For the most part, Major League Baseball is a meritocracy. Sure, teams might hold a player down a couple of months to maximize their value to the club, but clubs generally want the best players on the field.
Julio Urias is the youngest pitcher to start in the only era that really matters: the PITCHF/x era. He's also the only teenager. However, focusing on the fact that his age begins with a one limits the comparison to other pitchers that debuted at nearly the same age. Madison Bumgarner was a mere 114 days older when he got the September callup to pitch against the Padres in 2009, and was actually younger than Urias relative to the average age of the league. Clayton Kershaw was just 143 days older than Urias when he debuted with the Dodgers in May 2009. Jose Fernandez was also less than a year older (326 days) when he made his controversial debut with Miami in 2013.
Before Urias, all of 12 pitchers had appeared in the big leagues before they could drink in states where the drinking age is 21. Of those, only seven made their first debut as a starter. What all of those pitchers have in common is top prospect status. Each were in the rarefied air of the Baseball America Top 50 the offseason before they debuted, and four were inside the top 10, the precipice on which Urias perched this offseason. Of the group, only Madison Bumgarner was a September callup, while Fernandez and Porcello started the season with the big club.
|Player||Age (Years.Days)||Age Difference||Date||BA Rank|
Since his professional debut at 16 years old, the Dodgers have been cautious with Urias's workload, but his time in the minor leagues has not been strikingly different from the rest of the group. He's seen more than the average/median number of minor league innings (~240 IP), but spread out over four seasons rather than the typical 2-3. He looked to be on the Teheran plan entering his fourth minor league season, but elective eye surgery prevented him from reaching the 142.2 IP the other Julio put up in his final full minor league season. And if you thought the Marlins were hasty in having Fernandez break camp with the squad in 2013 with just 138.1 professional innings of experience, he has 10% more professional experience than Rick Porcello had in 2010. While he may not achieve workhorse status as quickly as Bumgarner, Kershaw, or Teheran, he's got reps at the minor league level that agree that he earned his start.
|Player||Minor league innings before debut||Minor league seasons|
A strike against Urias is his debut performance. Teheran had the second-shortest debut if you measure by innings, and even he logged two more than Urias, who couldn't escape the third. If you look at his outing outside of defense and context, Urias wasn't awful. Where Teheran only struck out one batter while giving up four hits, including a home run, and walked two, Urias walked four, which is way too many, but he also avoided the long ball on his five hits and struck out three. His FIP- for the game was 34% above average (excruciatingly small sample size alert), but it wasn't as bad as Bumgarner (2HR, 4K, 1BB), or Porcello (2HR, 4K, 1BB) in their debuts. However, due to his early exit, his Game Score (Version 2.0) is the lowest of the group.
Game Score (2.0)
But does the first start really matter? Unless you do something to damage your long-term health, like blow out your shoulder, probably not. Sure, it would have been a lot harder to send Urias back down after a single start, but the Dodgers have an example of these types of early struggles in the very same clubhouse.
Before he turned 21, Kershaw had four starts with a Game Score (Version 2.0) of 30 or worse. In just his second game, Kershaw had a 3.2 inning stinker (also against the Mets) where he put up a 28 with a FIP- of 208. He also put up back-to-back starts of worse than 30 to end August that season, and he still made five starts in September for a team that was in the hunt for a division title, which they won. Bad games don't only happen to youthful pitchers who go on to be great, they also happen to the current greats, too. This season, at 26, Madison Bumgarner put up an even worse start than Urias's debut on April 15 against the Dodgers, posting a GSv2 of 24, and that was only two games after his debut against the Brewers where he posted a 33.
Looking at the names of the players who debuted at an age close to Urias, you have the best pitcher in the major leagues for the past 6 seasons, two unequivocal aces in Bumgarner and Fernandez, and two above-average starters in Teheran and Porcello. Only Jordan Lyles and Jacob Turner wound up being busts, but even Lyles has had five starts with the Rockies this season while Turner is trying to work his way back to the majors after last appearing for the Cubs in 2014.
So what does the future have in store for Urias? Obviously, no one knows, but simply by virtue of starting in his first appearance, and doing it so young, his future seems bright. It seems so bright, in fact, that he might want to wear shades.
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Matt Jackson is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score and a staff writer for Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacksontaigu.