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Julio Urias, Eraser of Runners

The Dodgers’ young flamethrower is a pickoff master

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Julio Urias, the Dodgers rookie who turned 20 so recently that his Twitter handle hasn’t caught up, has stuff to spare. Because we can’t compress a season’s worth of watching into one sentence, here are some stats: Among lefties who’ve thrown at least 500 pitches in 2016, Urias’s combined four-seam fastball, curveball, and slider spin rate ranks in the 90th percentile; few fastballs have as much vertical movement, and few curveballs move more side to side. The speed gap between his fastball and changeup (almost 13 mph) is the fifth largest among lefties. Better yet, batters haven’t hit him hard: Among the hundreds of pitchers who’ve thrown at least 750 pitches this season, Urias’s average exit speed sits in the 89th percentile.

Oh, and also: He gets guys out. In 64.1 innings since his shaky first two starts in the majors, Urias has struck out almost 10 batters per nine innings and recorded a 2.80 ERA with a 2.64 FIP. The Dodgers are 9–3 in games he’s started over that span. Those would be notable numbers even if Urias hadn’t been born almost a year and a half later than the next-youngest MLB arm.

Given Urias’s age and inexperience, no one would be surprised if there were still some small holes in his game. We would understand if, for instance, a pitcher with a preternaturally polished repertoire who blew through the minors without allowing a lot of runners hadn’t yet learned to police them that well. Urias is so skilled that we’d assume he doesn’t have to be sneaky.

Which takes us to what might be the most unfair thing about Urias: On top of everything else, he leads the league in pickoffs. Last week, Urias — who’s totaled only 72 innings in the majors — notched his sixth big league pickoff of 2016. No other pitcher has five. Urias had five pickoffs this season in Triple-A alone, despite allowing only 40 combined hits, walks, and hit by pitches in 45 frames. And according to data from Baseball Prospectus, he’d also displayed his talent for pickoffs during his first three professional seasons, accumulating at least 16 pickoffs in a combined 222.1 innings across five minor leagues levels from 2013 to 2015.

Urias succeeds so often in part because he throws over regularly: Out of 177 pitchers who’ve allowed at least 50 stolen-base opportunities in 2016, Urias has the 20th-highest pickoff-attempt rate. On the other hand, he doesn’t throw over especially hard. According to Cory Schwartz, the VP of stats for MLB Advanced Media, MLBAM’s Statcast system can be “hit-and-miss on pickoff throws since they are generally parallel to the surface of the radar, which makes them much harder to track.” Even so, Statcast has saved throw speeds for several thousand pickoff attempts this year, ranging from a 50.7 mph toss by Yu Darvish to an 85.1 mph bullet by Austin Brice. (Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez owns seven of the top 20 tracked times.) The average speed of a tracked pickoff throw is 68.6 mph; the average speed of the 12 tracked throws by Urias is 66.6 mph. Nor does Urias stand out in the degree to which he varies his times between pitches, a common way to keep baserunners off balance. Cubs starter Jon Lester, who famously lacks a pickoff move, has varied his times between pitches with men on more than any of the other 148 pitchers who’ve thrown at least 500 pitches with runners on base. Urias ranks only 65th on that list.

So if Urias doesn’t throw over at a league-leading rate, throw over faster than average, or time his pitches in a particularly unpredictable way, why do runners keep falling for his move?

“Which one?” asks Dodgers first baseman Adrián González. “He’s got like four.”

Four pitches, four pickoff moves; just as a wide array of offerings helps Urias conceal which pitch is coming, a variety of moves helps him disguise the difference between his deliveries and his pickoff attempts. “Sometimes guys have one really good move, and there’s a little bit of a difference from the move to the way that they go to the plate,” González says. “But he’s got four really good ones.”

When Urias is pitching, González has to act like a runner and stay on the bag until he’s sure the lefty is throwing home. “He can kind of do a little bit of everything,” González says. “The snap one, he’s got the quick pick, he’s got the slow-up and read, and then he’s got just his normal, I’m just gonna pick over. They’re all good, they’re all above average, they’re all deceptive. So he just keeps the runners guessing. They don’t know which one he’s going to do.”

González is forewarned about which type to expect because he plays a part in the planning. “It’s a feel thing,” González says. “You see how the guy takes a lead, and you either go talk to [Urias] about it, or just kind of give signs.” The standard stride-and-throw, which Urias speeds up and slows down depending on the runner and the length of the lead, has claimed most of his victims.

But his sixth pick, which caught Starlin Castro, came on the snap, a backward-stepping, sidearm release that required a replay review to reveal an in-time tag.

“The one I used [against Castro] I just started developing in 2014, and [Dodgers pitching coach] Rick Honeycutt helped me when I came up to spring training last year,” Urias says through a translator. “Rick helped explain to me how to perfect it, how to make it better. I would always just kind of do it wildly.”

Urias now has enough feel for the short-arm release to toggle between the snap and the step on back-to-back attempts, as he did to nail Milwaukee’s Jonathan Villar, who was saved by a replay after his first close call.

Not every variant has resulted in a pickoff, but even Urias’s unsuccessful attempts contribute to his opponents’ uncertainty. “It’s hard for the guys to get any kind of a good lead so they can get a secondary or even try to steal,” González says.

Lest you forget how young Urias is, he cites Nationals righty Yusmeiro Petit — an old man of 31 — as a veteran whose move he made note of when he was working on his own. “I knew Petit had a really good pickoff move, but there wasn’t really anyone that I used as an example,” Urias says.

The easy comp, of course, is not Petit but Andy Pettitte. Like the all-time pickoff king, Urias’s deceptive default stride tests the rule book’s contention that the pitcher must “step directly” toward the base before throwing, but the wording is vague enough to allow a little leeway, and the precedents are set.

“They always try to get the umpires to call it a balk, but it’s not a balk,” González says. “None of them are balks. Runners are always going to complain about good moves.”

Pickoffs aren’t unimportant, but they’re a complementary piece of Urias’s success. (The rookie, who’s allowed six steals on nine attempts in the majors, is one of 20 pitchers tied for second in the majors with two stolen base runs saved, although that doesn’t account for how his knack for limiting lead length hampers runners’ odds of advancing in other ways.) Lester, after all, is a valuable pitcher despite never attempting pickoffs. Even if they’re worth only a few runs on their own, though, they’re representative of Urias’s all-around refinement — an indicator of his desire to be better, and another way in which the young pitcher is already precociously complete.

As FanGraphs’ August Fagerstrom pointed out last week, Urias’s 2016 pickoff rate so far would set a single-season record if you combined his MLB and Triple-A totals. In that sense, Fagerstrom noted, Urias is challenging Clayton Kershaw, who in similarly unfair fashion is also a pickoff adept. Kershaw’s tally leads the big leagues by a large margin over the last several seasons, despite his 0.95 WHIP over that period.

The question, then, is how close Urias can come to keeping up the pace. Video and detailed data are available for most minor league levels, so big leaguers’ blind spots about recently promoted players probably aren’t as big as they once were. Urias’s newness can’t have hurt him; even González acknowledges that “the fact that not a lot of people have seen him is helping him out.” But Urias, who’ll probably pitch out of the bullpen for the rest of 2016 to limit his workload, isn’t worried that his pickoff powers will wear off. “I think it will keep working, because the runner’s always trying to advance,” Urias says. “That’s why we have the pickoff move.”

Thanks to Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus and Daren Willman of MLBAM for research assistance.