It has been six years since Julio Urias debuted for the Dodgers as a 19-year-old. In that time, he has been brought along slowly, suffered a major shoulder injury and pitched in some big postseason games.
So far in 2021, Urias has been one of the best pitchers in baseball and the kid gloves are finally off — he’s averaging more than 6 innings per start, which is almost unheard of these days. He’s missing more bats than he ever has, getting hitters to chase more than he ever has and has, easily, the best first-pitch strike percentage in the game. You might think it’s because of his fastball, but it’s his two best offspeed pitches that are doing the heavy lifting.
According to FanGraphs’ pitch value statistic, his curveball has been 6.7 runs above average — best in the game. Only Lance McCullers (6.6) challenges Urias for best curveball in 2021. Before 2020, it had been a negative run value pitch, and it’s still just 2.7 runs above average for his career. But he made changes to his curveball that were highlighted in Spring Training and something Max noted earlier this month on Twitter.
He’s throwing it more this season (almost 32 percent), and while he throws it more to righties than lefties by almost a 2:1 spread, he allows just a .176 wOBA on it to righties. Overall, he has just a .152 wOBA on it this season.
When he debuted in 2016, his curveball had a 2,654 RPM spin rate. So far this season, it’s 2,911 RPM. He’s also averaging 81.7 MPH on it, which should be expected with the increased spin rate.
But not only is his curveball doing great things, his changeup has taken a step forward.
His 5.1 RAA mark from FanGraphs is 4th-best in the majors this season behind John Means (10.6), Gerrit Cole (8.9) and Ian Anderson (5.7). That’s some pretty good company. What’s interesting and, somewhat expected, is that he’s thrown just one changeup to a left-handed hitter this season, as well as one last season in almost the same number of offerings. It’s strictly a weapon against right-handed hitters, and they aren’t hitting it. Righties are hitting just .098 with a .096 wOBA this season. That’s a marked improvement from 2020, when righties hit .316 with a .289 wOBA on the pitch.
With the trend of decreasing fastball usage over the last six years, Urias fits right it. It isn’t dissimilar to what Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Bauer have done, but it isn’t as extreme as Kershaw’s 37.8% fastball usage this season. Urias is still throwing it 50 percent of the time. But when you own two Top-4 pitches in the game, it’s hard not to use them. If he can figure out how to get his fastball back to 2019 levels of good, he might end up being the ace of the staff.