Urias and De Leon Look Close to the Big Leagues

Heading into the season, there were a lot of question marks about the Dodgers rotation, but so far, the team’s struggling offense and bullpen have received a big boost from a pitching staff led by Clayton Kershaw and Kenta Maeda; their starters currently rank fifth in WAR. Ross Stripling has been a nice early surprise for the team, and while Alex Wood’s ERA remains too high, his underlying metrics suggest that he still can help the team. Scott Kazmir’s struggles are perhaps most worrisome, but if he can stop giving up home runs, he should be serviceable as well.

And if any of the big leaguers falter, there is help on the way. In the minors, Jose De Leon made his first start of the 2016 season on Tuesday, the delay being partly due to a minor ankle injury and also the product of an effort to keep his innings low in the early going. When de Leon’s debut came the day before Julio Urias’ most recent start, I decided to watch both via MILB.tv.

In his first start of the year, De Leon was feast or famine with his location, commanding his fastball very well on half its appearances and completely losing it the other half. He found his way to a lot of 3-2 counts, particularly in the first three innings of the game. He threw just enough strikes to force the New Orleans Zephyrs’ lineup to swing the bat, but he was on point with his stellar changeup to finish them off. If De Leon threw around 20 changeups in his start, all but one or perhaps two of them were well executed with excellent fade.

Video courtesy of Minor League Baseball

I wondered, for the first inning or so, if the Zephyrs hitters could have been more aggressive on the fastballs De Leon was putting in the zone — that is, until actually seeing the kind of swings they were able to take on the offering. He showed great life on the pitch, and though he had trouble consistently spotting the ball, very few ended up in the middle of the plate. He threw a few breaking balls for strikes, with a slower curveball serving as a change-of-pace pitch he could drop into the zone. He flashed an average slider on a couple of occasions as well.

His changeup was easily the most unsettling pitch for the opposing lineup to handle. He threw enough fastballs on the edges of the zone that they couldn’t wait for a mistake pitch, and the change looked exactly like his fastball coming out of the hand. By the time hitters were committing to swing, it was diving down out of the zone with some arm-side run. Neither righties nor lefties could do any damage on the pitch, and none could keep from swinging at it in two-strike counts.

The most promising part of his performance was how well he adjusted his timing and delivery by the last two innings. His struggles seemed more to do with needing to find a groove with his tempo rather than a real lack of feel for his command. The total stat line was excellent, but I was more enthused by the flashes of fastball command that look to be more consistent in the future. Given that this was his first official start after being in extended spring training for a month, the rustiness was somewhat to be expected.

I came away from his start more confident in De Leon ending up in a big-league rotation than when I wrote him up for the Dodgers’ prospect report. I graded out his command at 45/55/55+ based on his work prior to this year, and I think that still holds up based on his first start back. His feel for throwing strikes with everything but his fastball, and the real command he showed when he had his delivery going, make me confident he will have above-average command when all is said and done.

His changeup deserves to be highlighted for its present excellence and future potential. I see it as a better than plus pitch already, one that enabled him to excel against a Zephyrs team which, for what it lacked in star power, made up for it with quality veteran minor-league hitters. Though his curveball might not be better than average and his slider may not be much better, his fastball and changeup are still enough to make him a #3 starter in the future. A top-of-the-rotation role is in the cards if his slider can play at the plus level it has shown at times in the past year.

As for his more hyped teammate, Urias finished the month of April having given up only 14 hits and three walks in 18 innings, punching out 23 batters along the way. In big-league camp this spring, he looked his age a bit against major-league hitters, often overthrowing and letting a few innings get away from him. Since then, he has the look of a seasoned veteran on a token rehab assignment rather than a 19-year-old who is facing competition eight years older than him on average. His start this week may have been his best yet, going perfect except for one reached-on-error in the fifth inning. He still faced the minimum, however, picking off the next base-runner who himself had grounded into a fielder’s choice.

Video courtesy of Minor League Baseball

Urias was completely in control of the game right from the start. Not only was his fastball tough to hit because of good velocity and some life, he spotted it with amazing consistency that even some established big-league starters can only dream about. He lived on the outside corner against a predominantly right-handed lineup, impressively commanding his fastball down in the zone on his arm side. He masterfully mixed in enough inside fastballs that they couldn’t sit on location, and all three of his offspeed pitches flashed their ceilings at points throughout the outing.

When I wrote about Urias for the Dodgers’ prospect list, I had the following to say about what it would take to reach his ceiling on the mound:

Like any young pitcher, he has a few mechanical things to work out, notably getting too arm-heavy at times when he stiffens his landing leg early. It only happens when he overthrows his fastball and doesn’t finish the pitch, but otherwise he he has a clean, consistent delivery and smooth arm action.

He hasn’t tallied a full season of starts yet, but that’s been an intentional move by management rather than an inability to do so. Last year he did miss time for eye surgery that hasn’t affected pitching in any way, but he needs to build up innings this year. He does a good job burying his breaking ball for swinging strikes, but to reach his ceiling he needs to locate it in the zone while still maintaining its difficulty to square up.

Comparing him in spring training to yesterday, any concern of him overthrowing seems to be a matter of comfort and trusting his stuff, rather than a long-term issue of any kind. He may have to be careful about his mid-section thickening a bit as he matures, but the mechanics are solid overall. The lack of innings will only be rectified with time, but the breaking-ball question was one in which I was most interested to see answered this season. Urias’ command of both his curveball and now-distinct slider were impeccable. He was able to back-door his slider to righties and drop his curve into the lower end of the zone at will, giving him a four-pitch mix he commanded in the zone. Reports are that that has been the story for most of his April starts as well, putting him much closer to his ceiling than he was at the end of last year.

While I normally don’t like changing grades on prospects after a few games or starts, Urias’ rapidly continuing improvement is forcing me to second-guess my preseason assessment. As bullish as I thought I was about his potential, his current ability level may already have reached where I thought his floor would be as a high number-three to low number-two starter. His changeup is better than advertised, and if he continues to throw the rest of his repertoire like he did yesterday, I may look foolish for only placing a 70 overall ceiling grade on him in March.

I’d love to write more about Urias, but there wasn’t much nuance to his performance; he checked all the boxes. Locating his fastball? Yup. Throwing good chase pitches in pitcher’s counts? Like clockwork. Stealing strikes with off-speed pitches? Way better than expected. I’ve always been a fan of Urias, but his performance so far in 2016 has him on a faster development timeline than I would have thought even two months ago. He may be the Dodgers’ third-best starter right now if his current process continues, let alone the ridiculous numbers he’s putting up as a result.

With Ryu’s return from injury on the horizon and Urias and De Leon looking to push for rotation spots in the near future, the Dodgers will have some interesting decisions to make. Both Alex Wood and Ross Stripling have pitched shown enough to justify more time in the rotation, but some combination of Urias, Ryu and De Leon could very well force them to the bullpen by the second half of the season. Given that Wood has bullpen experience from his time with the Braves, and I mentioned in the Dodgers’ list how Stripling may be best served in that role to protect his arm, those two could well shift to relief this summer, strengthening a Dodgers bullpen that has struggled to get the ball to Kenley Jansen for the last year.

Regardless of how the Dodgers coordinate the staff over the next couple months, Julio Urias and Jose De Leon are extremely valuable talents, and I for one cannot wait to see them square off against big-league hitters this season. While the Dodgers will want to manage the workloads for both pitchers, both look like they could handle jobs in the major leagues right now.

Dan is Fangraphs Lead Prospect Analyst, living in New York City. He played baseball for four years at Franklin & Marshall College before attending medical school. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @DWFarnsworth.

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7 years ago

I can’t wait to see Urias!!!

Dick Monfort
7 years ago
Reply to  Spartacus

He looks even better than the hype, which is saying something!