May 10, 2016
Deep, But Playable
How Do You Rank A Prospect Like Urias
There’s been some chatter recently regarding Dodgers pitching prospect Julio Urias. The conversation is concerned less with his talent (though there are some minor quibbles about that) than with how exactly one is supposed to properly evaluate a pitcher at his stage and in his setting: advanced polish and stuff, but "raw" in his ability to actually play his projected role.
If you’re reading this article, you likely have some concept of Urias The Talent. The young lefty flashes three plus pitches (fastball, curveball, change), and possesses exceptional poise for his age. That last part is important because, at 19 years old in Triple-A, Urias is doing something that few prospects have. The problem is that “few” also describes the number of innings he’s thrown to date in his professional career. He debuted at 16 in Low-A, throwing 54 innings. He was bumped to 87 the following season (2014), before slipping to 80 last year, as he took some time off mid-season to address a cosmetic eye condition. Additionally, he’s rarely, if ever, gone beyond the 100-pitch mark in-game. (Baseball-Reference does not have a recorded game beyond 90, but also contains some games without pitch count data.)
So herein lies the conflict. We have a prospect who, by quality of present stuff, is on the verge of the major leagues (the Dodgers are reportedly considering bringing Urias to the majors this season), who projects to be a major-leaguer starter, who has been used almost exclusively as a starter. We also have a prospect who has almost no chance of throwing even two-thirds of a starter’s workload over the course of a full season, and who would reasonably struggle to get beyond five innings per game if he did start.
When discussing prospect value, especially relative to other prospects, lead time is a significant factor. What they can do certainly matters, but the length of time it will take them to do it matters too, because present value is greater than future value. So when the time came to rank Urias versus a guy like Steven Matz this offseason, some spoke of the value that Matz provided as a present-day starter who will throw a starter’s workload, while a guy like Urias might not reach that threshold until 2018—and that’s if everything goes according to plan. Honestly, I found this line of reasoning to be rather convincing, especially when we’re splitting hairs on ultimate value, as both carry a no. 2 starter’s ceiling. Others didn’t, however, and Urias wound up ahead of Matz on the list. Again, it’s splitting hairs.
Still, it’s worth acknowledging that despite the present stuff, quality mechanics, the poise, the command—everything that Urias brings to the table; there’s so much we don’t know. We don’t know if his stuff flags on pitch 110, or how he looks the start after a heavy pitch count. We don’t know what he looks like after 140 innings in one season. We don’t know how his arm bounces back in August, or how he’ll function if he has a dead-arm period. And there is risk in all of that.
What we do know though, is that at 19 years old, we don’t necessarily have to know all of that stuff to make our projections. While he’s certainly been handled with kid gloves his entire career... he’s been a kid his entire career. As a comparison, Robert Stephenson was drafted in the first round in 2011, the year before Urias signed with the Dodgers. He threw 65 innings between two levels in 2012, as a pro, at 19 years old. The following year he threw 114 innings, then 136 in 2014, before 134 last year, as a 22-year-old. We had no trouble assuming in 2012 that Robert Stephenson was a starter, despite the lack of professional innings under his belt, and we have little trouble making the assumption now, despite his never eclipsing 140 innings in a minor-league season (he’s made two major-league starts this season, in fact). Take a look at the top pitchers of 2015 (by ERA+) who were drafted as preps or signed internationally, and how many innings they threw in their age-19 season.
We can see that not only do few high-end minor-league pitchers approach what we’d expect a full-season workload for an MLB pitcher to be, relatively few come within shouting distance of it. We also see that, with the exception of Madison Bumgarner, who threw 10 major-league innings in his age-19 season (and jumped directly from Double-A), few arms log significant if any innings at the upper minors. The consternation about Urias and his lack of innings is reasonable on one level. But we often assume, despite his not having done it, that a 19-year-old won’t have an issue undertaking a full-season workload, especially when there aren't any present-tense reasons (mechanical oddity, small frame, etc.) to think he can’t. In fact, making that leap is something we do as a community all the time.
The Dodgers might be in a tough position in terms of how they deploy Urias, given his polished nature and present stuff, but there shouldn’t be many qualms about projecting him as a starter long term. That said, It’s clear that his ability to embody that role is going to be compromised in the short term, and holding that against him in terms of lead time, or time to impact, is perfectly reasonable. We all weigh risk differently, and if some evaluators want the pudding before bestowing a role upon a pitcher so close to the majors, that’s every bit as justifiable as just assuming based on an absence of red flags. So whether your confidence emboldens you to view him as a top-10 prospect, or your risk-averse nature tells you he’s closer to the fringe of the Top 25, there’s only one answer to the titular question: Very Carefully.