been, there is still a road ahead for the young man, and he will certainly have to continue to adjust to stay on top of big league hitters.
One issue that relates to everything mentioned above his the number of walks he has allowed thus far this year in both AAA and the highest level. His BB/9 (Walks per nine innings) with the Dodgers currently sits at 5.5 and while at Oklahoma City it was 5.8. These are about two walks higher than a pitcher would want to be and will have an effect on how long he will be allowed to throw this season.
So the question going forward is how big of an issue will this be? This will unfold over time, but for now, we can put some perspective on it.
Urias has been touted as the next in a long line of electric left-handed pitchers to wear the Dodgers uniform. Clayton Kershaw, Fernando Valenzuela, and Sandy Koufax have cemented their legacy in LA. A big reason why they have was their ability to throw strikes with all of their pitches consistently.
Kershaw started his career with a BB/9 at 4.2 over his first three major league seasons. His innings limitations are the most similar to what Urias has pitched with – mainly because the other two didn’t play in an era of pitch counts – but he is also the best example of learning to limit pitches thrown and walks. Kershaw now has had one of the lowest walk rates in the entire league over the last few seasons, allowing only 60 free passes over the last two plus years.
A big part of this was his control improving for each pitch, it allowed him to put batters away sooner, thus keeping his pitch count lower. A lot of people say Urias already has better overall control of each of his pitches at this point in their careers, which is good news going forward as he develops this same trait.
For Koufax and Valenzuela, they each threw in a time when less emphasis was put on arm care, and both had seasons with 20 or more complete games, Sandy with three. Koufax started his career walking more than Urias, averaging 5.3 BB/9 over his first four seasons. It wasn’t until his sixth season where that number would dip below four, but it would never come back above.
Valenzuela started his career at a record pace, walking very few, but that averaged out as his career went along and hitters figured out his breaking pitches, and velocity dipped. With close to 3,000 career innings, that is not surprising.
So, for the three other lefty Dodgers’ greats, they began in different ways in regards to walks, and they all managed to have great careers. If Urias pans out to be as good, his career numbers in that category should do the same.
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So far this season, Urias has thrown 55.3 percent fastballs, nearly the same to where he was the year before, according to Fangraphs.com. But for his off speed, his changeup has been his most used pitch in 2017. While last year, all three of his other pitches each got used close to 15% of the time, this year the change up has been used on nearly 30% of all pitches. The slider and curve now only account for 16.5% of the pitches.
What this tells me is that Urias really feels comfortable with this pitch, which is great because it is a plus offering, but hitters are picking up this trend too. The change up is most effective when used off the fastball, setting up the change of speed. Unless it is truly special – think Maddux-esque – major league hitters will eventually pick up the spin and lay off the pitch. Urias’ may get a pitch there one day, but currently, he doesn’t.
When looking at individual pitch value, basically measuring the effectiveness of each pitch, all four of Urias’ pitches have had positive outcomes so far this year. His slider and curve were negative last year, so it could be argued that their decreased usage has been better for Urias. But to be a dominant starting pitcher, all four of those pitches will have to be able to be utilized to their max potential.
For a final advanced statistic, look at his rate for BABIP (batting average on balls in play). For Urias, opponents are hitting .196 on balls in play, only strengthening the need for him to continue to throw strikes. It’s clear that the more he attacks hitters, the more success he will have because when he throws quality strikes, his stuff is too good.
There is no doubt that the native of Culiacan, Mexico can get his walk numbers down, and that will take a variety of things from working on repeating mechanics to fully growing into his body and filling out his frame.
Urias has a chance to be the next great pitcher to toe the rubber at Chavez Ravine, but he will have to be a more efficient pitcher to do so. Command issues in young pitchers are about as common as sunflower seeds and grass stains, so there is no need to worry. This issue is one that can be fixed, and all signs point to that happening sometime down the road.
All stats via baseballreference.com and fangraphs.com as of 5-11-17 at 5:00 a.m. PST.