Year-After Effect: Dodgers' Julio Urias stands out on long list of pitchers at risk in 2017

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Tuesday February 7th, 2017

The Dodgers' Julio Urias is the next great pitcher in baseball. Only 20 and already the youngest pitcher in history to start a postseason game, he is blessed with a 93-mph fastball, an advanced feel for deadening and spinning the ball, and near-perfect mechanics.

There is only one problem with being so young and so talented: The Dodgers will limit how much he pitches.

Urias, as he did last year and as happens with most every young pitcher around baseball, will have an “innings limit”—a preferred cap to his workload for 2017, which, in the case of the playoff-hopeful Dodgers, means planning for a seven-month season. Los Angeles’ desire to compete for a championship while keeping a young pitcher healthy creates two difficult questions: What is the right number of innings for Urias, and how does the team budget his time on the mound to stay within it?

“We’re still talking about it in a sense that we will have a finite number of innings again this year, which obviously will be north of last year,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations. “The question is, do you start the season business as usual and adjust at some point in the middle, or do you start slower and let him ramp up? We’re still having a lot of different debates about how to do it.”

I mentioned to Friedman that one choice could be to keep Urias off a mound until late March—essentially treating his season as beginning in mid-May, not the first week of April as it is for everybody else. The team could leave Urias in extended spring training for his “deferred” spring training.

“That’s part of what we’re talking about—starting slower and a more gradual buildup over time,” he said. “It gives you more time to get to a point where he’s clicking on all cylinders. We’re still in the middle of focusing on all that.”

Friedman is too smart to tip his hand or to mention specific innings limits. The innings-limit dramas around the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg in 2012 and the Mets' Matt Harvey in '15 put a chill on clubs when it comes to revealing innings targets. The Dodgers, for instance, privately had an innings limit on Urias last year—like most clubs, they work with a target area, not a hard cap—but stretched it based on how he responded in the second half.

“We felt good about it,” Friedman said. “It’s less about a specific innings number and more about pitches thrown and stress and innings and how his body was responding after outings. There were times when we consciously backed off some. Other times we pushed a little more.”

Across the minors and the majors, including the postseason, Urias logged 127 2/3 innings. That’s a 40-inning jump from his previous high, representing a 45.6% increase. He should safely pitch around 165 innings this year. In the past 30 years, five pitchers have thrown that many major league innings in their age-20 season: Rick Ankiel, Jose Fernandez, Felix Hernandez, Rick Porcello and CC Sabathia.

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For almost two decades, I’ve been tracking these year-to-year innings jumps for young pitchers. The Year-After Effect is based on common-sense training methodology: Pitchers risk injury or regression if they increase their stress level or workload too much too fast. I began my study by identifying 25-and-under major league pitchers who packed on 30 or more additional innings from their previous high; I recently amended the warning threshold to be a 30% increase. Over the previous three years, of the 20 pitchers I identified as at risk, 15 were hurt and/or pitched fewer innings in their Year After, including such promising pitchers as Jesse Hahn, Lance McCullers, James Paxton and Michel Wacha.

As I’ve often explained, this is a rule of thumb, not a one-size-fits all scientific formula. Over the years, every major league club has adopted some kind of guideline or philosophy on how to limit the innings of its young pitchers.

“I think the data helps give a fog light,” Friedman said. “Directionally, it helps. But I think it’s our job to dig much deeper than that and treat each pitcher individually.

“It’s definitely a blend of art and science, and I think it’s appreciating what we don’t know and not overweighing one thing. We know a lot more than say five or 10 years ago, and we expect more going through the educational process where the thirst for knowledge is really high. We’ll continue to push this forward. There’s still a lot of daylight.”

I’ve learned over the years that The Year-After Effect is just a start—that, as Friedman said, emphasizing the individual is the most important component. In general, I’ve found that pitchers at the greatest risk of injury or regression were the younger ones (because the physical maturation still is occurring) and the ones with red flags in their mechanics (such as Strasburg, with his late load, and Harvey, with his elevated distal humerus).

Urias, because of his innings jump of 45.6%, is on my 2017 Year After Effect watch list. He’s also dangerously young to be showing up on the list. But rarely have I seen a young pitcher with such clean mechanics and such a feel for pitching. In this case, the innings jump doesn’t tell the whole story. Watching Urias pitch—and after listening to Friedman talk about his work this winter—I think the risk for regression or injury is low, despite the innings jump in 2016.

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“I thought all things considered it was an incredibly successful year on a lot of fronts,’ Friedman said. “There’s no real way to appreciate what your body goes through over the course of a major league season and playoffs without doing it. The level of awareness was really high for him to when we finished the season. And he’s done everything he possibly can to be that much stronger.

“He’s continuing to get stronger in the legs and the core. He’s systematically attacking different areas we’ve asked him to, as we would with any young pitcher. This winter has been his best winter as a pro.”

How good is Urias already? Only two pitchers in their teen seasons (Urias turned 20 in August) with at least 15 starts posted a lower FIP than his 3.17 last year: the Reds' Gary Nolan in 1967 (2.64) and the Mets' Dwight Gooden in '84 (an MLB-best 1.69). The list of the highest strikeout rate for a teen pitcher with 15 starts looks like this:

1. Gooden, 11.4
2. Urias, 9.8
3. Bob Feller, 9.1

“One thing you can’t know in advance is the aptitude,” Friedman said. “The first time he came up he struggled a little bit. He went back down, and in the second half, he really hit his stride. And the aptitude he displayed in terms of learning from things that didn’t work the previous outing, and making those changes on the fly, were extremely advanced. With a lot of pitchers it takes them into the next season. To show it early on in his major league career was pretty incredible.

“One thing I didn’t appreciate totally from the outside going in was the pitchability. Going in you knew he has a four-pitch mix and great stuff out of his hand. The pitchability he has exhibited at such a young age, I didn’t fully appreciate it.”

Urias is a special pitcher. He caused me to bring a different take to The Year-After Effect this year; I decided to introduce a “level of risk” to the equation. I still look for 25-and-under pitchers who took an innings jump of at least 30%, but I adjusted for factors such as age, size, injury history and especially mechanics, then assigned a level of risk that bakes in everything.

The list is especially long this year; last year, it included only five pitchers. (You can find the report card on the 2016 list below.) Here’s the list, followed by a description of each pitcher’s season and his level of risk entering 2017.

Pitcher, Team

Age

IP

Increase*

Pct. Increase

Reynaldo Lopez, White Sox

22

155 1/3

+56 1/3

56.9%

Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays

23

203 2/3

+70 1/3

52.7%

Rob Whalen, Mariners

22

144 2/3

+48

48.7%

Brock Stewart, Dodgers

24

149

+48

47.5%

Joe Musgrove, Astros

23

147 1/3

+46 2/3

46.4%

Julio Urias, Dodgers

19

127 2/3

+40

45.6%

Jeff Hoffman, Rockies

23

150

+46

44.2%

Michael Fulmer, Tigers

23

174 1/3

+49 2/3

39.8%

Sean Manaea, A's

24

166 1/3

+44 2/3

36.7%

German Marquez, Rockies

21

187 1/3

+48 1/3

34.8%

Jake Thompson, Phillies

22

183 2/3

+43 2/3

31.3%

Daniel Mengden, A's

23

170 1/3

+39 2/3

30.4%

* Increase is over previous career high. All competitive innings are counted, including Arizona Fall League and, in the case of Thompson, Pan Am Games.

1. Reynaldo Lopez, White Sox

Lopez, who was traded to Chicago in the deal that sent Adam Eaton to the Nationals, piled up the greatest percentage increase in innings of any young pitcher last year, even though Washington tried to save some innings by moving him to the bullpen in September. His workload is especially interesting because of his youth (22), extreme velocity (97 mph), size (just 6 feet and 185 pounds) and mechanics (he throws from an upright position with less lower half power than many pitchers). The White Sox inherited whatever risk stems from his workload.

Risk Level: High

2. Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays

Sanchez began the year with a hard innings cap as Toronto transitioned him from relieving to starting, but once he emerged as the team’s best starting pitcher, the Blue Jays canned the idea and created season-long drama. In July, manager John Gibbons said Sanchez would move back to the bullpen. That didn’t happen, but Toronto did stash him in Triple A for 10 days to save some innings. Sanchez has terrific stuff and a strong work ethic, but the one concern about his delivery is his arm action. He pulls his elbow back and up on his arm swing, causing him to be late loading the ball when his foot hits the dirt. His jump of 70 1/3 innings is the biggest I’ve seen since Jarrod Parker and Chris Sale in 2012.

Risk Level: High

3. Rob Whalen, Mariners

Whalen was acquired by Seattle from Atlanta, which shut him down last Aug. 23. By then, he was already suffering from shoulder fatigue.

Risk Level: High

4. Brock Stewart, Dodgers

Stewart began the year in Class A ball and made his major league debut in June. A former infielder at Illinois State, he converted to pitching upon being drafted, in large part because he has a high-spin four-seamer that misses bats—similar to breakout reliever and teammate Grant Dayton. Stewart's high-elbow arm action presents some risk.

Risk Level: High

5. Joe Musgrove, Astros

Musgrove made 27 starts across the minors and majors last year, though he exceeded 100 pitches only once. Because of injuries early in his career, he has thrown only 399 1/3 innings over six pro seasons. With a similar build and arm action as the Cubs' John Lackey, Musgrove should profile as an innings-eater.

Risk Level: Low

6. Julio Urias, Dodgers

So good is Urias that he is a true outlier. His arm action and mechanics are pristine—virtually identical to teammate Clayton Kershaw at load and release. Like Kershaw, Urias throws his fastball and two breaking balls out of nearly the exact same release point, a highly advanced skill for such a young pitcher. (Urias throws his changeup with a slightly lower release point, indicating he “sinks” more into his legs.)

Yes, the Dodgers stretched their innings limit on Urias to have him start in the postseason, but he threw only 14 innings in September and made 10 of his 15 starts with extra rest. In addition, Friedman said Urias would have started one or two more games if the Dodgers advanced past Game 6 of the NLCS. I wouldn’t worry too much about him.

Risk Level: Low

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7. Jeff Hoffman, Rockies

After undergoing Tommy John surgery in his draft year, 2014, and throwing 104 innings in '15, Hoffman began '16 with an innings limit. Asked about it in September, then-manager Walt Weiss said he didn’t know what that number was. Huh? Hoffman made two relief appearances and one start after that, but he still tacked on 46 more innings from the previous year.

Risk Level: Medium

8. Michael Fulmer, Tigers

Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said last May that the team had a “soft innings cap” on Fulmer. But as Fulmer emerged as one of their best pitchers and the team contended for a playoff spot, it became harder for Detroit to save his innings. Predictably, Fulmer ran out of gas at the end: 1–4 with a 5.54 ERA over his final seven starts. Like Sanchez, he throws with a high-elbow, late-load delivery that is not ideal.

Risk Level: Medium

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9. Sean Manaea, Athletics

Manaea, who overcame a hip injury upon being drafted by Kansas City, missed two weeks last year with a back issue. As a bigger, older pitcher, he poses less risk than others on this list.

Risk Level: Low

10. German Marquez, Rockies

Acquired from Tampa Bay, Marquez started the year in Double A at age 21 and finished it in the majors. A September callup, Marquez tacked on 20 2/3 innings in six appearances for the Rockies. Given his age and the cross-fire action in his delivery, Marquez bears watching this year.

Risk Level: Medium

11. Jake Thompson, Phillies

Philadelphia did shut down Thompson last year, but only for his last start. By then, Thompson and the Twins' Jose Berrios were the only pitchers no older than 22 to make five September starts last year. (The Twins have kept Berrios on a schedule of gradual innings increases.) The Phillies were encouraged by the change pitching coach Bob McClure made in Thompson’s delivery in late August: going to the more simple, modified-stretch style delivery, similar to that of Boston's David Price. In his favor, Thompson is a big-bodied guy (6'4", 235 pounds) with a clean arm action to go with that pared-down delivery.

Risk Level: Medium

12. Daniel Mengden, Athletics

Mengden started out in the Houston organization, where young pitchers work as “piggyback” starters (sometimes with scheduled relief work) to limit wear and tear. He averaged only four innings per appearance in 24 games with the Astros. The Athletics stretched him out much more: They allowed him to make 31 starts in 2016, including 14 in the majors. When Mengden hit a wall in July with fatigue, they sent him back to the minors. Oakland brought him back up in September, when it ran him back out for five more starts. He went 1–4 with an 8.10 ERA in those 23 1/3 innings—the innings that put him slightly over the 30% increase threshold.

Oakland obtained both Manaea (from Kansas City in the Ben Zobrist trade) and Mengden (from Houston in the Scott Kazmir trade) in deadline deals in 2015, so each of them went over the 30% threshold in their first season with the organization. Coincidentally, they are the only two pitchers on this list with an old-school, three-part windup, in which they bring their hands over their head and then down before starting the arm swing.

Risk Level: Medium

The 2016 Report Card

Now here’s a quick look at the five guys I red-flagged entering last season. It includes three regressions and two success stories.

Lance McCullers of Houston scared me the most because of his age (21), his giant innings jump (56.7%) and the violence in his delivery. Sure enough, McCullers began spring training with a sore shoulder, didn’t come off the disabled list until May 13 and was shut down after Aug. 2 with a sore elbow after having made just 14 starts.

Like McCullers, Luis Severino of the Yankees made a big innings jump at age 21. He took a step back last year, as his major league ERA ballooned from 2.89 to 5.83, and, including the minors, he threw 10 1/3 fewer innings—partly because he found more success as a reliever.

Tyler Duffey of Minnesota, whose mechanics concerned me, took a major step back, as his ERA more than doubled from 3.10 in 10 starts to 6.43 in 26 starts. It was the second-worst season in franchise history for any pitcher given so many starts (LaTroy Hawkins, 6.66, 1999).

The good news is that Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Martinez beat The Year-After Effect. Syndergaard, as the Mets suggested to me, is such a physical outlier that normal rules don’t apply to him. Martinez virtually duplicated his 2015 breakout (3.01 ERA in 179 2/3 innings) in '16 (3.04 in 195 1/3). Martinez’s key to sustainability was found in cleaning up his mechanics—he emphasized driving toward the plate with his head rather than falling off toward the first base side—and in trusting his ability to get ground balls when needed (his double plays induced jumped from 19 to 33).

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