Dodgers' title hopes could hinge on this pitcher

September 3rd, 2022

has played many parts for the Dodgers since he was called up at the age of 19 in 2016. Starter. Reliever. World Series closer. Twenty-game winner.

One role he hasn’t been asked to fill? Ace of a postseason pitching staff.

While Urías’ October bona fides aren’t in question, he has made just five career playoff starts out of 22 appearances. Even last year, when he went 20-3 with a 2.96 ERA over a career-high 32 starts in the regular season, the club used him out of the bullpen in two of his four playoff appearances.

But this year seems different.

The Dodgers have put together one of the best records in MLB history through 131 games, but their starting rotation has more question marks than usual this season. Here's a quick rundown:

  • : Missed 2021 postseason and has made two IL trips (pelvis, back) in 2022.
  • : Out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
  • : On the injured list with a right forearm strain.
  • : Has made two trips to the IL with left shoulder issues in 2022.
  • : Recently returned from Tommy John surgery.

Urías, however, has been a constant for L.A.

The Culiacán, Mexico, native wasn’t one of the three starting pitchers the Dodgers sent to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles this year, but he has pitched like an All-Star since the break, posting a 1.05 ERA over seven starts to drop his season mark to 2.32. The 26-year-old, who is scheduled to start Saturday against the Padres, took over the NL ERA lead Friday after Marlins righty Sandy Alcantara allowed six earned runs.

Although this type of performance was forecasted for Urías back when he was a teenage phenom and the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball, his road from Point A to Point B hasn’t been a direct route.

After a solid rookie season in 2016, he underwent anterior capsule surgery on his left shoulder the following June. He didn’t make his return until late in 2018 and spent significant time in the bullpen in 2019, also missing time that year while serving a 20-game suspension for violating the Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy. Add in the shortened schedule in 2020, and he threw just 162 innings during the regular season from 2017-20.

Urías did spend much of 2020 in the Dodgers' rotation, but once the playoffs arrived, the Dodgers used him in a hybrid role.

The left-hander was integral to Los Angeles’ World Series championship run, going 4-0 with a 1.17 ERA in 23 innings spanning six games, including two starts. He closed out Game 7 of the NLCS against the Braves with three perfect innings and tossed another flawless outing to get the final seven outs of the World Series clincher against the Rays.

The Dodgers utilized Urías in a variety of roles last October as well, including starter, bulk reliever and setup man, but the plan backfired in the NLCS against the Braves when he blew a save in the eighth inning of Game 2 and wasn't sharp in his Game 4 start three days later.

It seems likely that he will be deployed more conventionally this October. His ability to handle multiple roles has been invaluable for Los Angeles in past postseasons, but he's arguably going to be at his most valuable -- especially for this particular Dodgers team, which lacks proven playoff starters aside from Kershaw -- if he's starting multiple games in each series.

His performance over the past two seasons is proof he's ready to assume that ace mantle.

Urías has allowed the fifth-lowest expected wOBA -- based on quality of contact (taking into account exit velocity and launch angle), strikeouts and walks -- since the beginning of 2021 (min. 1,000 batters faced). The rest of the top 10 is a who's who of some of the game's elite starters.

Lowest xwOBA allowed, since 2021
Min. 1,000 batters faced

Urías doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he's been able to dominate by doing three things consistently:

1) Getting into favorable counts

No one has thrown first-pitch strikes more often than Urías these past two seasons (min. 500 batters faced). His 69.6% first-pitch strike rate in that span represents a dramatic increase from 2016-20 (60.4%).

On the whole, he rarely gets into situations where hitters have advantageous counts. Only 21.2% of his pitches this year have come with the count in the hitter’s favor, the fifth-lowest number in MLB (min. 1,250 pitches thrown). It was 18.7% last year, down from 26.9% over his first five seasons.

Why does this matter? Because across the Majors in 2022, hitters have recorded a .282 average and .485 slugging percentage with the count in their favor, compared to .229 and .363 when behind or in an even count.

2) Getting swings out of the zone

Getting ahead allows Urías to expand the zone with all of his pitches, as hitters are generally more likely to chase when they are behind in the count.

The southpaw throws a four-seamer, curveball and changeup (plus the occasional sinker) and induces a ton of out-of-zone swings with all of them. His chase rate with each pitch is above the MLB average on that specific pitch type:

  • Four-seam fastball: 31.6% (MLB average: 24.2%)
  • Curveball: 30.2% (MLB average: 28.7%)
  • Changeup: 37.3% (MLB average: 34.6%)

Urías’ overall 32.9% chase rate this season ranks in the 85th percentile. He bumped his chase rate to 32.2% last year after posting a 29% chase rate from 2016-20.

3) Throwing his curveball for strikes

The curveball has become a bigger part of Urías' arsenal since the start of 2021. And while chases are part of the recipe for the lefty, he actually throws his curve -- a pitch that sits around 81 mph and gets 16.3 inches of horizontal break on average -- in the strike zone more often (59.9%) than any other pitcher throws any breaking or offspeed pitch (min. 200 of that pitch type thrown).

Urías ranks fourth with 163 called strikes on curveballs, including an MLB-leading 18 looking K's on the pitch.

His ability to successfully navigate the zone with his curveball also makes it much tougher for batters to sit on his fastball.

As a result, he has been able to get a lot more weak contact than the average pitcher on batted balls stemming from in-zone pitches. In fact, his 32.7% hard-hit rate (% of batted balls with 95+ mph exit velocity) on these batted balls is the lowest in the Majors (min. 150 batted balls on in-zone pitches).

In general, suppressing hard contact has been a staple of the Urías package. These are his overall percentile ranks in hard-hit rate over the past four seasons: 100th, 91st, 94th, 96th.

Additionally, he's posted a stellar 4.8 K/BB ratio since the beginning of 2021 (332 K, 69 BB in 325 1/3 IP), a byproduct of getting ahead in the count and inducing more swings out of the zone.

Add it all up and you can see why Urías has reached elite status. If you’re generating K’s at a high level, limiting walks and getting batters to make weak contact, you’re probably going to be successful. And we can't forget about the durability he's shown while taking on an increased workload, another piece of the ace equation.

Looking ahead, the Dodgers are likely to be the odds-on favorite to win the World Series when the postseason begins. They’re a juggernaut, scoring the most runs and allowing the fewest in MLB. And they arguably have the best position player trio (, and ) in the game.

But considering some of the starting pitcher matchups they could run into on the road to the Fall Classic -- especially if they face the Mets and/or the Braves -- their title hopes could ultimately depend on Urías setting the tone atop their rotation. We'll see if he gets that opportunity.