Julio Urias Is Coming for One of Kershaw’s Titles

All things considered, Julio Urias is having an extraordinary rookie year. In his age-19 season, Urias has struck out a quarter of all the batters he’s faced in 72 innings. He’s got a 3.50 ERA and a 3.25 FIP, and the list of starting pitchers, age 20 or younger, with better adjusted ERAs and FIPs over the last 50 years runs just six deep. ZiPS already sees Urias as being the near-equal of Cy Young candidate Masahiro Tanaka, and Steamer thinks even more highly of the Dodgers’ young phenom. Already, Urias has put himself on the map as one of baseball’s best young pitchers. And already, Urias is coming after one of teammate Clayton Kershaw’s crowns.

Kershaw wears plenty of crowns. You know about the big ones. Among the lesser-known ones: since he’s entered the league, Kershaw’s been baseball’s Pickoff King. Dating back to his debut in 2008, Kershaw has picked off 57 base-runners. Next-most is the probably-retired Mark Buehrle, with 49. After that? James Shields, with just 29. In other words, among active pitchers, Kershaw, as is the case with so many other pitching traits, stands completely alone when it comes to the art of the pickoff.

Or course, Kershaw’s also thrown more innings (and allowed fewer base-runners per inning) than most any other pitcher during that period, so perhaps it would be more instructive to rank baseball’s best pickoff artists by percentage of base-runners picked off, rather than total pickoffs.

Pickoff%, 2008-16, min. 500 innings pitched

  1. Clayton Kershaw, 3.3%
  2. Danny Duffy, 2.8%
  3. Bruce Chen, 2.8%
  4. Julio Teheran, 2.6%
  5. Drew Smyly, 2.5%

So, yeah, it’s still Kershaw, and it’s still Kershaw by a mile. It’s clear: Clayton Kershaw is baseball’s reigning Pickoff King. Except lately, a challenger has emerged. And that challenger plays on Kershaw’s team, and that challenger just turned 20 years old.

Julio Urias picked off his sixth base runner of the season on Tuesday night. His six pickoffs lead all pitchers in the major leagues this season. Urias has pitched 72 innings. No one else in the majors has even five pickoffs. Urias picked off a base-runner in four consecutive starts back in June. To really drive that point home: in a four-start stretch, Urias picked off as many base-runners as any other pitcher has all year.

You know how Kershaw leads all of baseball over the last eight years by picking off 3.3% of his base-runners, and how that number is substantially larger than anyone else’s? Urias has allowed 105 base-runners, and he’s picked off six of them. That’s a rate of 5.7%. He’s nearly doubled down on the rates posted by the game’s truly elite pickoff artists.

And, of course, Urias has a tiny, tiny sample, and Kershaw’s thrown more than 1,700 innings in his career, so there’s a lot more signal in Kershaw’s pickoff rate than Urias’. But, get this. Urias threw 45 innings in Triple-A this season, and in a four-start stretch in May, he had five more pickoffs. Minor-league data is spotty, and so far as I can tell, nobody tracks minor-league pickoffs. But we can say for sure that Urias has at least 11 pickoffs this season, in just 117 innings, with just 143 base-runners. Minor-league base-runners are probably somewhat more prone to being picked off than their major-league counterparts, but my gut tells me the deviation in true-talent level of “not getting picked off” between Triple-A players and big leaguers is relatively inconsequential.

So, we see Urias’ crazy major-league pickoff rate against Kershaw and the rest of the league since 2008, and we see that Urias’ crazy major-league pickoff rate gets even crazier when you combine this year’s minor-league numbers. We already addressed the sample-size concerns, so to account for that, I wanted to gain some single-season context. In doing so, I turned to Baseball-Reference’s Play Index. Using the Play Index, I grabbed every pitcher in the expansion era, dating back to 1961, with at least five pickoffs in a season, and I calculated their pickoff rate, with total base-runners as the denominator.

The all-time expansion-era single-season pickoff rate leaderboard:

Single-Season Pickoff%, 1961-Present
Player Year IP PO BR Pickoff%
Julio Urias 2016 117.0 11* 143 7.7%
Jerry Garvin 1977 244.2 23 308 7.5%
Steve Avery 1995 173.1 13 205 6.3%
Steve Carlton 1977 283.0 19 302 6.3%
Greg Smith 2008 190.1 15 243 6.2%
Jack Sanford 1966 108.0 8 134 6.0%
Steve Carlton 1978 247.1 16 271 5.9%
John Martin 1981 102.2 6 103 5.8%
Mark Guthrie 1990 144.2 11 189 5.8%
Tony Cingrani 2013 104.2 6 104 5.8%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
PO: Pickoffs
BR: Base-runners
*Unofficial total, split between MLB and Triple-A

Jerry Garvin had an absolutely insane pickoff season in 1977. His 23 pickoffs that year are an expansion-era record by raw total, and also by a staggering margin on a rate basis. And yet, between Triple-A and the majors this season, Urias has Garvin beat. Urias’ combined numbers, of course, won’t go down in the record books, but even now his major-league pickoff rate of 5.7% falls just outside the top 10 of a leaderboard that dates back more than 50 years.

Urias has more than one pickoff move. The one that nabbed Starlin Castro in New York on Monday was a lightning-fast, side-arm move, thrown off the back foot:

The more common move is a more traditional, leg-lift style pickoff move that invokes memories of Andy Pettitte:

Watching Urias’ move, what strikes me is the speed of the arm action. It’s immediately obvious in the first clip. But even with the leg lift, notice how compact Urias keeps him arm, and how quickly he’s able to get the ball out of his hand from the moment he commits toward first base.

And, about that committal:

This is where we really see shades of Pettitte, in the way Urias creates deception with his back leg by having his momentum begin ever-so-slightly toward home before taking the 45-degree step toward first base. And while opposing players and coaches will surely begin crying balk over this, as they did against Pettitte throughout most of his career, Rule 5.07(d) of the MLB Rulebook states a pitcher “may throw to any base provided he steps directly toward such base before making the throw.” The subjectivity of the word “directly” perhaps leaves the above move in a bit of a gray area, but the step is certainly more toward first than it is home, and the tip of Urias’ foot is pointed directly at the bag, so he ought to be in the clear.

So long as Clayton Kershaw’s still around, Julio Urias is going to have a hard time getting past playing second fiddle, let alone achieving the title of baseball’s Pitcher King. But, at in his age-19 season, Urias may already be moving in on Kershaw’s status as baseball’s Pickoff King. Beyond that, anything is possible, I suppose. He’s got all the time in the world.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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7 years ago

That’s awesome. And tons of lefties still do that 2nd move, right? As a Phillies fan the guy I most think of is Cole Hamels. I’ve never seen him called for a balk on it.

But he doesn’t have that ridiculously short arm motion and speed.

7 years ago

yeah in slow motion that last play looks like a balk to me(dodger fan if it matters). wonder how much more deceptive it would look in real time. my guess is the faster motion makes it harder to pick up the nuance of his momentum towards home that you pointed out.

7 years ago
Reply to  tommylasagna

What I saw with Pettite was that he was okay as long as he stepped towards first. That will likely be true for Urias as well.

7 years ago

Certainly looked like the Reds player saw him lean home. At the same instant you see Julio lean home (ever so slightly) the baserunner leans to 2nd with the upper half of his body.