What’s the minimum age for a player to achieve “saga” status? A saga is defined as, “a long, involved story, account, or series of incidents.” Going by this, Urias definitely qualifies, despite just turning 22 last month.
The short version of Urias’ story goes like this: he was as promising a left-handed pitching prospect as there’s ever been. In 2015, he posted a 2.59 FIP and 4.93 strikeout-to-walk ratio in Double-A. That’s outstanding at any age, but considering that Urias was just 18-years-old, it was enough to set the prospect world on fire.
Prior to 2016, he was ranked between #4-6 in all of baseball by every major scouting service. He didn’t disappoint, putting up a 1.40 RA9 and 2.72 FIP in Triple-A against competition that was nearly eight years older than him on average. The Dodgers called him up in late May, and he accumulated 1.8 fWAR on the back of a 3.17 FIP over 77 innings. He was still only 19, and he was the greatest teenage pitching phenom since Felix Hernandez.
That was two years ago. Clearly, he hasn’t blossomed into an ace. In fact, he’s barely pitched at all. While playing in Triple-A in June 2017, he tore his left anterior capsule, which is some kind of shoulder thing (medically speaking). He had surgery a few days later, then disappeared to the nether realm of the minor league disabled list where he remained for more than a year.
He made his first rehab appearance on July 30th of this year. Over the next six weeks or so, he threw 11 2⁄3 innings at various minor league outposts. He allowed seven runs on three homers, but he also struck out 19 of the 51 batters he faced. He reemerged with the Dodgers on September 15 and has thrown three major league innings, striking out five and yielding just one baserunner.
Having been through such incredible peaks and valleys, it’s worth repeating that he only just turned 22! There’s really no precedent for what Julio Urias has been through at such a young age. He’s a trailblazer for sure, just not in the way he intended, so what does he mean to the Dodgers’ present and future?
When Urias made his first rehab appearance in the Arizona Rookie League, the scouts predictably flocked like pigeons to breadcrumbs. Most came away underwhelmed. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen reported his fastball sitting in the 88-91 MPH range.
It turns out Urias was just shaking off the rust. Take a look at this beautiful 97 mph bullet in his September 23rd outing against the Padres, who are sort of a major league team:
Julio Urías, Painted 97mph Fastball. ️ ️ pic.twitter.com/Y75Ppwt4AP— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 24, 2018
Apparently, he can still crank up the heat when he needs to. His four-seam fastball averages 93.06 mph, which is right in line with his pre-injury velocity. In fact, the velocity on all his pitches has returned to normal levels.
However, this doesn’t mean he’s completely back to normal. He’s pitching out of the bullpen these days, not starting. In a vacuum, we expect starting pitchers to get a velocity boost when they throw shorter outings, but perhaps this is excused because of his injury and rehab. What’s a little more concerning is that the horizontal and vertical movement on his pitches isn’t quite what it used to be.
It’s very much worth remembering that he’s only thrown 41 major league pitches since returning from major shoulder surgery, so take the above graphs with the world’s largest grain of salt (tangentially, how big can salt get?). It’s entirely possible that as he throws more and becomes further removed from his injury, he will regain even more velocity and movement. Obviously, he’s made a ton of progress in the month-and-a-half since Longenhagen scouted him.
Finding a Role
The ideal scenario for a pitcher to rehabilitate at the major league level would be sometime around mid-season, preferably for a team that’s out of contention. Urias’ Dodgers are in a dogfight with the Rockies, Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals for three playoff spots, and there’s just a few games remaining. While they’re thrilled to have their lefty wunderkind back on the mound, they can’t afford to use him unless he can help them advance.
Urias has thrown 14 2⁄3 innings in ten appearances across all levels this season. His only possible role for the 2018 Dodgers is in relief. Maybe he makes the playoff roster, and maybe he doesn’t (assuming they make the playoffs at all). They already have two proven lefty relievers— Scott Alexander and Caleb Ferguson— and a third might be unnecessary.
Furthermore, the Dodgers have four lefty starting pitchers, and while Clayton Kershaw is a lock for the playoff rotation, it’s unlikely that Alex Wood, Rich Hill, and Hyun-Jin Ryu all earn starting jobs. At least one of them will probably relieve in October, making Urias no better than the fourth lefty relief option. It’s possible they like his stuff enough that he bumps someone else out of a job, but he probably gets squeezed out.
Looking towards 2019, the Dodgers will undoubtedly make a starter out of Urias once again. However, they will have to be extraordinarily careful. The most innings he ever threw in a season was 122 in 2016, and he’s only thrown 59 2⁄3 combined over the last two years. It’s relatively normal for 22-year-old pitchers to have innings limits, but that’s usually because they’re in the low minors or just coming out of college. The Dodgers probably don’t even have a set innings limit in mind just yet, but it’s hard to conjecture him going too far past 100.
There’s really two ways to look at Urias. Optimists would choose to view him as a 22-year-old super-prospect who reaches the high 90s as a southpaw and blazed through the minors as a teenager. Pessimists can consider him damaged goods with a scary shoulder injury in his recent past. It’s easy to envision a career path that looks similar to Clayton Kershaw’s, but just as easy for him to become the next Matt Moore or even Brien Taylor (heaven forbid). His range of possibilities is far wider than your average prospect, and time will tell which path he forges.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983