In his first career Opening Day start, Julio Urías began the night facing the Diamondbacks’ Kyle Lewis. After getting ahead 0-2, Urías threw a wicked pitch at Lewis’ back foot, and he barely managed to foul it off to extend the at-bat:
After Lewis fouled off one of Urías’ signature slurves and took a fastball and another slurve for a ball, Urías went back to same pitch he threw on 0-2, perfectly executing it to notch his first strikeout of the season.
A left-handed pitcher throwing a hard slider or cutter at the back foot of a right-handed batter is nothing new for the Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw has been doing it for well over a decade), but these two pitches, and the seven more he threw over the rest of the outing, represent something new for Urías.
In late 2020 and early 2021, Urías famously blended his slider and curve together into a slurve, and that tweak to his arsenal was the key to breaking out into the upper echelon of National League starting pitchers. In 2021 and 2022, Urías was a three-pitch lefty like his teammate Kershaw, mixing just his fastball, change, and slurve to great effect. However, in his Opening Day start, he added a fourth pitch back into his mix. This new pitch for Urías looks like either a hard slider or a cutter (the nomenclature of which is always a bit fuzzy), and Urías confirmed that he calls it the latter after the game:
A pitcher revealing a new pitch this early in the season (particularly one they didn’t even throw in Spring Training) is always fun, since it gives something to talk about other than statistics which won’t stabilize for weeks or months. It is particularly interesting in Urías’ case, as this is a pivotal year of his career and there wasn’t much need for a significant retooling based on the results of the last two seasons. However, the context of how Urías used the cutter on Thursday night could reveal how he intends to use it to improve as a pitcher.
In Thursday’s outing, all nine of Urías’ cutters were thrown to right-handed batters. All nine pitches began with Will Smith asking for the ball down and in. Urías’ cutter does not really have a shape that a pitcher would want to use up and in on the hands (for example, the cutter Ross Stripling unearthed near the start of his Dodger career) — the shape is similar to his pre-breakout slider, but thrown 3 mph harder. That the cutter was thrown only to right-handed batters might just be a coincidence (perhaps the scouting report for Corbin Carroll and Jake McCarthy, the two lefties Urías faced that night, did not call for such a pitch), but it also could point to intent.
Since Urías merged his two breaking pitches, his platoon splits have been nearly neutral: slightly better against left-handed batters than right-handed, but a smaller difference than an average left-handed pitcher would see. That isn’t too surprising, since he relies so heavily on the change, which gives him an extra out pitch against right-handed batters. However, the slurve breaking so heavily inwards on right-handers makes its effectiveness waver at times, and those results showed up in last season’s numbers. In 2022, right-handed batters hit .231 and slugged .381 in plate appearances ending with a Urías curve, compared to just .117 and .283 for the same pitch against left-handed batters. Those results are still very good, but they were not in line with the results of his other pitches. Those swings by Lewis above (and the one below from later in the game) shows that perhaps the cutter could be used as a more effective way to put right-handed batters away, as the tighter break could make the pitch look like a strike (and like his fastball) for longer. He had the element of surprise on Thursday that won’t exist going forward, but it’s an interesting idea in theory.
The lack of cutters to left-handed batters was also interesting. Urías’ slurve is much more effective against them, but his change is also much less-used. Urías is unlike many pitchers in that he does not completely refuse to throw his change to same-sided batters, but his fastball and slurve accounted for 94% of his pitches to fellow lefties last season. An extra pitch could provide some variety and keep left-handed batters more off-balance.
One additional interesting aspect of Urías’ new cutter is the spin rate — the nine cutters he threw on Thursday averaged 2708 RPM. The sample is too small to draw any substantive conclusions, but comparing it to last season’s spin rates for other pitchers is interesting if a bit flawed (ball differences and StatCast calibration differences being two issues worth mentioning). 188 pitchers threw at least 250 cutters in 2022, and Urías’ average cutter spin of 2708 RPM would have been the fourth-highest among them. Since the shape of Urías’ cutter is similar to other pitcher’s sliders, it’s worth looking there too, and while there are more sliders with higher spin out there, his new pitch would have ranked in the 93rd percentile there as well.
Urías has always known how to spin the ball — his fastball lost very little spin during the foreign substance crackdown in 2021 and has ranked among the highest among southpaw starters since — but it’s interesting to see that skill transfer so cleanly to a new pitch as well.
Ultimately, it’s too early to tell what adding a cutter will mean for Urías’ 2023 season. It’s too early to even tell if he’ll keep throwing it. For all we know, this could be similar to the biennial Clayton Kershaw Change Watch. However, like with Kershaw’s change, it is always entertaining to watch the game’s best try to get even better, rather than simply being content with sticking with how they got there.
At any rate, “here’s a new thing that’s interesting that everybody can watch for” is about as substantive as baseball analysis can be this early in the season.