The Dodgers have used 15 starting pitchers this season, more than any other team in baseball. This is astonishing when you consider that the three teams who are in second place with 14 starters used (Braves, Reds, and Padres) are all bringing up the rear in their respective divisions. As opined upon in many preseason think pieces, the key to the construction of the 2016 Dodgers’ roster was depth. Since they’re currently sitting atop the NL West with a four-game lead over the Giants despite having lost 1,840 days to the disabled list, it appears that the strategy is working.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Dodgers’ season is that among the 15 starters the Dodgers have used, five have been rookies. Of those, none had generated more excitement than 19-year-old left-hander Julio Urias. He was signed by the Dodgers in 2012 out of Mexico just five days after turning 16. The following season he joined the Great Lakes Loons in Low-A and began his quick ascent up the ranks to the big leagues.
On May 27th, the Dodgers called up their wunderkind and gave him the ball against the Mets in Citi Field. He allowed three earned runs in 22⁄3 innings. In his second start against the Cubs in Wrigley Field, he allowed five earned runs in five innings. It was an inauspicious beginning to his career.
If Urias had continued to struggle, it would’ve been completely understandable. This is, after all, his age-19 season (Urias turned 20 on August 12th) and adjusting to major league hitters is difficult for any rookie let alone a teenager. What he has done instead is post a 2.97 ERA and a 2.49 FIP in the 60.2 innings since that rocky beginning. Let’s take a look at where his numbers now sit in comparison to the rest of the league.
|2016 League Average
With the important acknowledgment that it’s only been 68.1 innings, for a 20-year-old to be putting up numbers like these is incredibly impressive. The difference between the ERA and FIP is explained partly by the inflated BABIP, which will almost certainly come down over time. The strikeout rate is excellent, and the walk rate is only slightly above average. Harnessing command and control is the last piece of the puzzle for many pitchers, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that the walk rate will decrease with more experience.
To place this production into historical context, let’s take a look at the others who, in 50 innings or more, have produced a sub 3.50-FIP with a greater than 25 percent strikeout rate in their age-19 or younger season. It’s a short but prestigious list.
Of course this list used the arbitrary strikeout rate of 25 percent solely because Urias is just over that mark. There’s nothing scientific about it; it’s simply an effort to put what he’s done so far this year into perspective. Dwight Gooden’s 1984 season won him Rookie of the Year and saw him place second in Cy Young voting. Bob Feller? Well he’s just a Hall of Famer who owns a top-50 all time fWAR among pitchers throughout history, no big deal.
So how is he doing it? How is he holding his own at such a young age? Urias attacks hitters with a four-pitch arsenal. Most scouting reports from his time in the minors indicated that he was working with three plus pitches: a fastball, changeup, and curve. In the Dodgers’ organizational top 10 list for Baseball Prospectus, Christopher Crawford and the BP Prospect Staff had this to say about Urias’ stuff:
“Urias’ fastball isn’t double-plus because of velocity (90-94 while touching 97), but because of how much life the pitch has, and how much command Urias has with it. There are two plus off-speed pitches at his disposal, led by a curveball with stupid spin and break; he can drop it in for a strike or bury it down when ahead in the count. The only way you can tell the difference between his change and fastball is by looking at the radar gun, and the late fade makes it a third pitch that will cause hitters to reach for the Zantac.”
High praise for a 19-year-old.
Let’s see him in action. Here’s a 93-mph fastball up in the zone that got Cameron Rupp to chase and strike out.
Now here’s a 78-mph curveball on the outer half that fools reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper.
The repertoire is as good as advertised. Urias generally tries to stay up in the zone with his high-spin (2419 rpm) fastball, throwing it 57 percent of the time. With the curveball he is comfortable working backward and throwing it to hitters on the first pitch as he does 26 percent of the time to left-handers and 31 percent of the time to right-handers. In fact he’s uses the curve on the first pitch more often than he does otherwise, using it just 17 percent overall.
Somewhere along the line, Urias started to incorporate a slider into his pitch mix as well, and he’s throwing it with regularity, 14 percent of the time. The slider is the perfect complement to his changeup (13 percent overall) as he now has a pitch to throw low and away to hitters of either handedness. Check Urias’ zone profile from Brooks Baseball to see how he’s using each pitch. In succession you’ll see the fastball, curveball, changeup, and slider.
The Dodgers will probably move Urias to the bullpen at some point soon to manage his innings workload, but he’s provided them a ton of value this season, accruing 1.7 fWAR in just 68.1 innings. That ranks him third behind Clayton Kershaw and Kenta Maeda on the Dodgers’ starting staff.
At just 20 years old, Julio Urias is already starting to make major league hitters look silly and is showing why he was such a highly regarded prospect. The numbers he has put up in the majors this year are remarkable for his age. This is just the beginning, though. He still has plenty of room to grow — a thought that should terrify the rest of baseball.
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Chris Anders is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @MrChrisAnders.